Books May 2004

“Martini-Age Victorian”

The novelist John P. Marquand was a brilliant satirist with a "dictaphonic ear" for dialogue
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In December of 1936, after reading advance proofs of John P. Marquand's novel The Late George Apley, Upton Sinclair wrote to Little, Brown, Marquand's publisher,

I started to read it and it appeared to me to be an exact and very detailed picture of a Boston aristocrat, and as I am not especially interested in this type, I began to wonder why you had sent it to me. But finally I began to catch what I thought was a twinkle in the author's eye ... One can never be sure about Boston, and I hope I am not mistaken in my idea that the author is kidding the Boston idea. It is very subtle and clever, and I am not sure that Boston will get it.

Not all of Boston did get it. "There were some in the Back Bay," Edward Weeks, then the editor of The Atlantic, wrote in 1960, "who accepted it quite literally as a biography and who appeared at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on Sunday afternoons asking to be shown the 'Apley Bronzes.'" In general, however, this pseudo memoir was acclaimed for its affectionate send-up of Old Bostonians from "the water side of Beacon Street" as personified by George Apley (1866-1933), whose feeble attempts at rebellion against the society in which he lived were crushed in a vise of snobbery, tradition, and privilege. Apley's "biographer," the pompous, obtuse Horatio Willing, manages to reveal the sad truths of his subject's resigned conformity in the very effort to airbrush them away. Decades after its publication an anonymous writer in The New Yorker called Apley the "best-wrought fictional monument to the nation's Protestant elite that we know of."

For almost twenty years the forty-four-year-old John Marquand had been churning out formulaic stories and serials for mass-circulation magazines. (He had also created Mr. Moto, a scrupulously polite Japanese secret agent, wildly popular in six books and on the screen, where he was played by Peter Lorre in eight movies from 1937 to 1939.) But Apley, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, marked the beginning of his career as a novelist. His next three novels sold so well that in 1944 Life magazine called Marquand "the most successful novelist in the United States." In 1949, after two more, he was featured on the covers of both Time and Newsweek.

Though in his day Marquand was compared to Sinclair Lewis and John O'Hara, and his social portrait of twentieth-century America was likened to Balzac's Comédie Humaine, critics rarely took him very seriously. Throughout his career he believed, resentfully, that their lack of regard stemmed from his early success in the "slicks." Nevertheless, for his stylish depiction of the changes in American society over six decades, his humorous if occasionally grim observations on domesticity, and, above all, his sonorous, seductive prose, he deserves to be rediscovered. (Until very recently Marquand's nine major novels were all out of print; now Little, Brown has reissued Apley under its Back Bay Books imprint and plans to bring out his second novel, Wickford Point, in August.)

I first read Marquand's novels twenty-odd years ago. Back then they swept me up in nostalgia for a time I'd never actually known—my parents' youth, hinted at in anecdotes and glimpsed in old photographs. The outdated, elusive glamour of movies from the 1930s and 1940s surrounded his characters, who religiously dress for dinner, keep eccentric retainers, and wait a prescribed amount of time before using one another's first names. Re-reading these books today, I find that the nostalgia and the glamour are undiminished—and that the dialogue occasionally has a cinematic brittleness. But more striking to me now (perhaps for obvious reasons) is the way in which he regularly tapped into the rue and longing of middle age.

Marquand—whom the critic Charles Brady, in a long appraisal published in 1952, called a "Martini-Age Victorian"—wrote primarily about manners, marriage, and money. In a period during which the order and traditions of Apley's world were smashed by two global wars and a depression, he set heroes who are confused, adrift, and searching for new values and meaning to replace the old. These men are invariably at a professional or marital turning point; and just as invariably they are drawn into their pasts by those ribbons of memory that flutter in us all. Marquand became known for his flashbacks, which he seamlessly, beautifully interwove with the narrative present in what one critic called "witchery with time."

Point of No Return (1949)—which, Apley notwithstanding, may be Marquand's best book—opens on a rainy April morning in suburban New York; the hero, Charles Gray, as he stands in his modern bathroom, remembers the family bathroom of his boyhood in Clyde, Massachusetts, where an April rain would be colder, and would beat harder on the windows. Coincidence thereafter conspires with memory to keep Clyde surging in and out of Charles's present, as we learn of the lost love of his youth—another recurring theme in Marquand—and the destruction of his willful, reckless father in the Crash of 1929. The flashbacks in H. M. Pulham, Esquire (1941) are generated by Harry Pulham's upcoming twenty-fifth Harvard reunion. In Melville Goodwin, U.S.A. (1951) they flow naturally from intensive magazine interviews with a war hero.

The elegiac strain in Marquand's fiction is offset by good-humored satire and dry one-liners ("The cocktails were a credit to Allen in that they proved conclusively that he seldom drank them"). In So Little Time (1943), which takes place as America prepares to enter World War II, Jeffrey Wilson muses on how the generic foreign correspondent has been elevated in the nation's eyes from "stoop-shouldered man ... living amid the smell of cabbage in some dingy apartment on the Boulevard Saint-Germain" to "debonair man of the world," to whom heads of state are "familiar and rather amusingly uncomplex figures." Parodying the language of his targets (who ranged from literary agents to contractors to pediatricians) was a common Marquand method: "Your Correspondent brought away something that he would always remember—the sad lilt of a voice, the brave self-confidence of a laugh ... He felt ... great imponderable forces in the making, the tramp of peoples inexorably on the march."

Jeffrey's internal spoof covers more than a page of closely spaced type. But Marquand could poke fun in just a line or two: a pretentious Harvard professor in Wickford Point (1939) is "the sort of bachelor who never made himself troublesome with liquor or in taxis." An Army public-relations officer in Melville Goodwin, U.S.A. is suggestive of "a registered human retriever who could go on a complicated liaison mission ... and bring back VIPs alive, unruffled, and contented, to any designated point."

Marquand would frequently roll sentences one after another like waves, repeating forms to build momentum before gliding ashore with a flourish. Charles Gray, a successful banker, reflects on how his character was formed in reaction to his father's headstrong improvidence.

Except for a few brief moments, he was to face no danger or uncalculated risk. He was to measure his merriment and hedge on his tragedies. He was to water down elation and mitigate disaster ... Yet whenever he thought of himself as a dull, deluded opportunist ... he always remembered the intensity of his own feelings when his father had been speaking. There had been a hideous sense of inevitable disaster, and no possible way to stop it.

What one critic called his "dictaphonic ear" for dialogue served Marquand well, and never more so than in his scenes of domestic life. His portraits of marriage are devoid of romance or idealism (these are reserved for boyhood loves), and so real as to be painful even when they are comic. Both Marquand's own marriages failed, the second quite miserably, and perhaps as a result his female characters are often grasping, nagging, critical, or domineering. So Little Time opens at the breakfast table, where Jeffrey Wilson's wife, Madge, punctuates the conversation with variations on "You never tell me things"—to which Jeffrey replies, "There isn't any more to tell." A long bedtime conversation between Harry Pulham and his wife, Kay (whose adultery caused an attempt to ban H. M. Pulham, Esquire in Boston), gives us the sense that it has all been said before.

"Why is it," Kay said, "we always seem to end up talking about indigestion or drains?"

"I guess that's true of everyone," I said.

"Oh, no, it isn't," said Kay. "Take the Trilbys—"

I stirred uneasily. Kay was always taking the Trilbys.

"Did you see Egbert help her over the rocks?"

"Damn the Trilbys!" I said. "You don't like to be helped and you know it."

"I'd like it if you'd try sometimes," Kay said.

"I do try," I said. "And I don't like the Trilbys."

"That's because they're interesting," Kay said.

Harry comes to feel that love is made up of "not passion or wish, but days and years." The hero of Women and Thomas Harrow (1958), Marquand's bleakest book by far, realizes as he tries to comfort his weeping third wife that "they were alone there, clasped together by a hideous loneliness." It "shocked him so deeply that he could think of nothing more to say."

Marquand's books essentially stay in the domestic realm; their drama occurs over cocktails, or in country-house libraries. The author was ever attentive to sensuous details: fabrics, furniture, and pictures as well as sounds, smells, and physical sensations. In a memorable passage from Wickford Point he renders both the languid atmosphere of a summer day and the psychology of the Brill family—a pack of bloodsucking layabouts who somehow manage to cast a spell over the sour, sardonic narrator, Jim Calder.

Tranquil, soul-satisfying apathy settled over the dining room. The sound of droning insects came through the window like the soft breath of sleep; an oriole sang a few throaty, liquid notes and stopped exhausted; the leafy shadows of elm branches scarcely moved upon the lawn. A house fly buzzed and beat its head against the window screen. The collision made a metallic sound which was followed by silence. The fly rubbed its wings with its hind legs, but did not try again. As Cousin Clothilde gazed at the smoke from her cigarette I noticed a lack of customary sound. The tall clock in the corner had stopped.

"Soul-satisfying apathy," an arresting concept, hints at the power of the Brills. Every image in the passage drags us toward somnolence—the snorelike sounds of insects, the exhausted oriole and frustrated house fly, Clothilde's tranced contemplation of drifting smoke. The stopped clock conjures both loss of consciousness and the rampant disorder of the Brill household, where people don't do anything and objects don't work.

To some, Marquand's books may seem period pieces, his sentences old-fashioned and formal, his stories' frameworks too similar. Nevertheless, he reaches out from recent history with an intensity of feeling, a beguiling humor, and a magical facility with the sounds and rhythms of language that can lift readers up and carry them away.

Martha Spaulding is a deputy managing editor of The Atlantic.
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