Monday, 13 January 2014

The Late George Apley by John P. Marquand

I thank Zhiv for mentioning The Late George Apley by John P. Marquand. (published 1937)


It won the Pulitzer Prise in 1938. The book has a subtitle A novel in the Form of a Memoir which is interesting as the surprise best seller first published in 1935 ,The Last Puritan by George Santayana is subtitled A Memoir in the Form of a Novel. Marquand was not an absolute stickler for originality as his better known Mr. Moto series is shadowed by other wily and inscrutable orientals such as Charley Chan and Fu Manchu. More on the Santayana book later. Beacon Street and the bluenoses of Boston come into both and if that weren't enough the biography of Alice James by Janet Strouse is also on the stocks. Alice and the James Boys, More Boston and more Calvinism.

In both novels the swarming Irish are feared and from the redoubts of Beacon Street the machinations of cute hoor politicians are viewed with disdain. George Apley runs foul of Reilly in a very amusing sting in which he is lured to a 'hotel' by a man purporting to have important information in relation to police corruption.

I was dull enough to accept his invitation. Saying that he would be back in a moment, he closed the door behind me, permitting me to find myself in a shoddily furnished apartment and to discover that the man whom I was seeking was not there. Instead I found myself racing a woman whom I had never seen before, quite patently in negligee. Before I even had the opportunity to excuse my presence and to say that there must be some mistake there was a thundering knock on the door. Before I was allowed time to answer this summons the door was broken open. I had not realized that it was secured by a spring lock. Two men appeared, with police badges, who refused cynically, almost rudely, to accept my natural explanation. This is my honest version of an affair which may be believed or disbelieved by anyone who knows me.

Apley navigates the dangerous shoals of irony and pathos with a deft touch. George will not admit to being hammered by Reilly and with a sort of demented unworldly innocence determines to have his day in court and deny the charges laid against him. My reading between the lines is that although no one actually believes that George was consorting with a prostitute he would be made a holy show of and the utter laughing stock of his peers. O'Reilly's stroke would backfire particularly in an election year. It was in everybody's interest to get Apley to drop his case or righteousness would sink them all. Then it is discovered that Mary O'Reilly the wife of Reilly's cousin is the old lost love of George's. The fix is in. Within the rubric of his pinched decency, Mary, Monahan as she was, is one of George's people and therefore cannot be harmed:

One must be loyal to one's people and I know now that she has been one of my own people always. When she told me that the man O'Reilly was her husband's cousin this was enough. I cannot and 1 shall not raise my hand against anything which belongs to her. Though I do not agree with her point of view I can sympathize with it, because it is based on family. She has a position quite apart from ours but none the less important. She is connected by family with many of our officials. I believe after this talk that something may be arranged.
When I told Catharine about this, when she tapped on the library door at the end of an hour and a half, Catharine's pleasure in itself was a reward. Those two, although I could not have believed it, were sisters under the skin, little as I have ever liked the expression and little as I approve of Kipling's jingles. 1 shall never forget the light in Catharine's eyes when she took her hand with most unusual impulsiveness and said: "I am so glad that you are looking after George. He needs it sometimes, doesn't he?" I did not try to disabuse her of her error. Catharine would never understand that i was looking after memory.

The irony in this excellent book is further layered by having the narration in the hands of Will Willing a contemporary of Apley's who does not wish to write about the sensitive aspects but whose hand is forced by John Apley the son who represents the new but still tradition bound generation. Or should I say wife-bound. John's is from a 'good' family and she persuades him to come back to Boston to take up residence in the old mansion. Plus ça change.
Available in ebook formats on Internet Archive:
The Late George Apley

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