Sunday, 22 June 2014

Wickford Point by John P. Marquand


So you want something to read over the summer that won’t disappoint, that will amuse as well as make you sigh but not weep over human folly. The novels of John Phillips Marquand have a subtlety that makes the blockbuster loudness of modern American novels seem crass. The pair that I have been reading recently H.M. Pulham, Esquire and Wickford Point have contrasting protagonists both of them, that genial snot, whom you will come to recognise as superior when you make your peace with the universe: the Harvard Man. That at least is how they are presented and I abstain from being led by Marquand also a Harvard Man. Jim Calder of Wickford Point more corresponds to the author’s experience there, scholarship boy, possibly a poor choice of tweed and no elite club membership. In the Wikipedia entry on him I read that he spent a lot of money and time on doing up an historic mansion possibly like the house at Wickford Point. Allan Southby a Harvard Prof. is mocked in the precise way that a living model suggests. I quote at length from it to give a feel for the elegant gibing of which the book is full:

In time Allen even generated a sort of charm; and besides he was an eligible bachelor, the sort you think of as a bright young man, even when he has reached the age of forty. There was once a piece of gossip, for there are always those who hate success, that he practiced before a mirror. At any rate he achieved his charm. He developed a way of holding a book and of marking the place with his long forefinger, carelessly but lovingly, at the same time resting his elbow upon the table and gesticulating gently with that book. It was a pose suitable for a portrait, which may have been Southby's intention originally. He also took pains with his dress. When he came to Harvard from Minnesota he brought his trunk with him, but Allen was quick to see that the garments within it were not correct; right from the beginning he had an unfailing instinct for doing what was suitable. He ended by wearing Harris tweeds and flannel trousers and by smoking an English pipe with a special mixture—although he did not like tobacco.

He also took to drinking beer out of a pewter mug. By the time he was taken into the Berkley Club he had developed a way of banging the mug softly upon the table, informally, and without ostentation. He used to say that there was nothing like good pewter; in fact he had a fair collection of it in a Colonial pine dresser—but he never did like beer. Nevertheless he sometimes had beer nights for the undergraduates. It was something of an accolade for an adolescent to be asked to Southby's to drink beer. It was more of an honor for one of his contemporaries, and one which I regret to say I never attained, to be asked up to his rooms to give the "lads" a talk on this or that, just anything. By aloofness rather than by assiduity he cultivated excellent social contacts. He attended only small dinners where there might be general conversation, but he knew when to listen. When an interest developed in wine-tasting, after the repeal of prohibition, Allen Southby was in the pioneering group, although he always said that his old love was ale or beer. He had a pretty turn at rhyme and you could always get him to dash off the right poem for any occasion, although he published only one slender volume of verse. He had the gift of knowing when to stop. What was more, he still kept young in appearance and in enthusiasm. He was amusing when he joined the ladies after dinner, and he was the sort of bachelor who never made himself troublesome with liquor or in taxis.

The narrator Jim Calder is a writer himself and the reason that he has been asked to visit Southby in his Jacobethan lair of ancient pine fixed with wrought nails and a hearty twee rack o’ pewter is that the prof wants to write a novel which would continue in fictional form the New England Literary movement captured in his successful history The Transcendent Curve. Calder is a Brill by marriage, one of those Brills whose grandfather or was it great-grandfather was known as the Sage of Wickford. A couple of chapters have already been written and in that shy way that aspirant authors have he wants it to be read. And loved. Also he’s angling for an invitation to the Brill residence where several of the Sages’s descendants live in profound languor and the hope of something turning up. Harry the elder son is another Harvard man, so is Jim Stowe the ex of Bella the beauteous daughter . The novels of Marquand pullulate with them. Perhaps there should be a trigger warning.

That is the setting of the present action but interspersed with it is a series of flashbacks which are a speciality of Marquand’s. They are seamless in the sense that there is no sudden jolt, they are like ones personal reverie, ones own little crumb of madeleine. The novel is at the same time simple and complex, Famille Brill are stunned by the wonder of their heritage without feeling the requirement of adding anything to it. Calder’s attachment to the place which he wants to leave the minute he arrives is well drawn. Somehow the weekend around which the story weaves its memories will resolve everything. Or perhaps not.

Find it on Internet Archive. wickford point

P.S. P.S. How did I forget to mention the dialogues with George Stanhope, Calder's literary agent, as he fixes stories to make them publishable. Definitely there must be misunderstanding between the boy and the girl and she must be afraid that he will destroy her, definitely. The sing-song girl must give up the boy to the good girl. Definitely. Tart ironies considering the main story line of the novel. Brilliant. Definitely.

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