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Friday, July 29, 2016

The sly intelligence of Marquand's The Late George Apley

Reading John P. Marquand's seldom-read novel The Late George Apley from circa 1930 - it makes a good bookend w the novel I just finished reading, the likewise forgotten The Rise of Silas Lapham. Both are about the Boston Brahmins, though Lapham is more specifically about the clash between old money and the wealth of the new industrialist class - whereas Apley is about old money entirely. Lapham was written and set in the 1880s; Apley begins with the eponymous Apley's birth in or near that same ear and will apparently follow him through the course of his life. It's a much more sophisticated novel that Lapham, as one would expect, emerging among all the great modern novels of the US and England - so many more narrative tools and ideas were available, at Marquand's fingertips so to speak. The novel is incredibly sly: it's the life story of Apley told by a friend and compatriot, named Willing (hah!), urged on to the task by Apley's adult son after Apley's death. He uses many pieces of Apley's own writing (how he got so many letters that Apley sent is never explained) to tell the tale. At first glance it seems to be encomium to a time and to a caste long vanished, but the beauty and intelligence of this novel is that we gradually realize - more than Willing himself does - that he is skewering the Boston aristocrats by telling their story in their own language and venue. For ex. a lot is made of what a great grammar school (private, on Beacon Hill, or course) Apley attended and of the success of so many of his childhood friends  and it takes a bit of reflection before we realize that, wait a minute, all of these guys got into Harvard even tho some were dolts, how could that be? And the so-called famous among them and great successes were authors of completely ridiculous books probably published by a vanity - none was as smart, successful, or imaginative as he (all men) imagined himself and his cronies to be. Many other similar examples, all subtle - Apley's mother described as a great aesthete and artistic soul, which is fine until Willing quotes a passage of her verse. We can see around the edges of this novel and know far more than the narrator knows (or reveals).

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