Ah, Uncle Horatio. If only you and I were among the blissfully ignorant on that score, ourselves. But no, time passes and our intimacy with the Apleys continues to grow, no matter how little we “give a damn”, to quote you (and to borrow from that Charlestonian charmer, Rhett Butler).
I think this will be my last reflection on The Late George Apley, since I’m finding my ideas about the book are settling into place, and I doubt there will be anything sufficiently new as to be worthy of reflection before I’m finished and it’s time to write a review. So, what can I say about Marquand’s novel, at this point? George is becoming less likable—which is not necessarily a fault from my standpoint as a reader looking for something to interest me—as he slowly turns into the pompous toffee-nosed ass that his father was. I see some differences between the two characters (to the extent that I really know anything about either of them), but I also see the trajectory and take Marquand’s point. We have advanced almost to America’s entry into World War I, and while I do take interest in the time period and some of the occasional details the novel puts forward, overall the boredom I described in my last reflection is still very much the norm.
Marquand just doesn’t seem to know how to establish meaningful conflict and resolution. A character is introduced, their life thrown into a crisis, George responds, and then we’re in the aftermath with ruminative letters and diary entries pondering the meaning of this episode, all in the space of about 3 pages. This happens with regularity. The effect is not gripping. It’s hard to be moved by the end of a marriage you didn’t really know about, or to see the tragedy in the death of a character whose life was opaque to you. I do see some recurrent themes that I’m sure Marquand intends to use to add depth to the proceedings, but they all feel very thin. Maybe in 1938 it was shocking that a high-society man would almost fall for a lower-class Irishwoman in his early 20s, and then, 30 years later, look back on rare occasions and wonder if he could have been happy with her. I confess I find the banality of it all almost laughable.
I see that the novel’s point is to trace all sorts of things relating to the feelings and tensions in upper class Bostonian life in this era, but it doesn’t connect because it’s too busy wrapping things up neatly and moving on suddenly. None of the characters are easy to get to know, and frankly Marquand’s borderline misogyny is a bit hard to take (I don’t think there’s a single woman who is portrayed with any complexity, and almost all of them come across as overbearing busybodies who emotionally dominate weak-willed husbands for no apparent motive other than thinly-veiled malice—I’m fine with one woman like this, but having four or five of them is a bit much). Underneath all of this is my recurring appeal to Marquand on the question of why he wrote this as fiction: the topic lends itself to a non-fiction account very easily. If you’re going to lose the benefit of talking about actual people and their actual relationships and problems, you need to make up for it by using one of the many advantages fiction can provide over the limits that non-fiction imposes. But I don’t see that he’s doing that—certainly if there is anything deeper to this novel than some fairly simple reflections about how circumscribed the lives of the rich are, how oppressive a “family name” can be, how easily society turns us into replicas of our parents, I can’t see it. It’s probably unfair to compare Marquand to Wharton, but I can’t help it—she moved in a fairly similar world in her fiction, and yet the depth she was able to explore was so much greater than this. I can’t fathom why I would read this over anything she wrote.
Ultimately I’m uninvested in the events of the book because the format prevents me from being invested. To take one recent example from my reading, the usually complacent and mild-mannered George Apley has become incredibly active and almost vituperative in his denunciation of the German cause in World War I, and his support of the Allies—going so far as to deplore the efforts of charities to feed starving German infants (yeah, George, let those babies die—that’ll teach them for, uh, being born German, I guess?). But why does he suddenly feel this way? Is it a love for England, expressed briefly chapters ago in a letter written while traveling there? Is it a projection of his feelings of anger and frustration at the somewhat autocratic authority of his wife in their home? Is it a longing for the moral clarity of his father’s generation, which had been so shaped by the conflict of the Civil War? It could be any or all of these reasons, or dozens more I’m not expressing. The point is that the novel is so little bothered with actually exploring characters and their interactions with each other that it’s impossible to answer this question. It’s not clear to me that the question even occurred to Marquand—certainly if it did, the device of the narrator, Willing, interposes itself between the question and anything that could pose an answer to it. I’m left intrigued on a vague level, but unable to muster much enthusiasm for that intrigue since I know any speculations will only be disappointed. There’s not enough here to go on. Having said that, I won’t go on any further about the novel. A charge forwards over the next day or two, and it will be time for a review, at last.