I am not a compulsive writer. I find writing to be a forced and artificial process, an act of violence against thoughts which seemed effervescent and elegant as long as they remained such. Words on paper are like beached jellyfish. I speak for myself, of course.
I am, however, a compulsive reader. Breakfast is never eaten without a magazine or, in leaner times, a mail-order catalog in front of me (“I wonder if those Land’s End no-press flat-front cotton twill chinos come in beige?”). One advantage of having children in the house (perhaps the only advantage) is that higher-sugar content cereals have more interesting reading material on the back of the box – mazes, puzzles, code-breaking, and bee/honey-related puns so bad they require a separate subsection under the penal code. Adult cereals, meanwhile, ask you to believe that each individual “biscuit” was hand-woven by organically grown, BGH-free Aztec women and will cure cancer.
So goes the remainder of the day – on the train to work, during lunch, standing on the platform waiting for the train home, on the train home and finally, those last few lines which will have to be read again tomorrow as I fall asleep.
Lucky for me than that I work in a library, eh Readers? Popping down to the break room for a morning Snickers bar? Just let me grab a book on Navaho grammar. Time for lunch? First I have to check out this H.P.Lovecraft compendium. Trip to the loo? Well, mind your own business.
My choices are governed largely by the arrangement of the books in the stacks, whether by the Library of Congress classification system or Widener’s old proprietary system. Actually, I tend to gravitate towards the latter, because therein lies the older material. I have an aversion to books which come highly recommended or the author of which is still living. I don’t fully understand why this is so, but there it is (it is also not a hard and fast rule; Terry Pratchett and Thomas Pynchon are notable exceptions). There is nothing more rewarding than a book stumbled upon or picked up on a whim. It is not a totally random process; as I said, I tend to drift among the subject headings and get caught in pools of history or fiction. World War I memoirs, for instance, or nineteenth century tales of horror. Lately, I’ve been stuck in American Literature, 1900-1950. I came looking for James Thurber and stayed to meet his friends and colleagues – E.B. White, Sinclair Lewis, Dorothy Parker, Thorne Smith, James M. Cain, Booth Tarkington and the man to whom I wish to introduce you here tonight, John P. Marquand.
I chose Mr. Marquand because he occupied a fair amount of shelf space, I had never heard of him, and I liked the well-worn yet sturdy bindings. The book I picked at random bore the title “H.M. Pulham, Esquire”. I chose well. This fictional memoir of a man clinging to a fading patrician culture in early twentieth century Boston is one of the greatest books ever. There you go. I’m not sure where to start. The writing is exquisite, so perfectly balanced in tone that what could be pedantic descriptions of mundane detail take on a burning relevance to the character, his environment and the lurking plot of marital infidelity. You could approach it narrowly as a character study or broadly as a romantic epic of new money versus old. The character is fascinating, foreshadowing the wise fool of Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller, similarly caught up in circumstances beyond his control yet different in that he’s utterly loyal to the institutions which confine him. Sort of a Babbitt without the epiphany. Only at the very end do we catch a glimpse of his internal struggle, a flash of self-awareness – and all of this is conveyed in one line, or even a single phrase. It’s remarkable craftsmanship, evident from the moment you open the book and find a two-page discussion of what the author really means when he writes “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental” (by the way, that’s called an “All Persons Fictitious Disclaimer” and All Persons Fictitious would be a great name for a certain type of band).
I’m working my way through the rest of his oeuvre. He wrote a series of thrillers centered on a Japanese secret agent named Mr. Moto, which apparently were made into movies. I’ve read one, Thank You, Mr. Moto and I’m afraid I’ll have to say Thanks, but No Thanks, Mr. Moto. It wasn’t quite thrilling and the romance wasn’t quite romantic and the whole thing gave the impression of someone who would rather be writing something else. Fortunately, he did and I’ve just started The Late George Apley, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize.
Critic Martha Spaulding says he “deserves to be rediscovered,” so we’d better get to it. You know how Martha gets. Go read her essay here: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/05/-ldquo-martini-age-victorian-rdquo/2954/, then go to Abebooks.com and buy something (avoid Mr. Moto, at least until you’ve read one of the others).