Saturday Features

Which books deserve a sequel?

  • Are sequels all but inevitable or are they akin to grave robberies?
- THOMAS MALLON

Mar 18, 2017-Some sequels seem fitting or inevitable (Rabbit reduxed and then rich and then resting in peace), while others, usually ones written by somebody besides the original and dead author, feel more like grave robberies. But the impulse toward exhumation can be hard to resist: After all, it’s Margaret Mitchell who’s dead, not Scarlett—right?

One of Miss O’Hara’s literary contemporaries, the late George Apley, titular subject of a once-famous and mostly forgotten novel by John P Marquand, has been dead for longer than he was supposedly alive (1866-1933). Modern neglect of the book, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1938, was probably inevitable: The Boston Brahmin, whom Apley typified, had already entered his twilight as Marquand wrote. But is there a way of—and a point to—teasing out his lineage?

Harvard graduates who got themselves painted by Copley and Sargent and lesser lights in between, the Apleys seem to have made their first money in the slave trade (“in those days... strictly honourable”), then in shipping, and after that in textile mills manned by Irish workers who, they imagined, felt contented and “grateful.”

Upper-class Bostonians are so tightly knit they even “flock together when abroad,” which is where George Apley has to be sent, for a penitential cure, when he falls for the unsuitable Mary Monahan. (Look no further than the ethnicity of her surname.) After being returned to his social senses, and to Boston proper, George settles into a law firm, assuming enough club memberships and board seats to provide him with a schedule that can substitute for a life. Trapped in an unhappy marriage (he insists it’s otherwise) to a parentally approved girl known for her collection of butter knives, Apley upholds traditions and demographically predictable prejudices—the Irish are corrupt; modern painting is a fraud; Sacco and Vanzetti are guilty—but is also prone to bursts of yearning and tolerance, even “a certain instability.”

The Late George Apley is a slyly constructed book, a novel that pretends to be a biography commissioned by family members from one Willing, an old friend of the subject who is now Boston’s Dean of Letters. Getting set for a small private print run, Willing adds his own commentary to George Apley’s letters, “sporadic diaries” and other odd bits, but the biographer’s own goal is suppression, not revelation: He forever disavows the most human parts of Apley, regarding the subject’s own efforts to quell “personal tumult” as a self-disciplinary triumph. The book often feels like an inversion of The Aspern Papers: Willing tries to fend off pleas by Apley’s son and daughter, who have a fond understanding of their father’s self-effacement, to include materials that will yield a rounder, if messier, result.

A novel preoccupied by what Apley himself calls ‘continuity’ naturally enough suggests a sequel, and we get glimpses of what Marquand might have gone on to extrapolate: George’s son, John, wounded in World War I before marrying a divorcée, refuses to join his father’s law firm and has a certain Lost Generation aspect. Did John’s own son, born in 1928, eventually put the gray flannel back on? Have there been hippie Apleys, yuppie Apleys and stoner Apleys since? How did this WASP descendancy meet the rise of the Kennedys, Boston’s school-busing wars, the city’s emergence as the high-tech educational megalopolis it is today? Do the still-local Apleys stay in touch with a family diaspora? Has a dappling of Apleys from Los Angeles to Marrakesh been as environmentally determined as their ancestor George? How fared the first family legacy to be refused admission to Harvard? And how fares the clan’s inevitable bow-tied throwback, still thrilling to the potted palms and bay windows of the social clubs along Commonwealth Avenue? It seems to me there’s a sociological novel to be written about all of them, too, by a fictional biographer who couldn’t cover up their digital tracks if he tried.

Mallon’s eight novels include Henry and Clara, Bandbox, Fellow Travelers and Watergate, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He has also published nonfiction about plagiarism (Stolen Words), diaries (A Book of One’s Own), letters (Yours Ever) and the Kennedy assassination (Mrs Paine’s Garage), as well as two books of essays. His work appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and other publications. A recipient of the Vursell prize of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, for distinguished prose style, he is currently professor of English at George Washington University.

—©2016The New York Times

Published: 18-03-2017 09:17

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