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Visiting Novelist


By Richard N. Levy

In the center of a small group of attentive students stood a dignified man of medium height, his snow-white hair and ruddy face presenting a fearsome aspect as he nodded vigorously and gestured with his equally ruddy hands, which held a glass of strong punch.

"Are you going to buy this magazine with a hard cover?" he asked, turning around to meet a recently-arrived member of the group. "Very glad to meet you," he said, switching the punch glass to his other hand. "Well, that sounds like a fine idea."

The magazine-promoting members of Kirkland House surrounding him beamed. The warm nod of approval from John P. Marquand, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, overseer, and writer-in-residence in the House, had set them up for the evening. They were ready now to listen to the novelist himself and later to discuss his new, unpublished novel with him.

Marquand sensed that he had acquired another appreciative group. "I only wish I could stay in this House longer," he remarked. "I had accepted the House system intellectually, but I never realized the full impact of it until I lived here. I wish all the Overseers would come and stay here for a few days to see how much Harvard life has changed since their time.

"When I, as a Harvard undergraduate, lived in a room somewhere--there was a proctor who made you shut up if there was too much noise, don't you know, and who would boot you out if you had a girl in your room. But all Harvard cared about was that a student attended classes and got good grades. The only friends I made were those whose names began with M. and had classes in Sever Hall.

"But it's a curious thing--there was sort of an intellectual something there, and everyone developed a certain culture by osmosis. Osmosis seems much stronger in the Houses; there is an opportunity to get much more out of college life at Harvard than there used to be."

Discussion turned to the old days, and the novelist reflected on the unpleasant social distinctions of the pre-House era, when the clubs had some importance in Harvard life.

"People from the fashionable prep schools winced when I said I came from Newburyport High School," he chuckled. "It took me a long time to convince them I was a moderately nice person."

From education the conversation shifted to a problem Marquand has discussed in two of his novels--organization men.

"This is a wonderful subject for a novel of manners. The organization man and the impact of the corporation on our social life are some of the most significant facts of the American scene today. I am glad writers are beginning to pay serious attention to them. There is nothing easier to do than make fun of the president of an advertising agency or these damned business conferences, don't you know--conventions in Atlantic City. I think they're both bad and good; I haven't very many fixed opinions on them."

His hostess refilled his glass for the third time. "Be careful," he winked at her, "or I'll start to split infinitives."

Eventually, discussion got around to novelists, and Marquand mentioned F. Scott Fitzgerald. "I think Gatsby is an outstanding novel," he asserted. "I can think of hardly any derogatory criticism of it. I could, I believe, pull all his others into pieces."

From Fitzgerald, Marquand turned to Marquand. "Each of my novels offers a different fictional problem," he explained. "I do think several of them are better pieces of work than The Late George Apley."

Someone asked him why he used "flashbacks" so frequently. Marquand frowned, "I don't like that word."

"The only merit I think the device has is that it makes narration easier. You can take your hero and see him as a reaction towards certain stimuli, and then by reminiscence--better term--you gradually learn why he has this behavior pattern. It makes for considerable vividness in narrative. It's a very dangerous device, though; if it doesn't all go together in one piece, it's the most awkward thing you possibly could get."

By this time, the hosts were urging the author and his admirers downstairs to dinner and to a discussion of his novel. "That punch was rather strong," he admitted, walking through the dining room. "Oh--you put your silverware in your pockets; that is clever."

He made no comment about the central kitchen, but instead withdrew three manuscripts from his large, dog-eared briefcase and gazed fondly at them. Marquand writes his novels by dictating to his secretary--"It spurs you to write quickly since you're paying her by the hour. It takes a while to learn not to write self-consciously this way."

He put on his glasses. "I am going to read the first and part of the second chapter of my novel--it hasn't got a name yet--and then I'd like you to discuss it. This novel, I hope, will present a picture of various dilemmas of the artistic mind." He began reading. His low, somewhat hoarse voice uttered each word as though he were a father examining a newborn child, and when he had finished, he looked up expectantly.

"Well," said his host, "I think you spent too much time describing Walter Price." (A practiced liar who went to Groton and Yale). "It seems as though he is your main character."

The author looked up resignedly. "No, several people, whose judgment I respect very highly, have told me that." He snapped his fingers. "I guess I'm just going to have to cut pages out of that section, that's all there is to it."

Other criticism was offered, and the author listened attentively, somewhat sadly, as his amateur listeners ran through his newest work, which he had already rewritten twice. Finally, his host looked at his watch, and thanked Marquand for the reading. Everyone shook his hand, and hung back guiltily to utter a few words of praise before they left him.

He smiled, and walked out. "I did like that rose garden," he mused.

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