the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Greg Sheri­dan

IT’S a tremen­dous mis­take, if a com­mon one, to look to nov­els for a guide to pol­i­tics. So nat­u­rally when I first read about David Pe­traeus, for­merly CIA di­rec­tor, and be­fore that com­man­der of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, hav­ing to re­sign over an af­fair of the heart with his ador­ing bi­og­ra­pher, I turned straight to a novel to un­der­stand what such a busi­ness must be like.

If you want to grasp the Pe­traeus scan­dal, skip the news and speed-dial back 60 years to Melville Good­win, USA. This novel, pub­lished in 1952, was writ­ten by my hero John P. Mar­quand, the great­est nov­el­ist you’ve never heard of.

From the 1930s to the 50s, Mar­quand was one of the most suc­cess­ful US nov­el­ists, with his pic­ture on the cover of Time and Newsweek, sales in the mil­lions, a Pulitzer Prize, movies ga­lore from the books. But aca­demic crit­ics didn’t like him. He wrote about up­per-class Bos­to­ni­ans, and though th­ese were satires they weren’t suf­fi­ciently hos­tile for aca­demics to for­give Mar­quand his con­ser­va­tive pol­i­tics.

His chief con­cern was al­ways the truths of the hu­man heart, but he wrote about big sub­jects — busi­ness, the con­se­quences of war, once or twice the mil­i­tary it­self.

Melville Good­win is a top US gen­eral in World War II who, shortly af­ter the war, be­comes fa­mous and, though faith­fully mar­ried many years to the sweet­heart of his youth, falls into a dan­ger­ous af­fair with an ad­mir­ing jour­nal­ist/heiress, Dot­tie Peale.

Mar­quand fought in World War I and served in high-level government po­si­tions in World War II. Be­tween this and pub­lish­ing he had a lot of di­rect ex­po­sure to jour­nal­ists. Dot­tie first falls for Melville on an army press jun­ket. Dot­tie her­self is a kind of al­pha fe­male, all am­bi­tion and style.

Mar­quand’s treat­ment of jour­nal­ists is nearly as lac­er­at­ing as Eve­lyn Waugh’s. Dot­tie finds the jun­ket is be­ing hosted by an old friend. This is a fel­low she once con­sid­ered fall­ing in love with but re­jected be­cause, while he was smart and at­trac­tive, he lacked am­bi­tion. Af­ter a few drinks on the plane she tells him: ‘‘ Don’t be so God-damned com­pla­cent, Dar­ling. I could make you fall in love with me any time I wanted. Any woman can do that to any man if she has any sex­ual aware­ness, and you know it, es­pe­cially rack­et­ing around on a jun­ket like this. God, what a lot of freaks there are on this plane!’’

Mar­quand re­counts the pur­pose of such jun­kets: ‘‘ Their mis­sion was to tell smug, self­sat­is­fied civil­ians at home what war was really like . . .’’ But as the jun­ket goes on, the army is so nice to the jun­ke­teers that new dy­nam­ics take over: ‘‘ The Very Im­por­tant Peo­ple were grow­ing quick to recog­nise un­in­ten­tional slights, ca­sual re­cep­tions at air­ports, grade B means of lo­co­mo­tion, and ho­tel ac­com­mo­da­tions not wholly in line with their ex­pand­ing con­cep­tions of their po­si­tion.’’

Mar­quand also skew­ers army pub­lic re­la­tions, call­ing one ‘‘ a reg­is­tered hu­man re­triever who could go on a com­pli­cated li­ai­son mis­sion and bring back VIPs alive, un­ruf­fled and con­tented, to any des­ig­nated point’’.

The real beauty of the novel is the por­trayal of Melville Good­win’s van­ity. Mar­quand was a su­perbly sub­tle satirist and his tale of van­ity’s folly is all the more af­fect­ing be­cause Melville is a good, per­haps great, man. Van­ity, as ma­nip­u­lated by Dot­tie Peale, brings him un­done. And although their af­fair has all the req­ui­site sex­ual charge, the ap­peal Dot­tie makes to his van­ity is not es­sen­tially sex­ual, but lies in her es­ti­ma­tion of his great­ness.

Melville, though clearly a star, is at a some­what less ex­alted level than Pe­traeus was when he fell to earth. Mar­quand’s sense of all the things that con­trib­ute to a great man’s van­ity is acute. In New York, Melville stays at the Wal­dorf. Mar­quand de­scribes the scene: ‘‘ He had on his A uni­form and frankly he looked pretty sharp. The clerks and the bell­hops made him feel like a VIP, yet at the same time he also felt like a kid. Some­one who must have been a man­ager shook hands with him and took him up to his room him­self and was sorry it was not a bet­ter one.’’

But leaf­ing through this beloved old book, I found some­thing shock­ing: ‘‘ New York was still the magic city it had al­ways been, ris­ing into the clouds and puls­ing with life and hope, never weary or dis­il­lu­sioned like Paris or Lon­don. No­body had bombed New York, and by God, no­body would dare to touch it.’’ What a beau­ti­ful in­no­cent Amer­ica once was.

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