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.