Tuesday, 24 December 2013

So Little Time

I've picked up this Bantam paperback again. I come back to it every ten years or so, and each time find a different facet of the book. The pages are now brown at the edges and will surely become brittle before long. That is not surprising, as I see from the printing history page that it was the second Bantam edition, printed in 1963. It would therefore have been on sale in the UK in '63 or '64. Looking back over fifty years, I can't remember where I bought it, but I do know why.

The author

John P Marquand started out as a journalist before achieving a comfortable living writing spy thrillers featuring a Mr Moto. He then turned to the novels for which he would want to be remembered, depicting "certain phases of contemporary life", as he put it. Those which lasted longest are this one and H. M. Pulham Esquire. 

The story

On the face of it, it's just another depiction of a mid-life crisis. Jeffrey Wilson, an ex-journalist and first world war veteran, who didn't quite make it as a playwright, is now a successful script-doctor on Broadway and in Hollywood. He becomes obsessed with memories of the past and attempts to recapture the spirit of his youth by writing a play for the actress with whom he has a brief affair. This is all set in the period when the United States is about to enter the second world war. 

The adaptation

Bernard Braden, who, with his wife Barbara Kelly, was all over BBC radio in the 1950s, mostly in light entertainment, made a rare foray into serious drama with a serialisation of So Little Time in 1956. It was this that made such an impression on me that I bought the book. Braden was largely true to the story, as I recall, though he had necessarily to make large cuts. However, he introduced one powerful feature: the reading before each episode of the verses form Ecclesiastes which end: "A time to love and a time to hate; A time for war and a time for peace."

The decades

I was a very nostalgic young man. In the 1960s, I revelled in the accounts of Jeffrey revisiting the places of his youth. I was also struck by the clear influence of Thomas Mann - I had been reading Buddenbrooks, K├Ânigliche Hoheit and Der Zauberberg as background for my A-levels - right down to the annoying repetitious speech-patterns of the minor characters.

In the 1970s, it was the theme of war that stood out, unsurprisingly given the times we were living in. Jeffrey had a "good" war in Europe, but realises that the coming war against the Nazis is going to be rather different. His eldest son, encouraged by Jeffrey's more gung-ho fellow-flier from WW1, Minot Rogers, is keen to join up, but Jeffrey tries to prevent this.

The 1980s were the time of routine at work and in the home. In the 1990s, the patter of the adviser managing Jeffrey's investments while making money by churning struck home. This was even more striking in the Noughties, though, as my own income became even more intermittent, just as striking was the comfortable existence of all the main characters, with the exception of Jeffrey's incorrigible brother, Alf.

Picking the book up now, it is noticeable how the figure of Walter Newcombe dominates the early chapters. Newcombe is an ingenuous foreign correspondent who has risen without trace, David Frost-like, though without Frost's attention to detail. Perhaps, virtually retired now, apart from politics, and becoming an armchair critic, I now come back to the craft of writing and the realisation, like Jeffrey, that originality is a rare gift. The references to ageing also resonate more, though Jeffrey is no more than middle-aged in today's terms.

It may not be a great book, but it is certainly a good one and one that reflects sections of American society as Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh did of British. The book finishes, as I should have remembered, in the period between Pearl Harbor and Christmas 1941. Appropriate then, to finish with this paragraph from the last chapter:

You could not tell what anyone was thinking. The windows of the stores were full of Christmas decorations; the dogs were being aired; the trucks were rumbling up the avenue. There was a familiar background of sound that pulsed through the air like heartbeats. There was the smell of spruce from the Christmas trees on the sidewalks. There was the clatter of ash cans from a truck, on which was written the admonition about keeping the city clean, and the signs wre still on the green busses: "Welcome to New York." It was astonishing to see everything move on as it had always moved - too much in the shops, too much traffic in the cross streets, too many people, too much of everything. But everyone  must have known there would never be a day quite like that again. Everyone must have known that everything was changing. The trouble was you could not see it change.

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