Matters of Honor.
Knopf, 320 pages, $24.95
Matters of Honor is in many ways the capstone of the seven novels Louis Begley has published since his 1991 debut, Wartime Lies. Though acclaimed for the subtle transformation of his own childhood experience while living underground as a Jew in Poland during the Holocaust, Begley next turned to the ruthless world of high society businessmen and power brokers which he has known firsthand throughout his working life as a lawyer. The result was the charm of the hedonist bully Charlie Swan in As Max Saw It and the irascible anti-Semite Schmidtie of About Schmidt and Schmidt Delivered, as well as The Man Who Was Late and Mistlers Exit, in which a bleak morality faces off against violence and despair. Yet, disparate as these novels are, each connects to Wartime Lies through Begleys obsession with the way his characters mask threats behind good intentions. The lives he writes about remain steeped in lies and self-deception.
Set in the ancien régime of undergraduate life at Harvard in the 1950s, Begleys new novel circles back to Wartime Lies quite directly. His first book offered us the barely masked autobiographical tale of Maciek, the child forced to hide from the Nazis and, with his aunt Tania, endure a meager existence suffused with deception, fear, and imminent death. In Matters of Honor, Maciek is transformed into Henry White, the refugee who along with his parents ends up in Brooklyn, until a scholarship from Harvard launches him into the world of the elite. Henry, like Maciek, lives a life of disguises. As a Jew, he is convinced that he must make himself suitable first or face inevitable rejection, whether it be in the courting of the beautiful co-ed Margot Hornung or even in negotiating the curiosity about his Polish past on the part of his roommates, Archie Palmer and Sam Standish, the books narrator. As someone who feels he has been botched, Henry decides to remake myself in the image I carry inside me, namely that of a member of the genial world of clubs, martinis, law schools, power, and wealth that comes as naturally as air to his classmates but which Henry must adapt to on the fly.
What Henry does not realize is that he is not the only one who is botched, nor that such a condition is not limited to being Jewish or a refugee. Sam, clearly a closeted homosexual, spends his entire life in analysis, unable to speak directly of his feelings. His dominant desire is for distance and anonymity, especially once he learns that he was adopted at birth by the parents he loathes. Archie, meanwhile, is a full-fledged drunk by the time he graduates, an army brat whose passive-aggressive mother buys him faster and faster cars until she lands on the one that kills him. Margot, too, never seems to find a bad choice in men that she is afraid to make, and so her lifelong affection for Henry molders away amid their late-afternoon trysts rather than blossoming into the fullness of love.
Matters of Honor is a book about shades, the state that Dante ascribes to souls after death whose only option is to live out the inevitable consequences of their sins. What makes Begleys novel compelling is how, as in Dante, the shades struggle with and against the shackles of identity they have forged for themselves. This is most true of Henry, if only because he has the most baggage and has become so adept at shedding it. After Harvard, he enters the army; after the army comes law school, followed by his quick rise through a high-powered New York law firm which, though it has never hired a Jew, finds in Henry a world-class expert on international mergers and tax schemes. This eventually lands Henry in Paris, where once again he goes native and becomes the adopted confidant of a Belgian mogul whom he reveres as much as he eventually comes to despise. Only when in mid-life he decides to leave this corrupt world behind does Henry manage to jump off the overheated treadmill that history and his schoolmates have had him running on since the grim days of hiding out in Poland with his mother. Even she deepens his isolation when she kills herself. A breath of purgatorial freedom enters the novel only when Henry is standing next to his oldest friend Sam beneath the self-same stars found at the end of the Inferno.
Begleys characters are not easy to like. There are times when the shallowness and misery in which they are mired threaten to overtake them completely. And yet his subjects frequently escape the prejudices and phobias that threaten them. In this way, Begleys project as a novelist involves a long-term and redemptive freeing of constricted identities. Out of biography comes a finely told story in which the characters, with all their warts and scars, nonetheless find a haven, one where Theres nothing to explain; no one to betray.
Peter Filkins recently translated The Journey, by H G Adler, into English forthe first time (Random House)
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