MATTERS OF HONOR
By Louis Begley
Knopf. 307 pp. $24.95
Either one of Louis Begley's careers would be an extraordinary accomplishment. As a partner at a New York law firm, he maneuvered giant deals through the treacherous landscape of overlapping European legal systems. And as the author of eight novels, he has won wide critical acclaim, been nominated for a National Book Award and served as president of the PEN American Center. Much of his fiction -- beginning with his first novel, Wartime Lies, published in 1991 when he was 57 -- has been marked by his youth as a Polish Jew who escaped the Nazis and remade himself in America.
His new novel, Matters of Honor, is another thoughtful reflection on this experience. Both sides of his life are personified here: one as the narrator, a famous novelist; the other as his best friend, an international lawyer. The story opens at Harvard in the early 1950s, when the comically effete students are pampered by waiters, maids and masters determined to arrange "a social bouquet worthy of a great salon." Sam Standish comes from the modest branch of a wealthy New England family; he's embarrassed by his profligate parents, glad to be away from them and gladder to have recently learned that he was adopted and is the beneficiary of a large, mysterious trust fund that will free him from them entirely.
His roommate, Henry White, is engaged in an even more dramatic process of separation and reinvention. The only child of Polish parents who hid themselves and him from the Nazis, he's come to Harvard on a scholarship (as Begley did) and hopes to escape his mother's grasping affection and her efforts to make him more Jewish. "I feel no more Jewish than a smoked ham," he says and quickly enlists Sam to teach him the ways of upper-class WASPs. "I am going to remake myself in the image I carry inside me."
Over the next several hundred pages, Sam describes his friend's futile efforts to transform himself and win the heart of a sophisticated, high-society girl -- his "long-term project" -- who represents everything he wants. (Hearing echoes of The Great Gatsby? In a particularly apt aside, this wealthy young woman compares her antics to those "in some novel F. Scott Fitzgerald hadn't written.")
Henry is a brilliant scholar, and Sam does everything he can to advise him, however disingenuously, about the American meritocracy, but, of course, the whole enterprise is tinged with tragedy. No matter how hard he tries to speak and dress correctly, Henry doesn't fit in with the "golden lads and lassies"; he cannot match their "blandness and satisfaction with the place they occupied by divine right." Even when he succeeds in "passing," he endures the shame of that deception, and when he discloses his Jewish background, he feels the humiliations of being considered exotic or being pestered for dramatic stories about his ordeal under the Nazis.
Begley's analysis of class and anti-Semitism in America is often brilliant, but this is a demandingly static novel. The plot moves slowly through a series of disconnected parties and conversations, frequently drifting into complex side stories that never feel relevant. Henry and Sam's third roommate seems a significant presence in the novel for many chapters until he's summarily dispensed with offstage. While cocktails and decor receive elaborate attention, a number of life-changing events fly by without warning or ramification: Sam falls into a bout of crippling depression as suddenly as you might sprain your ankle, then undergoes decades of weekly analysis about which we hear almost nothing. One chapter begins, "My friendship with the Japanese writer and sojourns in Kyoto came to an abrupt end." What friendship with a Japanese writer? What sojourns in Kyoto?
Compounding the demands of this 50-year, desultory plot is the novel's narrator. Sam speaks in a cool, strictly modulated voice, no matter what he's describing: Whether he's being beaten to a pulp by hoodlums, sodomized by transvestites, or called to the scene of a bloody suicide, everything takes place at a great distance from us, stripped of any color, heat or immediacy. What seems at first restrained and elegant eventually sounds merely disaffected and dull.
But in the final chapters, the novel suddenly snaps back into focus and concentrates on the final moral crisis of Henry's life as a successful lawyer still reaching for acceptance, for dignity, for the girl who got away. "You might rightly ask," he tells Sam, "what has my self-negation got me. My Jewism is still with me, like bad breath. . . . I have gotten nothing, zero, or less than zero. My wages are disgrace and shame." It's a deeply troubling evaluation, gorgeously evoked and dramatically embedded in the sort of complex legal plot Begley must have confronted as a lawyer himself. Henry's final, courageous act of reinvention is a bittersweet closing argument, but one hopes the members of the reading jury will pay attention long enough to reach it. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.