The Man Who Was Late
by Louis Begley
Knopf, 243 pp., $21.00
Louis Begley published his first novel last year. It was autobiographical, about a young Jewish boy in occupied Poland being coached to pass as a Christian, and succeeding. It was called Wartime Lies. The new novel is in many ways a sequel, and could well be called Peacetime Lies. The hero is a postwar Jewish child immigrant. Back home his father was a respected lawyer and he himself “the Little Lord Fauntleroy of a Central European town.” In New Jersey they are disoriented and poor.
The boy, Ben, is an achiever. He wins a scholarship to Harvard, is accepted into the upper crust of student society, and then, even more surprisingly, into a Morgan Grenfell–type bank: “Only his mother and father were not astonished, in part because they did not fully measure the droll uniqueness of finding a postwar refugee from Central Europe within those precincts.” Ben marries a wellborn WASP divorcée and becomes an affectionate and conscientious stepfather to her twin daughters. By the time they are in their teens, the marriage has gone sour and his stepchildren reject him. These dispiriting events coincide more or less with his posting to the Paris branch of his bank in the early Seventies. The present begins there, but the past erupts into the telling of it, not in one big flashback, but bit by bit.
The narrator is Ben’s best friend, Jack. Jack is more a novelistic device than a character. His happy marriage functions as a foil to Ben’s loneliness, and he keeps a benign, but watchful, eye trained upon the roots and motivation of Ben’s every impulse and action—which are already under surveillance by Ben’s own less merciful eye. Jack is able to turn on Ben’s voice for the reader by quoting from his letters and from the notes he finds after his friend’s death. Each note is headed “‘Notaben’—the sort of pun of which Ben was monotonously fond.” The undertow in all of them is the unhappy knowledge that
his younger years had been emptied of meaning by the New World. He would shut a gate of bronze upon them. The storehouse of all the shame and vulnerability in his life would be locked; a private museum of curios with but one visitor, himself, to stare at the degraded and rejected lares and penates. Only new acquisitions and artful forgeries would be on show. Clothes make a man, and with even greater power, so do lessons learned in the right sort of childhood. Within the limits of verisimilitude, he would have both [my italics].
In fact Ben’s acquisitions and forgeries are psychological and intellectual only; he is too subtle—and perhaps too proud, though Begley is too subtle to allow him to say so—to go all the way to forging the actual circumstances of his past. Jack and, presumably, the rest of his circle know all about them if only because Ben “liked to joke that he …