The burden of Louis Begley’s first novel, Wartime Lies (1991), was the dependence of life, in extreme conditions and perhaps ordinary ones too, on falsehood. Drawing on the author’s childhood experiences, it tells how a seven-year-old Jewish boy called Maciek, with the help of his resourceful young aunt, survives the German occupation of Poland in World War II by pretending to be what he is not. The book was deservedly praised, and the literary debut it marked seemed all the more remarkable for coming from someone then in his late fifties who was not a professional writer but a successful New York lawyer, and whose native tongue was not English.
Maciek begins as a total outsider—a Jew in a Roman Catholic country, a Pole among German conquerors, a child among adults. But he has the saving ability to imagine himself otherwise. When playing with toy soldiers he takes the side of the Wehrmacht: concealing his Jewishness by masquerading as a Catholic, he is powerfully drawn to the rituals and creed of a faith not, at least then and there, much better disposed toward Judaism than the Nazis were. His impersonations work, he survives; but his lies become a terrible kind of truth, since he has “been changed inside forever” and has no memories of any “defiant gesture” or even “good deeds” to ennoble his survival.
Maciek tells his own story simply and circumstantially; but at times another voice intrudes, that of someone in his fifties, a cultivated, bookish man who teasingly suggests that he may be a publisher, a professor, or even an agent, but who certainly sounds like a writer. His name was never Maciek, he says, but their memories are similar. His own history is dreadfully illuminated by Dante’s visions of a Hell where sufferers evidently deserve their torment, by the horror Virgil’s Aeneas felt on seeing the slaughter he escaped from in Troy artfully pictured on Dido’s palace walls, by the despairing conviction of Catullus that his love for a hopelessly corrupt woman is a sickness he can never be cured of.
Wartime Lies is not the kind of book that bears repeating, and Begley’s next two novels deal with characters who might almost be Maciek grown up. In The Man Who Was Late (1992), Ben (no family name given) is the son of European Jews who came to America during the Second World War; in As Max Saw It (1994), Maximilian Hafter Strong is not Jewish, but his name suggests a wedding of New World Puritan rigor to something like the spirit of Alt Wien.
Like Maciek, Ben and Max were born in the 1930s, and they carried modest social credentials with them to Harvard. Ben, whose closest college friend remembers him as “a turkey: the Widmerpool of Harvard Yard,” was the son of a small-town Jersey City lawyer and insurance broker; Max’s parents were an agriculture professor and a librarian at a minor state college. They were …