Louis Begley


"Matters of Honor"

(reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 5 , 2007)

"I can't seek out my own kind because I don't know who they are.  Maybe there are no such people… I'm going to remake myself in the image I carry inside me."

Though this remark is made by Henry White, a Jewish survivor of World War II from Poland, it could have been made just as easily by either of his two Harvard roommates.   Sam Standish, the book's narrator, is from Lenox, in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, the adopted son of an old family, though his side of the family has little money and both of his parents are the subject of gossip—his father for his drinking and his mother for her affairs.  Archibald P. Palmer III, the third roommate, and son of an army man, has traveled the world and speaks many languages, and though he is not part of the "Chicago Palmers," he does not mind being considered one of them, and not-so-secretly hopes one day to wear a club tie.  The boys meet as freshmen in the 1950s, each determined to take advantage of the opportunities Harvard offers them to "remake" themselves by forming new friendships, discovering new interests, and "connecting." 

Through Sam, the narrator, author Begley shows the boys developing, dealing with the age-old issues of college boy-men.  Henry, whose family has never been observantly Jewish, discovers prejudice because of his ethnic background, and has difficulty forming relationships with women because of his overwhelming love for Margot Hornung.  Margot flirts with him from the first day of school and considers herself his best friend, but she never really lets him into her inner life, though she remains a major character throughout the book.  Archie cultivates the Latin-American ultra-rich, his facility in Spanish and his living experience in Argentina giving him entrée into a world that few non-Latinos can breach.  Narrator Sam suffers a breakdown but turns his great sensitivity and experience with psychoanalysis to his own advantage by becoming a writer.

Begley traces the lives of these men separately and together from the age of eighteen until they are in their seventies.  Throughout, the novel is a generational study, and the beginning is especially effective as the students each exceed their parents in education and opportunity.  The parents try desperately to hang on to their "boys," and in some cases, control their lives, but Henry, Archie, and Sam, like all people in their late teens, want independence.  The tug-of-war between the generations is sensitively drawn by the author, and readers, especially those readers who themselves may have exceeded their parents dreams, will identify with both sides of this issue and empathize with all the characters in their struggles, even the obsessive mothers. 

As the roommates pursue careers, travel the world, lose touch and then connect again, often at funerals or weddings, Begley shows the personal resolution and growth of young people who, having outgrown their parents, recognize that they live in different worlds, worlds that the parents will never be part of and probably will never understand.  At the same time, the reader also sees, through Sam, that these are not easy transitions.  As the men age and eventually reach their seventies, the reader is aware of the difficulties they have had finding happiness, forming loving relationships, and developing the generosity of spirit which would enable them to relax and enjoy life on all levels.

If the subject matter and themes sound a bit trite—anti-Jewish prejudice at an elite college, difficulties with parent-child relationships, the aspirations of some people to elevated social positions, thwarted love, finding success in a career while maintaining a sense of honesty and honor—well, they are, to some extent.  Yet the novel is fun to read, and the picture of Harvard in the 1950s (accurate, even to the names of the cafes and restaurants in Harvard Square—Elsie's, Cronin's) provides a glimpse of a world gone by.  Though Sam often "tells about" the action, rather than recreating it (breaking a cardinal rule of fiction-writing), the more than fifty-year chronology of this novel and the characters who appear and reappear from the first pages to the last keep the reader going.  Begley is a formal, traditional writer whose observations and pictures of life deserve much wider attention, a writer who maintains his own sense of honor and never stoops to sensationalism in his writing. 

  • Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Matters of Honor at The Borzoi Reader

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"Shipwreck"

(reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 25, 2004)

"While I may never in real life resolve the conflicts that have torn apart the real John North, I think I could resolve them in a novel. You ask how? By inventing: erasing what's inconvenient and bringing in whatever is useful and getting rid of what is improbable."

Just as he did in his 1996 novel, About Schmidt, Louis Begley here provides another character study of a middle-aged man who doubts his success and questions his good fortune. John North, like Schmidt, faces a crisis of conscience, questioning every aspect of his life while trying to avoid the messy consequences of his betrayal of his wife and his marriage. In this elegantly written novel, Begley presents North as a New York writer whose novels have won prizes, but who has endangered all he values in life by succumbing to the sexually voracious appetites of Lea Morini, a French journalist who has interviewed him for the Paris Vogue magazine.

Read excerptIn a bar called L'Entre Deux Mondes, the "place between two worlds," or no-man's-land, North tells the story of his dalliance with Lea to his alter-ego, a "man so like me in appearance and demeanor, from the crown of his neatly barbered head to the tips of his brogues, well worn but beautifully polished." As the story of North's angst unfolds, his companion listens to the age-old story of mid-life crisis. North met Lea when he was in Paris working on the film adaptation of his book, The Anthill, while his wife Lydia, a physician whom he adores, was away doing research on kidney disease. He was "between novels," and he had just reread most of his past work and decided that none of his novels were very good, "all the same dreary breed of unneeded books." Lea, after interviewing him and praising his work, appeared later at a dinner party with one of her many lovers, and her flirtation with North soon became more serious.

Though he is obsessed with the pleasures of Lea's company, North is totally committed to preserving his marriage, and as Lea becomes more and more demanding, North finds himself in a moral quandary-he knows he should end the relationship but is unwilling or unable to sacrifice the pleasure Lea gives him. "If it was not love according to your or my best definition," he tells his companion, "wasn't it at least an infatuation so powerful as to be almost indistinguishable from it?" As Lea inveigles her way into his life and career, even taking it upon herself to promote his work for a French literary prize, North begins to tire of her chatter and her need for attention. "Her charm didn't travel well," he found, yet he remains in her thrall, rationalizing that his adultery is wrong "only if it is discovered."

With quiet irony Begley shows the contrasts between the life North shares with Lydia and his "life" with Lea. Both North's family and Lydia's family are well known, respected, and wealthy, but North's family is formal and somewhat distant, whereas Lydia's is more outwardly affectionate and warm. Uncomfortable with too much togetherness, North hold's Lydia's family at arm's length in order to preserve his own "space." It is not surprising, given North's need to be alone, that one of his great pleasures is sailing on the large boat he has inherited. The imagery of boating, with the freedom it provides from earthly constraints and the illusions of control over the elements which it gives the sailor, pervades this novel and plays a role in several of the plot twists. Important scenes involving North and Lea take place on the island of Spetsai, near Greece, where North's family has long vacationed, and on Martha's Vineyard, another island where North has a home and enjoys sailing. These island settings are a physical embodiment of North's continued isolation. He is unable to come to terms with the reality of his emotions, and he fails to connect with the larger world which Lydia and her family represent.

As the mind of North, the novelist, is revealed to us, we see a man who is hypersensitive to nuances and observant of the smallest details, however dense he may be about his personal life. His satiric comments about literary awards, the juries which determine the prizes, and the play-acting which accompanies the prize announcements give a sense of realism to North's persona. His insights into the creative process ring with truth, however much he may rationalize and temporize about his emotional weaknesses.

As North tries to resolve the problem of Lea without damaging his marriage or hurting Lydia, he leads his companion or alter-ego (along with the reader) to think that he does succeed in the end. But the reader cannot really be sure that this is the case, or that the conclusion of the novel is truthful. North is a writer, we remind ourselves, and he has wondered aloud whether it is "a colossal mistake" to tell his story while drinking with his "companion" at L'Entre Deux Mondes, when he could be writing it. Writing about it has many advantages, he believes: "That is how I could give it a proper conclusion so that you and every other reader would know, when you reached the last line on the last page of my book, exactly how the story ended. Now you may never know." Only the writer is capable of "erasing what's inconvenient and bringing in whatever is useful and getting rid of what is improbable," North tells us.

In the end, of course, the story of North, Lydia, and Lea is written. We do not learn of it in conversation-we read about it. And therein lies the irony. One can only wonder how much of the "inconvenient" and "improbable" has been "erased" in the writing, either by Begley or by North, as the dilemma of Lea is resolved-or not.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Shipwreck at MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

Louis BegleyLouis Begley was born in Poland in 1933 and came to the United States in 1946. He attended Harvard University and after a stint in the army, Harvard Law School, wher he graduated with honors in 1959. Louis Begley has spent his entire legal career at the major international firm of Debevoise & Plimpton. He did not publish his first novel until 1991, but since then has published seven novels, which have won numerous awards and been finalists in the National Book Awards and the National Book Critics Circle and been translated into fifteen languages. About Schmidt was the basis for movie starring Jack Nicholson.

Louis Begley lives in Manhattan with his wife, French writer and biographer Anka Muhlstein.

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