Monday, 3 December 2012

Late-Blooming Begley

If the largely disillusioned American Dreamer fancies the Publishers’ Clearing House sweepstake as a last-chance fantasy, then literary critics thrill at the appearance of a late-blooming writer.

Louis Begley, central-European Jewish refugee and successful New York lawyer, seems to be a prime candidate as he approaches 60. His first effort, Wartimes Lies (Knopf $19) is stunning. It recounts in harrowing minutiae how the son of an assimilated Jewish doctor born “a few months after the burning of the Reichstag” survives the war with tactical lies of every conceivable kind.

His father is swept off to Russia, leaving the protagonist in the custody of a young aunt. They pretend to be Catholics. She shelters him with a German lover. After watching several waves of Jews marched off to the camp, they’re swept up in the final cleansing but evade the trains by a canny ruse, appealing to the gullibility of a German officer’s penchant for orderliness.

Treachery is all-pervasive. An emblem of the madness is the lengths to which escaping Jewish men will go to hide their circumcised states. That this obscene malaise is more than a historical aberration strikes me as I read a report in this morning’s New York Times about the Bombay riots, in which suspected Muslim men were forced to drop their pants by Hindu fanatics seeking to destroy “the enemy.”

Begley’s second novel, The Man Who Was Late (Knopf, $21), is still less successful. It deals with what you might call post-war lies—the efforts a highly successful corporate lawyer takes to exorcise his antecedents as a Jersey City poorboy overachiever at Harvard. His multiple priapic achievements cannot mask his inability to love. Self-hatred wells up time after time to tarnish his outward appearances. He lacks inner graces.

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