Louis Begley: Matters of Honor



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Louis Begley writes sometimes many times about the same things upper class Americans in moral situations He does so again in Matters of Honor Here we follow five people from Harvard and Radcliffe from the late forties to some kind of end for three of them Along the way he writes probably the most interesting novel ever created about property law Throw in some holocaust material some coming of age sex in the fifties and a scintillating international scene and you have uite a book In fact you have both too much and not enough Begley sometimes gets bogged down in plot lines that seem endless And then the conclusion if not uite a I have a letter is not much better We have invested too much attention to be thrust away with a I found him and he was happy What I liked most about the book is the almost invisible narrator He is a participant but we know almost nothing of him In fact he knows little of himself except he is an orphan and has turned into a fine writer I hope these are both positives but I am not sure I have ead all of Begley and he continues the JP Maruand tradition uite admirably Hmmm I liked eading about what going to Harvard was like in the 50 s but the main characters were a bunch of New York intelligentsia snobs who thought they were above being snobby which made them even snobby ather depressing It seems like it was somewhat in imitation of a Robertson Davies book what with the intellectual old man eflecting too much on others lives because he s lonely and got nothing else to do only not nearly as good 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 emade himself in AmericaHis new novel Matters of Honor is another thoughtful eflection 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 bouuet 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 ecently learned that he was adopted and is the beneficiary of a large mysterious trust From the acclaimed author of Wartime Lies and About Schmidt a luminous story of a brilliant but haunted outsider driven to transcend his past At Harvard in the early 1950s three seemingly mismatched freshmen are thrown together Sam who fears that his fine New England name has been tarnished by his father's drinking and his mother's affairs; Archie an affable army brat whose veneer of sophistication was acuired at an obscure Scottish boarding school; and Henry fiercely intelligent but obstinate and unpolished a efugee from Poland via a Brooklyn high school As oommates they enter

Und that will free him from them entirelyHis oommate Henry White is engaged in an even dramatic process of separation and einvention 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 Jewish I feel no Jewish than a smoked ham he says and uickly enlists Sam to teach him the ways of upper class WASPs I am going to emake myself in the image I carry inside meOver 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 epresents 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 writtenHenry 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 ight 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 NazisBegley 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 freuently drifting into complex side stories that never feel elevant Henry and Sam s third oommate seems a significant presence in the novel for many chapters until he s summarily dispensed with offstage While cocktails and decor eceive elaborate attention a number of life changing events fly by without warning or amification 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 KyotoCompounding 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 e. World governed by arcane ules where merit is everything except when trumped by pedigree and the inherited prerogatives of belonging Each oommate's accommodation to this world will euire self einvention none audacious than Henry's Believing himself to be at last in the land of the free he is determined to see himself on a level playing field playing a game he can win The ante is high virtual enunciation of his past but the jackpot seems even higher long dreamed of esteem success and arrival Henry will stay in the game almost to the last hand even after it becomes clear he must

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Strained and elegant eventually sounds merely disaffected and dullBut 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 eaching for acceptance for dignity for the girl who got away You might ightly 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 einvention is a bittersweet closing argument but one hopes the members of the eading jury will pay attention long enough to each it Most of the story is set in Harvard but it s less about college life than it is about the search of identity and life long friendship Early in the 1950s the three protagonists first meet when they move into the same suite of the college dormitory Sam Standish the narrator is the son of an old New England family who hasn t yet come to terms with the ather ecent discovery that he had been adopted as a baby by his parents who belong to an impoverished branch of the Standishes and who are so miserable about it that they took to drinking As time progresses he becomes a enowned writer Archibald P Palmer short Archie is from a Texan army family that never stayed in the same place for long From the beginning he is the socialite of the friends someone who enjoys taking isks and hard drinks The third of the party is Henry White born Henryk Weiss a Polish Jew from Krakow who survived the war by hiding and who came to the USA with both his parents in 1947 He strives for acceptance and tries to shake off his Jewish heritage Anti Semitism is strong in the USA at the time Eventually Henry becomes a lawyer in the Paris subsidiary of a big New Yorker law firm but thenDiscover yourselfSee also my blogpost at This book follows three young men who are college oommates at Harvard during the early 1950s One is from an old New England family but has conflict with his parents Another is a Jewish efugee from Poland trying to fit in to a largely gentile society at Harvard The third is from a military family and has traveled around throughout his lifeThe characters were interesting and well written and the book provided interesting insight into the world of upper class New England in the 1950s It also gave me a sense of how much things have changed over the yearsMy only complaint was that I felt the second half of the story which followed the three characters after they left Harvard was somewhat ushed trying to cover too much material in too few page. Take his loyalty to his parents and even to himself Reserved and observant Sam ecounts the trio's Harvard years and the eckonings that follow his own struggle with familial demons and his ise as a novelist; a coarsened Archie's descent into drink; and most attentively Henry's Faustian bargain and then his mysterious disappearance just as all his wildest ambitions seem to have been ealized Love and loyalty will impel Sam to discover the secret of Henry's final einvention An unforgettable portrait of friendship and a meditation on loyalty and honor Louis Begley's finest achieveme.

Louis Begley is an American novelist Begley was born Ludwik Begleiter in Stryi at the time part of Poland and now in Ukraine as the only child of a physician He is a survivor of the Holocaust due to the multiple purchases of Aryan papers by his mother and constant evasion of the Nazis They survived by pretending to be Polish Catholic The family left Poland in the fall of 1946 and settled in N