- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2007

MATTERS OF HONOR

By Louis Begley

Knopf, $24.95, 307 pages

REVIEWED BY WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD

This is Louis Begley’s eighth novel since his first one, “Wartime Lies,” in 1991. His astonishing late-blooming career as a writer took place even as he continued to practice law (he retired from legal practice three years ago).

His novels are never less than readable and intelligent, and in two of them, “About Schmidt” (1996) and “Schmidt Delivered” (2000), he produced compelling sardonic comedy in which his protagonist — a retired lawyer living on Long Island — was both the object and the vehicle of satire. “Shipwreck,” the novel just previous to this new one, was a dark and erotic memoir of a successful novelist, John North, who introduces himself on the first page to the book’s faceless narrator and proceeds, over many drinks, to unburden himself of his fantastic story.

At 307 pages, “Matters of Honor” is Mr. Begley’s longest novel; it is also his most conventional one. Its organization is temporal, from undergraduate life at Harvard in the early 1950s — where we meet the first-person narrator, Sam Standish, and his two freshmen roommates — to present times.

As with “Shipwreck,” the narrator is on the faceless side, but unlike the earlier book, in which that narrator is merely a pretext for North to spin out his tale, Sam has his own successful life as a novelist and critic, and we are asked to take seriously his relations with family and friends.

In fact, Sam turns out to be pretty much of a cipher, enduring years of psychiatric treatment (even as he goes on writing novels), wholly passive in his relations with the opposite sex, never marrying but — he confides in us at one point — forming a bond with “a Japanese writer” that causes him to spend winters and early springs in Kyoto. (Is the writer male or female? We are never told.)

In opting for such a narrator, Mr. Begley seems to have deliberately eschewed the ironic humor that characterized the Schmidt novels; Sam Standish is muted and uninflected as a Harvard freshman, and so he remains throughout the book. He finds early on that he is adopted and that a rich relative is putting him through college on a generous trust fund.

Sam’s most important relation is with one of his roommates, Henry White, a Jew who escaped the Nazis in Poland during the Second World War, as Mr. Begley did. Yet his dealings with Henry’s past, with Henry’s parents whom Sam visits in Brooklyn, and with the unrequited love Henry bears for a Radcliffe student, Margo Horning, are, for all their fully specified particularity, almost devoid of “affect.”

For example, there is a strange moment in the book when, after his father dies, Sam goes on a holiday with his mother to Puerto Rico. She comes to his room, orders daiquiris (she drinks for both of them) and invites Sam to sit down with her on the bed:

“When I did, she put her arm around me and in the same motion bit me on the ear. Tasty, she said. She downed her drink, plumped up her pillows, and lay back. I remained on the bed for a moment and then moved back to my desk chair.”

The flat tonelessness of this is increased by Mr. Begley’s decision, as in his other novels, not to use quotation marks around a character’s speech. It is as if things are taking place under water.

The novel is most alive in its first half, which is loaded with details of the Harvard/Cambridge scene of decades past. (Mr. Begley graduated from Harvard in 1954, a Summa graduate along with his classmate, John Updike — so he knows whereof he speaks.)

A reader like this one who came to the Harvard scene a bit later will be pleased to recall Max Keezer’s secondhand clothing store on Mass. Avenue; or the “elderly Irish maids” (“biddies” they were called) who made up the beds of undergraduates, contributing to the “dignified comfort” of their lives. Brief tribute is paid to the unnamed Chinese restaurant on Church St. (Young Lee’s , I recall) and the habit of tucking one’s cutlery into the breast pocket of the jacket one wore, along with shirt and tie, in college dining halls.

Most famously there are the parietal rules permitting and prohibiting women from visiting Harvard men in their rooms, in “the tacit conviction that one moral of higher education was to delay sexual activity of the young by … limiting opportunities for private contact between the sexes.”

Famous faculty personages such as Archibald MacLeish, Harry Levin and Renato Poggioli are on the scene; in fact our narrator begins a novel in MacLeish’s writing course and — surprisingly — while still a student, has a chunk of it accepted by the Atlantic Monthly, thus launching his literary career.

In contrast with these Harvard days, the post-college events Sam chooses to narrate seem random, less pointed. One of his roommates, the bibulous, fast-driving Archie Palmer, meets his death in a car crash; Henry White’s mother commits suicide; Sam’s father succumbs to cancer.

Much of the novel’s later stretches are about Henry’s legal adventures as counselor to a rich Belgian entrepreneur and the bad end this comes to. Meanwhile the narrator rather perfunctorily alludes from time to time to his writing life, as in “a trilogy I had written in the late sixties and early seventies” (about what, we wonder?), or a “long study of Hawthorne” that comes out of nowhere.

Near the novel’s end, Sam is granted a perceptive look at his own self-exploration in life and in fiction: “I’m not even sure that there ever was a true self for me to unmask — unless it’s the sum of my private lies and appropriations.” The “lies” are never brought to life, and Sam’s doubts about whether he has a “true self” to unmask seem more a reflection on the lack of inwardness — the third dimension Mr. Begley decided not to provide him and his readers — than an earned piece of rueful wisdom about human failure.

The “matters of honor” alluded to by the title remain allusive — and elusive — in this ambitious but not quite realized novel.

William H. Pritchard teaches English at Amherst College. His latest book is “Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews.”

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