An impostor in the cultured class has motives omitted by the author @

January 03, 1993|By Anne Whitehouse

THE MAN WHO WAS LATE.

Louis Begley.

Knopf.

240 pages. $21.

Louis Begley's first novel, "Wartime Lies," told the harrowing story of the Jewish boy Maciek and his Aunt Tania who, through intelligence, courage and carefully dispensed cash, managed to survive by passing as Christians in Poland during World War II. For his new novel, Mr. Begley has chosen a very different setting and subject: the well-born, moneyed elite of New York and Paris during the late 1960s and early 1970s. As in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," the novel is cast as a romantic tragedy about an impostor in this influential world. His story is narrated by his best friend, who was born into this world yet stands apart from it.

Unlike Jay Gatsby, the impostor Ben is honest in his business dealings. A refugee from war-torn Central Europe, he arrived in this country as an adolescent, acquired a Harvard education, and became an international banker. As a young man, he married a wealthy widow, Rachel, who later divorced him. His efforts to act as a father to Rachel's twin daughters have ended in disappointment and rejection.

But in his career he is successful, dividing his time between New York and Paris and masterminding the financial negotiations of large business ventures. He has left his Jewish immigrant

background far behind as he moves among the wealthy and prominent as if he has always been one of them.

Jack, the narrator, was Ben's Harvard classmate. He is Ben's opposite, an American by birth, with a rugged physique and Anglo-Saxon and German ancestry. He is a happily married family man and a liberal involved in the anti-war movement, while Ben indulges in sardonic critiques of demonstrators.

At the beginning of the novel we learn that Ben is dead, and that Jack, his designated executor, is piecing together his story from Ben's notes and from his own observations and recollections. The story revolves around Ben's passionate affair with Jack's French cousin, Veronique Decaze, who is married to a Parisian lawyer and has a young son. Until he meets Veronique, Ben is involved in a number of loveless liaisons that he terms his "sexual hygiene." He assiduously avoids all emotional entanglements because, as he writes in one of his notes, "I

cannot bear to receive more than I am able to give." He blames these deficiencies on "irremediable existential tardiness," claiming that all major events of his life have happened to him too late.

Yet as we observe the developing relationship between Ben and Veronique, it becomes clear that, at least where affairs of the heart are concerned, Ben is not the victim of cosmic bad timing. Although he loves Veronique, he is relieved to get away on a business jaunt to Brazil. When she writes that she has created havoc in her husband's family by announcing her intention to leave the marriage for Ben, he responds coldly and disappears to a Brazilian beach resort with a prostitute.

Ben's ignorance of his true feelings is plausible. What is frustrating to the reader is Jack's failure to investigate the causes of Ben's bad behavior. Veiled hints are dropped: Ben has tried to seal himself from the shame and vulnerability of his European childhood and to create himself anew; he is a man of colossal pride, easily hurt, who cannot bear feeling guilty or humiliated. But it is only when we speculate that Ben may be an adult version of the child Maciek in "Wartime Lies," who survived the war's horrors and atrocities by deception, that his actions become understandable. But this information, which would allow to sympathize with Ben if not to like him, is missing from the novel.

In "Wartime lies," Mr.Begley's understated revelations of shocking details and his accounts of gratuitous instances of cruelty are highly effective. We are convinced that he is describing reality. We have the sense, as in all of Holocaust literature, that the Nazi horror is ultimately incomprehensible, that no explanation can suffice for us to truly understand it.

In "The Man Who Was Late," distinctions between victims and oppressors are far more murky because Mr. Begley is writing about ordinary life. He is more interested in character than in plot, yet much in this novel seems schematic, as if written according to a design. He leaves unanswered many questions about characters' motivations, resulting in portrayals that seem both simplistic and impenetrable.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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