Observing obsession: passion to a fault

May 01, 1994|By Anne Whitehouse

The new novel by Louis Begley ("Wartime Lies," "The Man Who Was Late") opens at La Rumorosa, an Italian villa on Lake Como owned by rich Americans. The time is August 1974. The narrator, Maximilian Hafter Strong, a Harvard law professor who depends on friends and associates for his vacation plans, is included among the guests at La Rumorosa.

At the villa, Max discovers a former Harvard classmate, Charlie Swan, now a world-famous architect. Charlie is accompanied by his teen-age acolyte, Toby, a youth whom Max finds as startlingly beautiful as a Greek god, with "the grace and easy kindness of a young prince."

The novel follows the history of Charlie's attachment to Toby as observed by Max over the course of the next 16 years, while simultaneously relating Max's various romantic involvements and marriages.

Just in case it has slipped the reader's notice, Mr. Begley points out that Charlie's name is nearly identical to that of Proust's memorable protagonist, Swann. Initially Charlie and Swann seem study in contrasts. While Swann is a man of great taste and refinement, doted on and patronized by the Parisian nobility and reticent to a fault, Charlie is a man of vulgar speech, crude manners, gross appetites and careless personal hygiene.

Observing Charlie at dinner at La Rumorosa, the fastidious Max is repelled by the sight of Charlie's fingers, "almost brown from nicotine . . . end[ing] in uncared-for, long cracked nails." )R Imagining himself as Toby, Max thinks, "I would not have liked to have those fingers on my face."

Yet Charlie has more in common with Proust's Swann than it first appears -- as he himself remarks to Max several years later -- for he suffers from an obsessive passion for Toby, who, like Proust's Odette, is not only unfaithful to him, but "isn't even my type." At that dinner at La Rumorosa, Charlie had publicly pledged his condescending devotion to Toby, to the appalled fascination of Max and the other guests.

"Fair is as fair does!" Charlie had declaimed. "Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds! Luckily you are like the mysterious youth: unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow. May it ever be thus! For you have talent -- promise that I will turn into fulfillment and plenitude."

Charlie's pledge remains unrealized. From godlike youth, Toby degenerates into a forlorn waif of wasted talents, a school dropout and a sexually promiscuous drug user. Toby's attempts to live independently of Charlie are ineffectual; intermittently he continues his vague employment at Charlie's architectural office. Max alternates between thinking of Toby as Charlie's prisoner and his burden.

Snobbish, proud, fastidious and emotionally cold, Max resembles Ben, the protagonist of Mr. Begley's last novel, "The Man Who Was Late." But Ben, a Jewish refugee from war-torn Central Europe who acquired a Harvard education and became an international banker, is an impostor in high society.

Max has an authentic pedigree. Though he comes from the modest branch of a prominent family, the material circumstances of his life change drastically in the early 1980s, when he inherits his cousin's substantial fortune and suddenly finds himself sought after socially.

The strongest reaction Max seems capable of is a shuddering withdrawal. His "carelessly contracted" marriage to Camilla, an English art conservator, seems doomed from the outset when, after they first make love, she "urinates loudly leaving the bathroom door open [and] uses his toothbrush." At last forced to acknowledge her blatant infidelities, he is overcome by "a paralyzing timidity. . . . He wants her to know he feels wounded but won't discuss it."

A decade and a half after their affair at La Rumorosa, Max persuades Laura, an Italian art dealer, to move to Cambridge and marry him. His happiness seems mostly to consist in his self-congratulatory possession of her tasteful attributes-- her long fingers, her rapid accented English, her endless repertory of children's songs. Laura is Max's prize. Charlie's despairing love for Toby makes him seem more human and sympathetic in comparison.

Toby is saved from degeneracy by martyrdom: He contracts AIDS. At last he has a purpose -- his resistance, however ineffectual, against death. Now he wants to attend school, although he is too weak to complete his course work.

His demise is appalling, and his desperate will to live and his anger at dying strike his weary caretaker, Charlie, as more misguided than heroic. But Charlie self-destructs in a way that is both shocking and puzzling. Does he no longer want to live in a world bereft of Toby? Does he intend to appease Toby by willing himself to an equally horrible death?

Much in this novel seems schematic, as if it were written according to a design. Mr. Begley leaves many questions about his characters' motivations unanswered, resulting in portrayals that seem both simplistic and impenetrable.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer who lives in New York.

Title: "As Max Saw It"

Author: Louis Begley

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 146 pages, $21

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