Matters of Honor, By Louis Begley, Knopf, 320 pp., $24.95
Imagine a bedtime story told by William F. Buckley -- one narrated in an arid, starchy voice, one that goes on and on, free of suspense -- a relentless sequence of "this happened, then that happened" incidents designed to lull the listener into placid sleep. Imagine that story and you'll get a sense of how it feels to read " Matters of Honor, " by Louis Begley , the author of "About Schmidt." And yet something about this chronicle following three friends from Harvard in the early 1950s to southern France in the present keeps one turning the pages. That something is Begley's language, which is as compelling and crystalline as a diamond.
In his freshman year at Harvard, the narrator, Sam Standish, is assigned to room with Archibald P. Palmer III and Henry White. Sam is the only child of alcoholic parents, his father the black sheep of a wealthy New England banking dynasty. But despite his parents' embarrassing perch on a low and drooping branch in the family hierarchy, Sam has been sufficiently trained as a decoder of society speech and habits to serve as an acerbic guide to his milieu. Archie is the worldly but aimless son of a career military officer, a prop of a character who is an astute observer of Henry but otherwise colorful only in his utter heedlessness. It is Henry-- or rather Henry's quest to reinvent himself -- that is the central character of this novel.
Born in Krakow as Henryk Weiss, Henry survived the Holocaust by hiding in the home of a schoolteacher, then immigrated to Brooklyn in time to attend high school. Now starting at Harvard wearing the too-large, too-new clothes hand picked for him by his mother, slowly and carefully speaking English in a manner that marks him as foreign, Henry immediately causes his roommates to wonder if he is Jewish. Of course this is not a question they can ask him directly, because "the word 'Jew' . . . was an embarrassing word to utter in polite company, especially if a Jew was present. . . . In that respect it was not unlike 'homosexual.' "
But it is their speculation that Henry is a Jew trying to pass that galls Henry into openly addressing the issue. "It's a fact, he said, that I derive no benefit from being Jewish, or any pleasure. It almost got my parents and me killed. . . . All the same, so long as there are people who care whether I am a Jew pretending to be a Gentile, I have to remain a Jew, even though inside I feel no more Jewish than a smoked ham. . . . What would it have taken for you and Archie not to suspect me of trying to pass? If not a yellow star, then a yarmulke or side locks? Should I have a business card that says on it 'Jew'?"
Smart, ambitious, and angry, determined not to be either the stereotypic doting Jewish son his mother needs him to be or the cunning and greedy Shylock society expects him to be, Henry tries to reinvent himself, and his attempts are what propel what little action there is in this book. The novel is listless, a problem exacerbated by Sam's donnish voice and general reticence as a narrator. Still, he is a keen and articulate observer. Readers willing to invest the time will emerge from this book with insight into a thin slice of a generation, and the environment of bourgeois gentility and refined anti-Semitism in which they ambivalently came of age.
Julie Wittes Schlack is is a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities.