Novelist and retired attorney Louis Begley (ABOUT SCHMIDT,
MISTLER'S EXIT) adds another admirable volume to his accomplished
body of work in his latest novel, MATTERS OF HONOR. Tracing the
lives of three men from their days as freshmen at Harvard in the
early 1950s to the beginning of the 21st century, Begley's
storytelling invites favorable comparisons to such prominent
chroniclers of upper class society as Henry James and Edith
The novel's narrator, Sam Standish, and his roommates, Henry White
and Archie Palmer, are united by random assignment in a dormitory
suite. Each of the three bears a burden that will haunt his life
long after the sheltered college years have ended. Sam is the
adopted son of shabbily genteel alcoholic parents viewed with
disdain by their more respectable Massachusetts relatives. Henry, a
Jewish native of Poland, has lived in America for only a few years,
having survived the Holocaust in hiding with his mother. Archie is
a military brat, whose nomadic lifestyle has contributed to a
certain casual recklessness in his behavior.
Henry White, born Weiss in Krakow, is the most poignant character
in Begley's novel, someone who's willing to sacrifice even his
relationship with loving parents to achieve material success. He's
bright and supremely ambitious, ever conscious of the impediment
his Jewish heritage has imposed upon him in a world where those who
control the levers of power practice a kind of quiet anti-Semitism,
and yet determined to overcome that handicap and achieve greatness.
At the end of the novel, he sums up his lifelong struggle: "I had
come to the land of the free so I wanted to be free, and that meant
ridding myself of the chains, the weight that held me back: Krakow
and the morass of Jewish history and Jewish suffering before,
during and after the war." Henry's drive takes him to a partnership
in the Paris office of a major New York law firm, where he
cultivates a shadowy Belgian financier nicknamed "Goldfinger" as a
major client. That relationship fuels Henry's rise to prominence,
but when he is forced to make a difficult professional decision,
his fall from grace is devastatingly swift.
Alongside his battle to reinvent himself in the professional world,
Henry struggles with his passion for Margot Hornung, a Radcliffe
student and the daughter of wealthy Jews who escaped Holland before
the Nazi occupation. Their relationship threads its way throughout
the story, as a lasting intimacy remains both tantalizingly close
and unattainable to the end.
The stories of Sam and Archie are not nearly as compelling as
Henry's. Sam writes a series of successful novels, suffers a
nervous breakdown that launches him on a lifetime of psychoanalysis
and seems to achieve more insight into Henry's life than his own.
Archie is an alcoholic who revels in driving his car at high speeds
and eventually meets a predictable fate.
Begley expends most of his narrative energy on the characters'
stories during their college years. It's a worthwhile investment of
his time, because Harvard is the place where their lives are set on
the course that will play out over the rest of the book. In
contrast, the final third of the novel has something of a rushed
feel; Begley skips lightly over the final four decades of the
century, alluding to historical events like the Kennedy
assassination or the Vietnam War like newspaper headlines offered
merely to ground the narrative in time, without exploring any of
them in depth. When, in the concluding chapters, he settles into a
more extended narrative that reveals how Henry achieves virtually
all he has sought and then watches that achievement slip like sand
through his fingers, he's on more solid ground.
Begley, himself a 1954 Harvard graduate, has an acute eye for the
small details that capture the essence of Ivy League college life
of that era: things like the smug satisfaction that comes from
being invited to join one of Harvard's famous eating clubs and the
equally devastating social injury inflicted when that recognition
is withheld. He is likewise adept at portraying the pastimes of the
upper classes, down to the resorts they frequent and the wines they
Like all satisfying social novels, MATTERS OF HONOR allows the
reader a deep look into the world it examines. We may not always
like what we see, but we can't deny that what's been revealed has
the solid feel of truth.