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Survivors' Shadows : THE MAN WHO WAS LATE, By Louis Begley (Alfred A. Knopf: $21; 256 pp.)

January 24, 1993|Julia Braun Kessler | Kessler is an arts and literary journalist, author of "Getting Even With Getting Old" and a forthcoming novel, "Presumption."

Ghosts hover over Louis Begley's second novel, "The Man Who Was Late." Quite soon it begins to seem as if the most prominent among them is his own.

Begley's "Wartime Lies," which appeared in 1991, was a stunning first book, nominated for prestigious prizes--the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and others. Its account of a boy's torturous evasion of the Holocaust in Poland, of the lives he and his aunt invented to survive, was praised not only for its unflinching authenticity as witness to the event, but for its sustained lyric power. Critics even compared the style of this writer-turned-lawyer with geniuses as diverse as Balzac, Wharton and Proust.

Ostensibly, Begley has turned away from that terrifying time to lead his survivor toward a dazzling and open future. Ben, his hero, is now a successful banker and financier living an enviable life of ease in glamorous cities like Paris, Rio, New York and Tokyo. At first glance, it would seem that the once victimized has not merely survived that terror but prevailed, and now has the world at his feet.

But the grotesque shadows form even before the new story gets going. We are greeted, for example, by his narrator, Jack (last names are never given for any characters), who introduces himself as someone who has recently published a short novel. "My book was a success with critics and public," he tells us. "Many heard in it echoes from Melville and Crane; a reviewer's concluding line, that I had 'set down the postwar generation's theodicy' . . . was quoted everywhere." In short, Jack is a first writer utterly astonished at being "taken seriously," "although nothing of the sort had crossed my mind. Until I decided that I must write this story, I did not undertake any other work of imagination. There was no subject that engaged me sufficiently." Can this be a suggestion of the author's amazement over his own reception?

And, through this narrator--a confident American-born Harvard graduate with otherwise impeccable early credentials, an affluent family, a good upbringing and now a flourishing career as journalist and author--are we not really looking at Begley's view of his secret self, the man he might have been?

Certainly, Jack's deep involvement with Ben and his apparently flourishing American life is curious to start with. Though the two had been at Harvard together for a time, they had never encountered one another there. Culturally unrelated, and with no physical resemblance, this nimble, compact "Hungarian-looking . . . postwar refugee from Central Europe" appears to Jack, with his "oddness and the touch of the exotic about him," as rather a contrast to his own American ease, his blond hair, his Germanic looks. Yet, Jack explains, that "didn't put me off"; on the contrary, "these qualities drew me to him like a magnet."

Jack's intimacy with Ben, his identification with every nuance in his personal affairs, can only confirm our suspicion that he is an alter ego, a ghost of the man our hero might have become had history been kinder. And it is he who immediately observes the singular flaw in Ben-- a man, Jack explains, inevitably doomed to be "late in the major matters of existence."

Indeed, this is the metaphor for Ben's life. It becomes the haunting and haunted theme of the novel. In truth, the author shows us that such a ghost permeates the lives of all survivors of this century's most brutal crime.

The realization then becomes the darkest shadow of all to descend upon Begley's subject. Ben's high life, his adroitness in international business are meaningless after all. He is unable to engage the lives of others; he hates himself as one tainted, spoiled. Ben merely impersonates life in all his various worldly activity. As he tells us throughout the book, "I reek of loneliness and loss," or "I have told you what I am like inside--barren, dark, and desperate."

His first marriage to a rich socialite, his hesitant approaches to his stepchildren and their callous rejection of his love, his subsequent passion for, yet passivity with, his lover, Veronique--all are desperate attempts to clutch at life. Always, they are somehow inadequate, ineffectual, altogether too late.

Ben, in the voice of his narrator and in his own voice too (diary entries designated quaintly within the work as Notaben ), is Begley's own meditation on the ineluctable guilt suffered by Hitler's victims, an unavoidable dilemma, no matter what their future achievements may be. This is a subject much discussed by his predecessors in Holocaust literature. Thus, the ghost of Primo Levi is particularly visible here, with his penetrating observation of the permanent scars, the effects of humiliation, brutalization, victimization. One remembers Levi's own solution, suicide.

Begley's survivor is no exception. He is unforgiving and unforgiven. Perhaps the only moment Ben is truly alive is when he takes a Brazilian whore away with him to a secret island. There he need make no pretense, he simply buys his way in, grabbing for his demeaned self whatever he desires.

If, in "The Man Who Was Late," Begley explores territory much traveled the last half-century, he has nonetheless brought to that history a powerful and tender understanding, and renders it devastating all over again.

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