IN the Western spiritual tradition, contemplation sometimes confers certain gifts, one of which is discernment.
Ward Just has spent the last 36 years contemplating America's public square and the private lives of those who conduct the country's business there, and the discernment gleaned from that long meditation makes his 15th novel, "Forgetfulness," the first notable work by a major American writer to engage the moral and emotional complexities of the post-9/11 world.
On that basis alone Just's book would merit attention, but it also is a masterfully realized addition to the modern literature of the conflicted shadow world, worthy to be shelved alongside Graham Greene and John le Carre.
The plot is richly layered, evocative and -- as the tradition requires -- simultaneously propulsive and discursive. (There's probably no American writer now working who pulls that trick off better than Just.) The book's protagonist is Thomas Railles, a successful American portrait painter, now in late middle age, married to a French woman named Florette, living and working in her native village in the Pyrenees. Thomas is alienated from his American roots and thinks of himself as "a species of ghost," though he prefers the term "displaced person."
Other than Florette, his closest friend in the village is an ancient and wealthy English expatriate, St. John Granger, whose death early in the narrative haunts Thomas. As a captain in the British army, Granger survived La Boisselle -- the worst battle on the worst day at the Somme -- then calmly deserted and never looked back. Granger regards three-cushion billiards as a metaphor for life, and Thomas admires the rich self-sufficiency of his exile and his facility at getting rid of unwanted company.
Over the years, Thomas has been a sometimes-agent of U.S. intelligence, working for two old school chums who have risen through the CIA ranks. They, by chance, have come to visit for Sunday lunch and, afterward, Florette leaves them with a fresh bottle of wine and slips out for her usual walk in the hills. She falls, breaks an ankle and -- through horrible mischance -- is happened upon by four radical Islamic terrorists, sneaking into France from nearby Spain. After dithering over what to do with the injured woman, their leader cuts her throat.
The painter's friends fear her killing may be something more than a random act of violence, perhaps an act of retribution for one of Thomas' past jobs. He cannot make himself care. Florette's death severs Thomas' only bond of loyalty to anything but his work.
Midway through the narrative, two passages, separated by just a couple of pages, illustrate the sure and knowing hand that Just usually brings to such matters. In the first, a bereft Thomas receives a note from one of his old spook pals that easily could stand in for a news analysis on today's front page:
"Just before Christmas Thomas received a long handwritten letter from Bernhard Sindelar, postmarked Washington. Bernhard had been called back to headquarters for a conference, a general review of current operations with special attention to methods and sources ... a dispirited and dispiriting exercise. Morale was terrible, the fudge factory's bureaucracy nervously broken down without energy enough for rebellion. Congress was asniff, the Pentagon frightened, and the White House in deep prayer," the old spy writes.
Thomas rejects Sindelar's ironic parting advice that he should admit that he is "a rootless cosmopolitan." He should sell the house in "dreary Aquitaine," buy a flat in Paris' Sixth Arrondissement and get out more. Instead, the widower settles more deeply in, wonders a hundred times a day "if he should buy a Christmas tree and a wreath for the front door," drinks wine and practices three-cushion shots at "drastic angles" on his pool table for hours on end. New Year's brings a kind of false spring and, finally:
"Each afternoon Thomas drove to a different village and sketched churches inside and out. Many of the churches dated from the Middle Ages. He had an idea he could discover the medieval rhythm of life from the altars and choirs -- bare ruined choirs, according to the Bard -- and the worn wood of the pews, heavy stones underfoot. The fathers had ruled things to suit themselves, in those days and later, and now the churches were relics, sparsely attended, mostly by old people. The priests were old. There was great beauty in the architecture, in the silence and the overhead space -- a beauty he concluded of a sentimental kind, the beauty of a very old woman praying fiercely."