BOOK REVIEW / Crash course in the good life: 'The Man who was Late' - Louis Begley: Macmillan, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
LOUIS BEGLEY'S award-winning, autobiographical first novel showed a young Jewish boy in occupied Poland being taught to pose as a Christian and getting away with it. It was called Wartime Lies. An apt title for his second novel - you could be forgiven for thinking, as you wade through yet another sex scene - would be Peacetime Lays. Less temptingly christened, it purports to carry forward the earlier work's interest in the moral/ontological cost of self-reinvention, while also dramatising the blighting, slow-leak guilt of the survivor.

This time, though, the protagonist is a post-war Jewish immigrant. An effortless achiever, young Ben wins a scholarship to Harvard, joins a merchant bank, marries a rich Wasp and is estranged from her. In a manner that's reminiscent of Jay Gatsby, he tries to shut 'a gate of bronze' on his troubled past, giving himself a late-developer's crash course in living the good life, wearing the right suits and affecting the 'awkward careless grace' that was signally not his birthright.

All of which creates an image-problem for Begley's book. The hero's spiritual barrenness (unduly heightened here by making him biologically sterile, too) is evidenced in his empty, fastidious sybaritism and the unending supply of sexual opportunities, diligently taken. The result is a study of the existential predicament of the post- Holocaust immigrant outsider that smacks all too frequently of some high-falutin banking-and- bonking novel.

A barrage of the ritziest name-drops (he plans to wash down a Seconal overdose with nothing humbler than a bottle of Vosne-Romanee) is paralleled by the upmarket range of literary templates and allusions: it won't, for instance, be spilling too many beans to reveal that the eventual suicide is closely modelled on the one found in Pierre-Jean Jouve's novel, Le monde desert. Rarefied in its references, Begley's is the sort of book where highbrow tastes and low desires collide in a none too consciously comic way. On holiday, Ben manages to use the right buttock of a call-girl as his lectern for an al fresco perusal of Les liaisons dangereuses (a novel in which, of course, the protagonist employs a lover's bare back as a writing desk). Aroused by this reading-rump, our hero proceeds to enter it/her from behind, without (we're assured) even waking the girl up.

Assembled from the notebooks and tape- recordings left in files which bear the inviting label 'Pandora's Box', the story of his life is told by Jack, his American executor, closest friend and cousin of Veronique, the married woman with whom, during a posting in Paris, Ben starts a passionate affair. Begley is at his best in showing how, when this pair are separated in different time-zones, Ben's mind converts what are fundamentally misgivings about himself into apparently principled scruples about the relationship. He exploits the difficult logistics to remain at a distance from Veronique, and by the time they catch up with each other she has already taken a warped form of revenge.

Early on in the book, it's said that Ben liked to joke that, as his own invention, he could never really be certain how he felt about anything or anybody. Or about himself? Towards the end, there's a dextrous phrasal twist in one of his notes that precisely sums up his plight of being neither self-sufficent nor able to accept that he might deserve another's love. About an unwanted girl- friend, he writes: 'Will I have to hurt her so as to ensure that she will leave what's not quite well enough alone?' The understated way the hero's past issues bleak, fleeting reminders of itself is handled superbly, as is the rhythm of his half- volitional drift towards death. 'Existential tardiness' may be the theme, but the novel's own timing is immaculate. It's its taste which is often seriously in question.