BOOK REVIEW / Ben and the art of missing boats and trains: 'The Man Who Was Late' - Louis Begley: Macmillan, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
AT A TIME when the merits of Britain's 20 best young novelists are being debated as part of a marketing drive on their behalf, we might as well remember that the muse is not ageist: literary inspiration rarely obeys the conventional dictates of a professional career path.

Louis Begley was a nicely heeled 55- year-old York lawyer when he published his first novel, Wartime Lies (Picador, pounds 5.99), two years ago. At the time, he wouldn't have made anyone's list of young hotshots; but he attracted admiring comments all over the place, and then won pretty much every literary prize going. Forget about the novel's extreme assurance for a moment; the mere fact of Louis Begley's swift emergence as a senior writer reminded us that, in literature, youth is not automatically an asset.

What everyone liked so much about Wartime Lies was the sense of pained memories thoroughly ripened by a long life. The book describes, with sorrowful detachment, the adventures of a young Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied Poland. Clearly autobiographical, it presents the recollections of the boy in a later, more tranquil time, and while there is very little dialogue, the book flows easily to a fearful dramatic climax.

The boy is being shoved, in a large herd of frightened Jews, towards the fateful cattle trucks. Anyone brave enough to object is whacked or shot. But suddenly the boy's Aunt Tania puts on her best available lipstick, adopts a superb tone of feigned haughtiness and starts hectoring the Wehrmacht captain.

'She asked if he would be kind enough to tell her where these awful trains were going. The answer made me tremble: Auschwitz. Completely wrong destination, replied Tania. To find herself with all these disreputable-looking people, being shouted at by drunk and disorderly soldiers, and all this in front of a train going to a place she had never heard of, was intolerable. She had come to Warsaw to buy dresses and have her son's eyes examined; of course, everything she had bought had been lost in this dreadful confusion. Would he, as an officer, impose some order and help us . . . ?'

And bingo, the captain clicks his heels and arranges a first-class ticket. It's a great moment: the deceit is charged with all the buoyant pleasures of a witty confidence trick, but it has, at the same time, a withering resonance in the context of the book's dominant preoccupation with the huge and wounding evasiveness required of those who survived.

Louis Begley's second novel, The Man Who Was Late, begins with the same beguiling composure: 'It was a paradox, of which Ben over the years became fond, that he, ostensibly the most punctual and reliable of men, should have been late in the major matters of existence, that he always somehow missed his train.'

It would be impertinent to say that it is all downhill after that, but there are times, as various behind-the-clock scenes from Ben's life are brought before us, when it seems that Begley, who spent 55 years fermenting his first novel, should perhaps have given his second a bit more time to mature. The narrative procedure - Ben's career is compiled from a jumble of rambling scraps - doesn't help.

Ben's life is, basically, a sex life. He marries a rich Bostonian with twins and a place in the south of France. He joins a merchant bank and becomes, right on cue, a mover and shaker. Unfortunately, the only things we really see him moving and shaking are women's private parts. He moves to Paris and takes up with a scintillating (which here means no more than willing) woman called Veronique. Some serious adultery follows, which reminds one why they call it adultery: in this case, at least, it is all terribly adult.

Ben, it's true, has a couple of business meetings in Tokyo, but then he goes to Brazil and enjoys a minor orgy with a German prostitute called Lotte, who is even more scintillating than Veronique. At one point he has his way with her while they are lying on the beach, and she doesn't even wake up.

All the while, we read extracts from Ben's own journal - 'Notaben'. These notebooks are written in a naturalistic pseudo-rush: 'Grinding fatigue. Thank God there is no sun. Sidewalks crowded. Schoolgirls in navy-blue uniforms. Nice round faces, pigtails, fixed smiles. Below, mostly bad legs.' And so on.

It is easier than it looks to imitate slapdash writing, and we can't help wishing that Begley had made Ben a literary whizz while he was about it. In Wartime Lies there were ghostly italic passages written by some mournful and worldy- wise connoisseur of Dante and Virgil. Here, as a routine way to polish the surface of Ben's disorderly life, the emphasis is on clothes, perfumes and wines.

It is a shame, this falling off. Perhaps it simply confirms that literature produces an erratic yield curve. Or maybe The Man Who Was Late is actually Begley's first novel. It certainly feels like one: a straightforward sex fantasy bristling with mystical, seen-it-all asides. Begley (like Ben, come to think of it) wants it both ways. The sexy bits seem designed to titillate, but they also want to be emblems of an empty life. The result, almost inevitably, is empty sex scenes.

Tragedy - or pathos, at any rate - stalks the book when Ben allows himself to drift away from Veronique, who has imperceptibly become his one chance for happiness. However much he loves grasping her, he can't bring himself to grasp the opportunity she represents until it is too late.

And so it goes. Late one night, in a distracted moment, Ben spots the owner of an epicerie opening a crate of bananas. 'Ben bought two and ate them at once, voraciously . . . He threw the peels into a basket with discarded lettuce leaves and onions.' It is supposed to be a glimpse of a floundering soul. But as a gesture of excess and romantic rebellion, two bananas are hardly more audacious than three shredded wheat. An existential crisis comes out as a mere salad daze.