SAM STANDISH, the narrator of Louis Begley's eighth novel, "Matters of Honor," is a Harvard freshman on his first day there when the book begins; by its end, he's become a successful novelist. Yet despite those 300-plus pages, we don't ever actually learn what his novels are about or anything of the life internal or external they describe, save that his first book -- about a boy growing up in small-town western Massachusetts, as Sam did -- might have embarrassed or estranged his parents if they hadn't been adequately prepared.
This might not be worth pointing out, except that (we come to realize) this must be one of the great careers in postwar American literature, with every editor, publisher and reader wanting a piece of Sam. In an aside, just before he casually reveals his closeness to the editors of the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, he mentions that he's back in Cambridge to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton lectures. To give some idea of the prestige, one might mention that last fall's Norton lecturer was Daniel Barenboim; in the last 20 years, Italo Calvino, Harold Bloom, Umberto Eco, Nadine Gordimer, John Cage and John Ashbery have all taken a turn. So, if Sam stands among these leading lights, we should have the brightest expectations for his memoirs.
Instead, "Matters of Honor" is a bloodless book, tired in respects that include the portentous title: The eponymous matter of honor (singular, not plural) is truly apparent only in the book's final pages and isn't even Sam's. Before that, his story is what one might expect in a '50s college tale of appropriately unalike roommates -- a Brooklyn Jew, an Army officer's brat and the WASP Sam -- at Harvard, where the girls at parties are imported and daunting for their "hard-edged manners and staccato wit, and by their trick of creating an illusion of physical intimacy ... an illusion they could dispel as quickly as it had been created." Sam and others are given sufficient space to get through their undergraduate years, but Begley doesn't sustain this pace. Suddenly the years advance, and there is all of life until nearly senescence to encompass -- too many years' worth, in too many places, involving too many people.
What happens when a novel about Harvard men with international careers and multiple homes and haunts spans decades? It is no exaggeration to say that there must be 100, perhaps closer to 200, appointments for lunches, dinners, drinks, squash -- mostly in New York, Paris and Cambridge but also in the Berkshires, Rome, the Belgian Ardennes and finally and climactically (not an invitation or a rendezvous but an unannounced showing-up), a Peter Maylean village in Provence. The meetings may be quickly arranged and (usually) secondary to what's to be discussed or discovered in them, but when one starts noticing how many there are, and how tedious they are, one starts doing what a reviewer shouldn't do, which is to imagine the book that should or could have been written.
Could we cut altogether the colonel's paper-cutout son, Archie, who lacks even a poignant death to remember him by, and make "Matters of Honor" about two roommates, not three? What about lines meant to provide a fast chronology, of which this is typical: "The revisions done and reworked, I dispatched the manuscript to my agent, toured Tuscany and Umbria with Tom Peabody, who was on sabbatical in Florence, and finally made my way alone to Athens, Istanbul and Vienna." (That sentence is followed by mention of a magazine editor's having commissioned Sam to write "a very personal account of my first visits to these capitals of fallen empires.") Could we give the oddly sexless Sam a woman, somewhere within his 70 years? His friends' relentless affairs, ardors and conversations about both have no evident counterpart in his own life, except for something brief about transvestites and, later, two suggestive lines about a "Japanese writer" of unknown gender.
Frustration with the elusive and diffident narrator, whose powers of evocation so frequently desert him, may keep us from noticing that Begley's novel is really about a character we have seen in previous work: the Polish-born World War II survivor and Americanized Jew with the advantages of Harvard (both the college and the law school) and his rapid ascent into the haute bourgeoisie. Here this character, bearing some of the author's own past, is called Henry White and could be a mature version of young Maciek, in Begley's first and likely greatest novel, "Wartime Lies." Despite his charm and intellect, Henry is defined by his Jewishness. He calls it "Jewism," which, like Stephen Colbert's "truthiness," is one of those nonwords more revealing than the real one: Jewism means living, as Henry must, with others' attitudes toward Jews -- attitudes that are sometimes only slightly more hostile than his own can be. When Henry mentions, twice, that his wish is to "remake" himself in another image, he means "not Jewish."
It's a cliche to say of Begley's protagonists that they are not what they seem; none of us is, really, and no memorable literary creations are exactly what they appear to be; even if they were, they could never be the same to everybody. That's the reader's good fortune: to enjoy all points of view, unavailable to those who actually know, love or live with the protagonist. We see Sam with his parents, with Henry, with men of his own background, but we could see him better (as we do Henry) if his story were told in the third person. Told in the first, it is a novel more about the process than the product: the gaining of an education but not the actual education; the writing of a book but not the book itself; not what one learns but the names of courses, books read, food served; and (except for one striking episode very late) not law but law firms. Before Henry's shocking final move, he's embroiled in an international legal and banking scandal wherein the law, in all its complexity, is explained quite clearly; one remembers that Begley -- like Louis Auchincloss, with whom he is sometimes compared -- was for many years a prominent lawyer.
Writing about Auchincloss, Gore Vidal remarked on the value of a fiction writer who can tell us about how the great American fortunes are made and locked into place for succeeding generations -- unlike, say, the professor-protagonist, these are the people who run the country. Begley at his best offers similar value, which means that we have to put up with a lot of Harvard (with Auchincloss, it's Yale), Park Avenue and fashionable vacation spots abroad and at home. But when these features dominate, Begley is no longer at his best. When he was, he was telling the story of a young Jewish boy and his aunt sharing mattresses and blankets and bits of bad food and a chamber pot that seldom could be emptied promptly, working all the time not to be betrayed, not to end up shot or gassed, on a heap of corpses. In "Wartime Lies," matters of honor really do matter. In the new book, the sentence that sings is about forgetting the unfathomable depth of human beings by falling into "the sort of piety that expresses itself in metaphors":
"One mumbles this verse or that, and presto, the quotation usurps the place of memory, and once again the pale ghosts of the dead have been kept at bay." *