Thursday, September 04, 2008

Matters of Honor (sic)

'Matters of Honor' by Louis Begley is a wonderful book! Is it a 'bildungsroman'? Might be - I'm not that hot on types of novels.

It's about 3 fairly privileged young men who start college together in the 1950s (at Harvard), and follows their lives - throughout their lives. It's told from the viewpoint of Sam, the son of a couple with a drink problem who appear to be the black sheep of a very middle-class New England family. Henry, a Jew, survived the war in hiding in Poland, and Archie is the son of a US military officer and his wife who has grown up in Panama. They are put together in a student flat and from there their friendship begins.

The question occurs, though, who's 'bildung' is being told here? Is it Sam's, or is it Henry's? Archie remains somewhat peripheral, but Sam and Henry remain closely connected throughout their lives. Henry tries hard to throw off the yoke of Judaism - of course, as a young man with a Polish accent he is always asked how he survived the war, which he hates. His mother clings to him, and his parents want him to become a doctor - but he drops that course and studies classics instead., though later he develops into a direction which might have made his parents proud. Sam's life, on the other hand, proceeds fairly calmly, apart from a mishap or two, into the life of a successful writer.

What's so wonderful about this book? It is written so beautifully (probably better in English, I read it in German), and meanders along so calmly, even though some of the events described in the book are quite traumatic. It is interesting how much the men in this book (in which women are very marginal) talk about their feelings and experiences - most of it is about the emotional lives of the characters. And still the book is unputdownable. Very much worth reading.

(And now it looks like I am off to Georgia for an emergency assignment - and I have exams to pass, and and and....)


granny p said...

Thanks for this. I might try and pick it up in the US when I'm there. There are so many good books out there you never hear of. (Quite a lot in Spanish which don't get translated too. Can't manage German, but Spanish, yes, mostly.)