The Man Who Was Late is an early novel by the lawyer-novelist Louis Begley. It’s a story recounted through the memories, observations and conclusions of a lawyer named Jack, a New York sophisticate much like Begley, about his friend, a banker and fellow Harvard grad, named Ben.
Ben is the man who was late, the man who escaped the slaughter of the Jews in Central Europe in WWII with his parents, and arrived on U.S. shores always a touch out of sync with the society he entered the meritocratic way, not the to-the-manor-born way like Jack, and Jack’s cousin, Veronique, with whom Ben conducts an affair.
The virtues of this novel are its fluid prose and knowledge of the societies in America and abroad (largely France) where Ben is successful but doesn’t fit in. His marriage was ill-fated, he wanted his stepdaughters to love him, but they didn’t, and despite his banking acumen and privileges, he’s somewhat dark and guilt-ridden, a heavy drinker, a man with a taste for illicit sex, and generally self-castigating in the notes he leaves behind. Suicide is the climax of this novel, of course.
It could be said that another virtue of the novel is that it hews tightly to the middle-class ethos of the novel form itself. That’s where it gets its strength and ethos and where Ben runs afoul. He feels judged because he wriggled his way into a world of privilege where he did not belong. Like everyone else in the book, he knows all the right wines, restaurants, resorts, and ultimately, tailors, but he has this need for bad women until he hits upon Veronique, a provocative, unhappy, but more or less good woman. And so he doesn’t feel fit for decent society, and he boots his chance with Veronique away.
In one sense this is an enjoyable book to read. Begley tells the tale astutely, drawing on face-to-face encounters between Jack and Ben, Ben’s helpfully left-behind notes, and even some letters and confessions to Jack by Veronique.
In another sense, these are people who are full of themselves, who do things just right, belong to the right clubs, handle multinational negotiations with consummate skill, and yet are empty. Ben, in particular, is all over the place without really exploring the source of his confounding “otherness.” The fact that he is Jew has something to do with, a big something to do with it, but in the main, his Jewishness and Central European background are just statements, not developed themes. No one is actively persecuting Ben anymore. He’s cleared all the hurdles. So what is the wish to be degraded, to be soiled, or defiled all about? It a way it seems to be about nothing, about too much freedom, too much money, too many opportunities to resolve a day’s tensions in bed on a strictly I-come/you-come basis.
Begley himself, having escaped the Nazi’s during WW II as a boy, may have felt that the mere shadow of these events was sufficient to give Ben a lasting piquancy. I should think it probably would be enough if it were not the mere shadow but the inky shadow, a shadow brought to the surface through moral self-questioning and perhaps explicit disdain for people like Jack, the erudite lawyer, well-read, well-married, pretty faithful to the interests of his tortured cousin Veronique.
So this is a kind of novel that refers to Rilke but has closer connections to Trollope or Thackeray or Henry James and Edith Wharton. It offers incidents that are more vile than anyone would find explicitly addressed by those novelists, but it holds itself together the way their novels did, and Ben finally conducts his revolution not against the status quo but himself. And one doesn’t care enough for Ben to take this too hard. His pain doesn’t break boundaries, only his own unresolved life.