The Man Who Was Late by Louis Begley

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.

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Players by Don DeLillo

Players is a novel that could have been written last year but was written in 1977. It’s set in New York, Maine, and ultimately the outskirts of Toronto. In New York Pam works in the World Trade Center and has premonitions that buildings like this are too tall, fragile, inviting of destruction. Lyle works on Wall Street, where he is present during an office murder and ineffective bombing attempt. So…terrorists. And they invite him into their world, and he is bored and curious enough to accept, though he hedges his bets by loosely informing the CIA what’s going on.

Meanwhile Pam goes to Maine with two homosexual friends and has a sexual encounter with one of them, who apparently tips over into self-destructiveness, committing suicide.

And Lyle reencounters the feminine lure that drew him into the idea of getting the bombing right, but for reasons obscure to me, he is left dangling in a motel with her, where she has taunted him with a plastic dildo. Hmmmm.

Having written this, I’m uncertain whether you will want to read Players, but that would be a mistake. Curiously DeLillo wrote somewhat better forty years ago than he does now. The novel has a luscious abstraction to it, a sensuousness, a fine phrasing and coolness that is not so cool as to be frigid and lifeless. DeLillo captures the vagueness of New York’s atmosphere, its suggestiveness, the cascades of florescence, the shadows at the back of the bar, the mysteries of touch, sweat, stride, bodies that are beautiful to look at and bodies that are not beautiful but are powerful, wide-hipped and thick-thighed.

As remains the case, DeLillo is persistently and tenaciously skeptical of plot. In some senses, this is a weakness, but I tend to think plot is overrated in fiction. What fiction offers best is an opening onto new vistas, not a set of fixed conclusions. People are that way because they are so complex and ultimately intangible, and characters are that way, too. They think and at the same time don’t know what else they are thinking and end up saying something else altogether. They joke and are serious. They strain to master irony because mystery is too hard. DeLillo is effortlessly good at this sort of thing. I spent some time pondering his style and found that its pace came from its punchy short sentences punctuated by verbless sentences. Like this. And that.

Ultimately DeLillo’s constant subject has been the conspiracy of modernity that masquerades as harmless entropy but actually is full of intent. Someone knows what’s going on. Not the reader, not the characters, not DeLillo. But someone. Out there. Has a clue.

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On the Move by Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks’ new memoir, On the Move, is clearly and engagingly written and tells the tale of his life with candor and humor. Here is a man who is much like Sherlock Holmes in the sense that he has great strengths in some areas and none in others. He cannot recognize faces but he can read minds, let’s put it that way–literally, facial recognition is tough for him.

Born to doctors, he seemed destined to become a doctor, but the higher calling seemed to be some kind of medical researcher, given his extraordinary knowledge and curiosity about the natural world. Today we may think of him as a towering literary scientific figure, but his career was full of ups and downs. His true calling was not what is called “bench science,” where on careful experiment leads to another, nor was it theoretical work in neurology. Rather, it was observing patients in clinical settings and then vividly presenting him to his colleagues and the general pubic in compelling books about the enigmas of the human brain and associated behavior.

Sacks is gay, something his mother detested, but a subject he deals with in a straightforward way here. He also is a past wild rider of motorcycles, a past drug addict, a past weightlifting champion and a lifelong swimmer of epic predilections.

He writes with such clarity and sensitivity that one quickly grasps how much his patients, all individuals, and his famous and not so famous friends meant to him. There are great portraits of two great poets, W. H. Auden and Thom Gunn, here. There also is a great portrait of Francis Crick, one of the discovers of the double helix at the core of our DNA.

Fundamentally, Sacks discovered that he was, and remains, a writer. He always was drawn to the narrative science of the 19th century–Darwin, in particular–which placed him somewhat at odds with the lab scientists of the later part of the 20th century. Intuitive and inquisitive, with a polymath’s command of facts, he bounced around the medical field for a long time before he became, many years ago, a renowned nonfiction writer. At the core of his work, this memoir included, is a belief that human beings require stories to nourish and sustain consciousness. Possibly we see things in nanosecond frames–still shots–but we insist on the connectivity of phenomena that underpins both logic and literature. So life for us is a movie that can be viewed again and again; it is a construct; it is a composition. Without stories there is no “sense,” and as Crick once said to Sacks, “Tell me some stories,” which Sacks gladly did.

Books like Awakenings and The Man Who Thought His Wife Was a Hat enabled Sacks to gain a readership and a deluge of new material in the form of letters written to him from all corners of the earth, asking the same question about different conditions: How can such and such be? Is such and such even human? How can a person not know she does not have a left side? How can a person who is blind somehow see blindsightedly? What is autism? What does congenital deafness do to the visual centers of the brain? Can the visual become auditory?

Ultimately Sacks has come to believe the best model of the brain is that of a series of floating maps, or archipelagos, that are capable of resonating with one another and altering one another. Human nature, according to this view, is particular. Many things can happen to shape you, me and the person next to us,but the same thing will not happen to all of us. With our endowment of mental plasticity, all of us will learn to move in slightly different ways, speak in slightly different ways, and “be” in slightly different ways. Consciousness thus is born again and again with each child, giving each of us our style, our flavor, our interests, and so forth.

This is not an especially taxing book to read, however. The simple human portraits, the examinations of Sacks’ frailties and needs, and the disjunctures that characterize all of our lives come through clearly. I didn’t set out to read the book quickly, but I read it, a medium length book, in two days. Here is a life built of passions, pains, and surprising resilience.

Once his mother had verbally slapped him for being gay, she never mentioned the subject to Sacks again, and they never stopped loving each other. Her death, recounted here, was the hardest on him of all. So it’s a compassionate book, as one would expect of someone who managed to awaken the living dead and free them of the paralysis that had consigned them to society’s dustbin.

I rarely give a book 5 stars. In Duke Ellington’s phrase, something has to be “beyond category” for that. Well, Sacks, his life and his book are exactly that–beyond category.

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Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

This book about the 2008 U.S. presidential primaries and general election–Obama/Biden versus McCain/Palin– is a cut above the Bob Woodward books that also go “inside” high politics and report direct quotes, trains of thought, and personal conflicts. The authors take great pains at the outset to specify how they obtained said quotes, private thoughts, and conflicts. I think we can take what we read here as accurate . . . and pretty grim.

As we all know, Obama prevailed in a thunderous victory in 2008. His strategy was to round up delegates so that he could take the Democratic nomination away from Hillary Clinton and win by points, and that’s what he did. Next, nomination in hand, Obama faced an easier task, defeating the scattershot combo of McCain and Palin in the general election.

The heart of the book focuses on how Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination. Then, as now, she was the prohibitive favorite, and she worked herself to exhaustion only to be done in by three things: her husband, her divided if excellent staff, and of course, the phenomenon of Barrack Obama.

What we saw on the Democratic side of the election was a yearning for change, and although she was,and remains, a woman, Hillary Clinton was not new. Nor was she as well-supported by her strategists and operatives. The ordeal she went through in 2008, followed by a demanding 4 years as Secretary of State, makes me wonder why she wants to do it again in 2016.

Running for office and governing are two separate things. Running for office is an abysmal experience of one smile after another, one sound bite after another, one media attack after another, and one fundraising calamity after another. There’s never enough time or money or, quite importantly, ideas, and the ideas that do present themselves are responses to political exigencies, not challenges of governance. Even the thoughtful Obama could not believe how little intellectual support he received in his successful campaign. Were there specific plans for health care reform, immigration reform, winding down two wars, and facing the financial/economic crisis that had just exploded? Not really.

The same thing was true on the Republican side. Campaigning is about connecting with and wooing voters, not laying out detailed agendas, and the McCain we meet here would hardly be the person to plan ahead for victory anyway. He was, and remains, a fighter pilot. Get me off the carrier deck and I’ll shoot down the bad guys. How did he get the Republican nomination? As we read here, A lot of luck helped McCain along. He had to hit bottom before he bounced high enough to grab the brass ring. And then who did he give the ring to? Sarah Palin. The portrait here is nauseating. The poor woman was overwhelmed, out of her league, exploited, angry, lonely, and humiliated. That tart-tongued, plucky, screechy persona we have come to accept as Sarah Palin in 2016 was not really the middle-aged mom who governed the largely empty state of Alaska in 2008. She had will, but she lacked substance. There was no way someone who did not know why there are two Koreas could hold her own, and of course, she didn’t.

As I read along, I tried to boil down the basic framework for how America chooses its presidents. I came up with three fundamental issues:

1) Party affiliation. Being a Democrat or a Republican may not mean much, but without being one or the other, there’s no chance of being elected.

2) Character in context. By this I mean the public examines the traits and qualities of a candidate and judges his or her suitability for facing the challenges of the moment. Obama was a great orator and campaigner, true, but what he really had going for him was embodying change–generational change, party change, and racial change. That’s what America wanted; that was the context; and he knew how to respond in a cool, measured, self-controlled way that appealed to 53% of the voters.

3) General political philosophy. Presidential campaigns are superficial glimpses of how a candidate would govern, if elected. Candidates don’t want to say too much and box themselves in or alienate independent or crossover voters. No candidate, however well connected, can put together a brain trust that will respond to policy dilemmas with the force of the entire Executive Branch. You have to be elected to get beyond generalities, but your generalities matter. Is big government really the problem? Is domestic policy a greater priority than foreign policy? What do you think about the present division of spoils in Washington, where the rich exercise so much influence and thereby ensure that their spoils are the lion’s share . . . or the devil’s share?

In a way, this book is a political junkie’s book. In another way, it is a primer for the average, literate citizen interested in the costs imposed on candidates who wish to become president. This is a book full of humiliations, broken dreams, squabbles, cynicism, heroic effort and remarkable loyalty. The question ultimately revolves around what makes a person say, “I want to be president. I should be president.” This requires an outsized ego, nerves of steel, physical and psychological stamina, and will, lots of it.

In the U.S., the president of the United States at the time is the most accomplished politician in the country. That does not always speak well for the political class or for the electorate, but this is a brutal undertaking. One of my favorite moments in U.S. political history came in 1980 when Teddy Kennedy was asked why he wanted to be president. He stumbled around and obviously couldn’t answer. Ergo, he did not become president. You’ve got to be able to answer that question through your party affiliation, the way your character meets the context of the day, and how your general political philosophy will bring peace and prosperity to the country. That’s all it takes, but it’s not a simple thing to do.

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Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley

Crome Yellow is a country house satirical comedy wherein distracted, artististic, snobbish, privileged, out-of-touch Brits vacation together and fail to connect with one another in the comfortable style of upper class folk who don’t have to answer to anyone for what they do with themselves.

The principal character is a young man named Denis who longs to be a poet and wishes a certain Anne would fall in love with him. She’s not going to do it for reasons he cannot comprehend or fault. He doesn’t think much of himself, and he has no clue what makes a woman love one man and not another. Anne is lovely and sure of herself, we can say that much for her, but not much else. Another young lady, Mary, is desperate to do away with her sexual repressions, and a passing cad obliges her on the roof of the old manse.  Still another young woman says little and keeps a red notebook which Denis peeks into. Too bad for him, and too bad that Huxley doesn’t give us a word for word account of how she eviscerates him.

The man of the manse, who is married to the mannish woman of the manse, is something of a family historian. He reads tales from the clan’s past, and I was surpised to find him reading a story Huxley published separately called “Sir Hercules.”  The plot goes this way. Sir Hercules is a dwarf, an unhappy one. He becomes happy when he decides to populate the entire estate with dwarfs and to marry one. Unfortunately, the marriage spawns a full-sized bore who is so cruel to his mother and father that they agree upon suicide.  Read on its own, Sir Hercules is a memorable and disturbing story. I can say that with authority since I read it fifty years ago.  In Crome Yellow the power of the tale is diminished by the context: it seems to be another way in which Huxley is satirizing the dull Brits of his day.

On balance this is a highly competent but somewhat static novel that moves from set piece to set piece. It ends on a flat predictable note, evoking little sympathy for poor Denis. I won’t give the ending away, but I will say that it was only that cruel tale of Sir Hercules that kept me going.

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The Art of War by Sun-tzu translated by John Minford

The Art of War by Sun-tzu is a provocation;it giveth answers and taketh them away. Its principles are those of most strategies, culminating in the overriding edict: fight when you will win; don’t fight when you won’t.

In John Minford’s excellent version, we encounter a series of observations bordering on truisms that are meant to point out the variables of conflict, leadership, loyalty, natural fact, and informed judgment. Here we have sayings that probably are an accretion or compendium of many different Chinese military thinkers perfectly at ease with war–and diametrically opposed by non-military thinkers like Confucius and Mencius who preferred peaceful means of rule and leadership.

For psychological depth, I prefer the meditations of the Roman general and emperor Marcus Aurelius, but for glittering opacity, The Art of War stands up well in comparison with any epigrammatic work, Blake and Nietzsche included. It is so general and yet assertive that war need not be how it is put to use. It can equally serve as a stimulus to good financial planning or gardening; one must simply have a talent for taking martial pronouncements and bending them to different purposes.

Strategy, after all, is strategy. It is the admission to oneself that one wants something of vital importance and one is unlikely to have it fall in one’s lap without a plan, discipline, a sense of tempo, a restless eye and sufficient support in the rear. Generals don’t win wars on their own. They have rulers behind them and troops ahead of them. One must therefore think holistically; that’s the essence of strategy–determining an objective, deciding on necessary resources, devising tactics, and showing flexibility and cunning when an enemy or opponent tries to outwit or deny you.

My observation is that there has been a widespread militarization in American life and worldwide over the last 20 or 30 years. This certainly is true in the corporate world, where Sun-tzu is quite popular, but it’s also true in football, police work, journalism, and even the latest stages of the eternal war between the sexes. How does one fight to win, not come out a loser, get the story, the touchdown, the respect, the money, whatever is most desired? What wisdom can one draw on to sustain a battle of years and even decades? When is it time to build alliances? When is it time to admit the terrain ahead is sub-optimal? What does sub-optimal terrain mean anyway, in a metaphorical sense?

Modern weaponry, from nuclear weapons on down, would appear to represent that most powerful force on earth and what is thought of first when one considers, for example, the meaning of American power, and yet is it, really? Stalin wryly asked, in dismissing the force of the Roman Catholic Church, “How many divisions does the pope have?” Well, Stalin’s gone, communism is gone, and the pope’s successor is still standing. By the same token, one can see easily enough that it is a bad thing to have too many weapons. That can break budgets,and it also can become a crutch, causing leaders to resort to force before they fully explore the possibilities of peace.

The Art of War really doesn’t advocate settling everything by war, either explicitly or implicitly. To read it carefully is to realize the folly of the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. had the wrong forces, did not understand its enemy, did not know the terrain, and went too far, trapping itself in costly mistakes for more than a decade in both cases. Sun-tzu warns against all this. He urges reflection with an almost divine insistence. He predicts disaster in certain cases with equal certainty.

Sun-tzu has always been a favorite in China (and Japan), and the breadth of his terse thought seems to have had more effect there than elsewhere in the world. Mao revered Sun-tzu, and how many years did he spend attempting to gain control over China? As long as it took; that would be the best answer. His successors, it seems to me, are equally patient and tenacious. They do not envision war as necessarily a fatal military engagement. They think about China’s economic strength, its diplomatic resources, its human capital, and the terrain upon which its interests lie . . . or where they would like to think their interests lie.

This is wise, and The Art of War is above all things a wisdom book. These many pronouncements have a proverbial quality to them. They are meant not just to launch the ship but provision it properly and adjust its course adeptly. Corporate leaders in the early 1970s began massively diversifying their business lines. Now they are well-represented by GE’s recent decision to divest itself of its financial arm. GM did the same in its recent moments of near-death experience. This is called “spinning off” or in a more negative phrase, “learning to stick to your knitting.”

Politically, the analogy would be pursing an imperial course of domination or focusing on strength at home that works well in cooperation with the strength of others abroad.

These days we are constantly reminded of China’s rise and the implicit threat of it become Asia’s bully, if not the entire world’s bully. I personally think this is a hangover from Cold War thinking: the West always needs an existential enemy against which it must brace itself.

Despite the fierce certainty with which Sun-tzu presents his observations, there are many hues and options in his thinking. War, he counsels, is a grave thing. Indeed, it is the gravest of things and potentially ruinously costly, diverting national strength into conflict at the cost of systemic weakness at home.

I recently heard an internationally respected Harvard academic comment that he could think of nine ways China and the U.S. might clash militarily. I frankly think this is an overstatement. It would be much better to say there were nine or ninety ways for the U.S. and China and the region’s other countries and the global community to cooperate. This would be to take Sun-tzu’s thinking, his subtlety, his aversion to courting defeat and apply them to international relations creatively rather than destructively.

A final word: It’s fascinating that this edition of The Art of War follows Chinese custom in presenting the text twice: once by itself and a second time with the interpolated comments of subsequent thinkers. It struck me that here we have the mirror image of Talmudic interpretation of previous texts and questions and Muslim commentaries on the Koran. This is a rich way to go about tangling with the perplexing yin/yang dynamics of Sun-Tzu’s thoughts. What did he mean? When does the Old Testament mean? What did Mohammed mean? They all meant many things, and it is a better place to fight it out– on the fields of thought as opposed to the fields of battle.

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The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers is a perplexing novel, so good that when it is bad it makes me cringe and it gets worse toward the end when the challenge for any writer is to rise but not go over the top.

Basically the story is a tapestry of stories that involve a young man who suffers injury in a truck accident and ends up with Crapgas Syndrome that leads him to believe his loving, self-sacrificing sister is an impostor, who in turn calls upon an Oliver Sacks-like cognitive neuroscientist to help her recover her brother but who feels his career as a scientist has devolved into mere popularization and who also feels, ultimately, an attraction for a mysterious caregiver at the recovery facility where the brother is housed . . . all of which is enveloped in a beautifully written myth/motif about the cranes that pass back and forth through Sand County, Nebraska, and serve as an analogue (especially when their resting places along the Platte River are menaced by developers, one of whom the desperate sister is entangled with) to the demise of civilization . . . which is echoed in the vagaries of the brain . . . and which cannot be stopped by an environmentalist, with whom the sister is also involved.

Did I say “basically” at the outset of that synopsis? Afraid I did, somewhat tongue-in-cheek. There are so many complex but intersecting issues thrown up by this ambitious novel that it seems to answer every imaginable question without, I fear, resolving any of them persuasively.

Powers is a successful writer who probably is too accomplished and sure of himself to accept editing, both when he writes silly love scenes and when he hammers his intricate plot into an unbelievable cycle of coincidences.

The Echo Maker won the National Book Award a few years ago. I suspect that this acclaim came as much for its stunning display of neuroscientific data and naturalist’s acumen as it did for its generally engaging characters and often (but not always) powerful prose. Here is a book that protests too much, melodramatically placing said characters in the context of both the microscopic intricacies of the brain and the imponderables of 60 million years of evolution. No doubt we need to know what’s offered about the brain and evolution here, but even the Sacks-based character can’t handle it, and he, like Powers, is a polymath.

What am I saying? I’m saying Powers sacrifices his novel to what he wants to get off his chest and yet what he has on his chest is important and fascinating, not trivial. He keeps pace with the front pages, including the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but at an artistic cost. Had he restrained himself, had he not ginned up an obvious and coy mishmash of suspense-filled subplots, had he not brought everything together so neatly at the end, had he not written so many breathless sentences, this novel would have been a knockout.

A few decades ago the naturalist/adventurer/novelist Peter Matthiesson wrote a novel of the sea called Far Tortuga. What it offered was a fine lyricism that conveyed the story line quite deftly without overindulging in data and scientific surprises. Powers might have taken a book like that into account, surrendering his grand finale and letting the mysteries he had developed breathe a little more easily in the reader’s mind.

I would say seven out of ten novel readers would enjoy this book despite my reservations, but the other three might put it aside and look for something tighter, swifter, and more plausible.

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