Authors & Events
Authors & Events
Look Inside | Reading Guide
Oct 15, 1997
| ISBN 9780449001172
Dec 22, 2010
| ISBN 9780307761934
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Oct 15, 1997 | ISBN 9780449001172
Dec 22, 2010 | ISBN 9780307761934
"Extraordinary…Rich in irony and regret…[the] people and settings are vividly realized and his prose [is] compelling in its simplicity."THE WALL STREET JOURNALAs the world slips into the throes of war in 1939, young Maciek’s once closetted existence outside Warsaw is no more. When Warsaw falls, Maciek escapes with his aunt Tania. Together they endure the war, running, hiding, changing their names, forging documents to secure their temporary lives—as the insistent drum of the Nazi march moves ever closer to them and to their secret wartime lies.
Louis Begley’s novels include Memories of a Marriage, Schmidt Steps Back, Matters of Honor, Shipwreck, Schmidt Delivered, Mistler’s Exit, About Schmidt, As Max Saw It, The Man Who Was Late, and Wartime Lies, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Irish Times/Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize. His latest novel, Kill and… More about Louis Begley
Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction
A Conversation with Louis BegleyJack Miles, former book editor of the Los Angeles Times and past presidentof the National Book Critics Circle, won a Pulitzer Prize for his bookGod: A Biography (Vintage). After the publication of Christ: A Crisis inthe Life of God in 2001, he was named a MacArthur Fellow. A formerJesuit, widely published on cultural, religious, and literary topics, Milesserves as senior advisor to the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust andas senior fellow with the Pacific Council on International Policy.Jack Miles: The body of this novel is written in the firstperson, but it opens and closes in the third person, and thevoice we hear then intrudes twice along the way—I think,especially, of the end of Chapter IV. What were you aimingat by this shift? What should readers be watching for in theirown reaction at these points?Louis Begley: There are several reasons for the changethat occurs at the very end of Chapter IV from first-personnarration—the speaker until then having been ostensiblylittle Maciek—to narration in the third person by an authorialvoice.The first one involved my personal, very intimate feelings.During those years of catastrophe and horror, the conductthat hurt and humiliated me most was that of myfellow Poles: their hatred of Jews, their utter callousness inthe face of the unspeakable suffering and extinction of theirformer friends and neighbors, their contemptible duplicity.It was a breach of fundamental good faith and betrayal thatscarred me more than anything I saw done by Germans orUkrainians. I know perfectly well—and you and my readersshould not doubt—that there were Poles who showed extraordinarydecency and courage in their dealings with PolishJews, risking death and torture at the hands of Germans.Alas, they were invisible to me in the vast grey mass of theothers. The ultimate injury and betrayal was, of course, thevirulence of Polish anti-Semitism in evidence immediatelyafter the Soviet army drove the Germans out of Polish territory,as demonstrated for instance by the pogroms andkillings in Kielce and Cracow, events that cause little Maciek,his aunt, and his father to continue the lie of Aryanidentity. I found myself overwhelmed, unable to control myvoice, when I tried to describe the continued humiliation inwords spoken by Maciek, and to show through him thedepth of his disillusionment and despair. It occurred to methat this was a job for a grownup. So I let the author or perhaps—the ambiguity is intentional—the same “man with anice face and sad eyes” who in the first pages of the bookremembers his childhood in Poland express Maciek’s angerand scorn. And, of course, announce the “death” of thelittle boy.Second, I thought that as a matter of aesthetic choice itwould be right to balance the first pages of the book, whichgive the point of view of a grownup—the man who we areled to think was the child he chooses to call Maciek—witha return on the closing pages to a grownup’s vision and toneof voice. Finally—I return here to deeply personal feelings—therewere moments during the composition of Wartime Lies whenI literally needed to pause for breath. The italicized passagesdrawing on Dante’s Inferno are such stops on my via dolorosa.They represent attempts by “the man with a nice face,” orperhaps by the author, to call to his aid the greatest connoisseurof evil in Western literature, one who was equippedwith a remarkable grid of values through which to assess it.They allowed me to have someone other than Maciek speak.That was an urgent necessity. Curiously, I thought of thosepassages at the time as a window letting in fresh air just as Iwas close to suffocating. Something of the same nature wasat work in the intrusion that closes Chapter IV.It is a task for the reader’s sympathy and imagination tosearch for further links between these disclosures and Maciek’sstory.JM: Is your ideal reader one who will forget the adultMaciek—actually, as you point out, an unnamed, sad-eyedadult—most of the time and simply relive the harrowing,suspenseful experiences of the boy? Or do you insteaddream of a reader who will, at each step of the journey, thinknot so much of the boy as of the adult remembering him?LB: My ideal reader is attentive and blessed by the gifts ofsympathy and imagination. You will note that I am goingback in this reply to what I said in answer to your first question.Provided the reader has those qualities, all I want to dois to withdraw, to get out of the way and let the reader makeof my work what he or she wishes. That being said, I believe that if I were the reader I wouldthink of myself as Maciek; I would crawl into his skin. I alsobelieve that I would not be able to keep out of my mind thequestions raised by the passage in which the adult man rememberswhat may have been his own childhood: What issuch a man like? How does one grow up after a childhoodthat has been similarly blasted?It may interest you that my working title for Wartime Lies,which I abandoned with some reluctance, was The Educationof a Monster.JM: That title strikes the ear as a slap strikes the face. Iwince at it. But even Wartime Lies, as a less confrontationalalternative, has something hard and unflinching about it.“Lies?” the reader thinks; “Don’t you mean disguises? Ormaybe ruses?” But what were objectively disguises or ruseswere subjectively lies. To give the matter a very innocuousformulation, Maciek acquired some bad habits, thanks toNazism and Polish anti-Semitism. When wartime Polandwas behind him and he could finally drop the ruse andshed the disguise, those bad habits may have lingered.Something in the reader, as this theft of childhood takesplace, wants you to go a little easier on Maciek—one mighteven want you to like him a little better. But during the war,Maciek dared not go easy on himself or, so to speak, sweeton himself. A single moment of self-indulgence, and allwould have been lost. This may be the wartime attitude—Ido not call it a lie—that lingers most powerfully into thisbook about his experiences.Perhaps Maciek’s “education,” in the dark sense of yourabandoned title, begins on page 39, when just after a Jewishvisitor, Bern, has left the house, Maciek’s grandmother givesa bitter little speech, repudiating her daughter and her husbandat a stroke and linking them by emotional associationto, of all things, a pogrom she witnessed as a girl. This isshocking enough, but then she says that as bad as that was,what Bern has said is worse: . . . never, in all that time, oranytime until now, had she heard anyone talk as shamelesslyas Bern.” What is so utterly shameless about what Bern hassaid? How could it possibly be worse than a pogrom?LB: Here’s why. Bern, after musing about how in the townof T. the Germans have already imposed on Jews the obligationto wear the armband and the yellow Star of David, goeson to say that “If the Jewish community offices acted responsibly,and our dear café intellectuals for once avoidedprovoking the Poles, perhaps we could remain as we were.”Of course, this is nonsense and goes to prove—if additionalproof is needed—that Bern is a fool. The disasters befallingPolish Jews have nothing to do with whether they “actresponsibly” by collaborating with the Germans or withwhether Jewish intellectuals “avoid provoking” the CatholicPoles. They are instead irreversible steps being taken by theGerman occupying forces on the road to the final solution.The grandmother is not as bright as Tania and does notseem capable of the deep, fearless insights of the grandfather.But she has her common sense which makes her understandthe shameful reality that lies behind Bern’s chatter:Bern is identifying himself with the enemy, and adoptingthe enemy’s point of view, probably because the Germanenemy is overwhelmingly strong and the Catholic Poleswho abet the enemy are so dangerous. He is deserting hisown side, if I may use that metaphor, although he does thisfor a short while only: Soon afterward he flees to the forestto join a group of partisans. Something rather similar happensto Maciek when he kills bedbugs in the various roominghouses in Warsaw (pages 93–94) and when, in the gameshe plays with lead soldiers, he decides that his best troops arethe Wehrmacht and the SS because “they looked like winners”(page 66). Perhaps today one would conclude thatBern and Maciek suffer from Stockholm Syndrome.Why is what Bern said worse than a pogrom? I supposebecause the pogrom that the grandmother remembers didnot shatter the solidarity of Jews in the face of their tormentors.Now she perceives the possibility that Jews may beturning against other Jews.JM: Let’s talk about some more complex and costly desertions.On pages 68–69, Maciek says “Now [Tania] thoughtshe loved [Reinhard, a German soldier who had becomeher lover and the family’s protector], probably as much asshe had ever loved anybody.” Am I right to link this to page120, “The day of my first Communion came. Tania offeredto give me breakfast on the sly in our room, but I refused. Iwanted to be clean inside, just as Father P. had directed?”Tania’s most extended, elaborate dissimulation involvessex; Maciek’s involves religion. She has a German lover;he is about to make his First Communion as a supposedCatholic. Absent all duress, Tania and Reinhard would almostcertainly not be a couple, and Maciek would not betaking instruction from Father P. Are they deceiving othersor deceiving themselves?LB: Perhaps I should go back to your question about thegrandmother and Bern, at page 39. At the top of the verynext page Maciek relates how Tania responded to thegrandmother: “Tania looked very tired and very calm. Aftera while, she turned to my grandmother and said, You don’tknow yet what is shameless, you don’t know yet what wewill do, just wait, you will see before you die.” Of course,Tania is right, because worse is yet to come, including—although she cannot possibly foresee it specifically—her liaisonwith the good German, Reinhard. However understandableand justifiable, that is the ultimate disgrace, and areader who follows carefully Maciek’s report of Tania’s andhis own existence in Lwów (especially pages 60–73) will seehow that aspect of her condition is present in her mind.This leads me to think that you are right in your assessment:To love Reinhard—possibly she really thinks she does—makes her case less sordid, even if it doesn’t exculpate her. Ibelieve also that she is likely to think that telling the littleboy that she loves Reinhard will make it easier for him toaccept the searing fact of their ménage.I agree that something similar is at work when it comes toMaciek’s catechism class and taking Communion. Accordingto Maciek’s rules of decency, what he is doing is despicable.He will do it nevertheless, because he has no choice,but he will perform the defiling act as cleanly and respectfullyas possible. An absurd notion? Perhaps. But I think thatis the psychological truth.JM: And that subtle psychological truth is, I gather, whatyou want the reader to understand, whether the reader excusesit or not. Earlier in this conversation, you called Dantea “connoisseur of evil.” Perhaps only a connoisseur of evilwould see Tania’s interaction with the begging Jew, Hertz, asbringing her to a point “so degraded, that she had no trust leftand no pity.” A coarser mind might think that sleeping with aGerman soldier had degraded her worse. But this is not howshe sees the matter (page 73), and the aftermath of her encounterwith Hertz is evidently one of those moments in thewriting of this book that were so intense for you in the writingthat you had to, as you say, “pause for breath” in the interludeon pages 73–75. Would you care to comment?LB: Yes. Once again, I must go back to the grandmother,and her outburst about the shamelessness of Bern’s talk. As Ihave said, I think she has in mind the shattering of solidarityamong Jews. In the passage you have now referred to, Tania’s sees furtherand more deeply. I believe that she takes her fear anddistrust of Hertz to be signs of the shattering of all humansolidarity, a vaster, and, for me, an unbearable vision.JM: “I was chained to the habit of lying, and I no longerbelieved that weakness or foolishness or mistakes could beforgiven by Tania or me” (page 171). This seems to be amoment of bleak truth for Maciek corresponding to theone mentioned just above for Tania. The reader is preparedto forgive the two of them almost anything and wants to believethat their integrity will emerge unscathed from theirordeal. They themselves seem not to share this belief. Theydo not see moral integrity and psychological deformity asmutually exclusive. Innocent though they are, their experiencehas left them in some sense morally damaged. It mustbe both emotionally and conceptually difficult to speak ofthis damage and yet pointless to speak of the experience atall without speaking of this aspect of it. Does this explainwhy “Our man avoids Holocaust books and dinner conversationabout Poland in the Second World War” (page 4)?LB: I do not think that the man with “sad eyes” wouldagree that he has—except for his skin being “intact andvirgin of tattoo”—escaped unscathed, and I doubt that hethinks that Tania has had that good fortune. On the contrary,“he believes that he has been changed inside forever,like a beaten dog . . .” (page 5). He expresses no view aboutTania but I think that if he were to do so it would turn outto be the same. He avoids “Holocaust books” and conversationsabout wartime Poland for complex and somewhatcontradictory reasons. As for conversations, there is first ofall his pudor, his sense of decency: he does not want to desecratethis subject by loose talk. Books either do not comeclose enough to the truth as he understands it and, therefore,their effect may also be a form of desecration, or, onthe contrary, when by the force of their emotional truththey put him face-to-face with his memories, they are unbearablypainful to read.There must be in all developed religions and in secularethics permission to lie in self-defense, in order to avoidgruesome death. I doubt that the man with “sad eyes” isconcerned about lies told in order to survive or other deceptionsor even the devastating need to take Communion.But innocence and moral integrity? I am not religious, butif I were I wonder whether I would think of either Tania orMaciek as “innocent.” What do we make of Maciek’s sexuallongings and his nascent sadism?I tend to think of the world described in Wartime Lies as aworld where everyone bears a burden of guilt. However, noamount of guilt that Maciek or Tania or the grandparents orany other Jews I mention may bear justifies, so far as I amconcerned, the punishment visited upon them by Dante’ssomma sapïenza e ‘l primo amore.JM: “The highest wisdom and first love. . . .” God is ultimatelythe guilty party, but neither Tania nor Maciek everbrings the indictment. There are moments when the indictmentwould be justified, but it is as if they have no room forit in their minds, no energy left to drag Him into court.There is actually one prayer in the book, a borrowedprayer. On page 5, the man with “sad eyes” quotes theprayer of Catullus, “Grant me this, O gods, for my piety’ssake” (O di, reddite hoc mi pro pietate mea). Catullus was a connoisseurof love, as Dante of evil, but of the afflictions andperversions of love no less than of the joys. In another linethat echoes in the man’s memory, Catullus says, “Myself, Iyearn to heal and to shed this foul morbidity” (Ipse valereopto et taetrum hunc deponere morbum). Can he not love with ajoyous, youthful spontaneity?During the years covered by the novel, Maciek has a degreeof physical access to women unusual for his age (six totwelve). There is nothing feigned or falsified about his attractionto them. It is, on the contrary, the most honest andauthentic part of his life. Why, then, does the man who remembersthis boyhood sexuality repeat a borrowed prayerfor recovery? Or do I misread him? Is his prayer rather tohave just that kind of intimacy back again?LB: In part you may have misread me; in part you have putyour hand on something very important.The references to Catullus are neither an indication that“the man with sad eyes” cannot love joyfully or spontaneously—except as his childhood experiences may havemade him in all respects less joyous and spontaneous thansomeone whose childhood was such as he imagines Catullus’s,filled with sunlight and pleasures—or with our man’sprecocious sexual awareness and longings. That is, in anyevent, what I think.One reason why our man dwells on Catullus is that hefeels that Catullus’s need to “shed this foul illness,” taetrumhunc deponere morbum, is the same in its dynamics and isequally doomed to fail as his own attempts to heal. Ofcourse, the etiology of the two illnesses is different: desperateand betrayed love in the case of Catullus, and the hurt ofwar for our man. And that leads him to borrow Catullus’sprayer, although, as he notes, the gods will not cure whatails him and, unlike the poet, he has no good deeds to lookback upon that might be recompensed. He might haveadded that he has no gods to pray to.A more profound reason is my personal obsession withthe poet’s O di reddite mi hoc pro pietate mea, O gods, grant methis for my piety’s sake. I used to repeat those words to myselfover and over, thinking about my father and about howlittle good came to that kind man in return for all the goodhe had done.JM: You endow literary quotation with an almost liturgicaleffect. When you quote Catullus, it is as if you acknowledgethe legitimacy of the wish and, to that extent at least, assuagethe pain of its unfulfillment. Quotation as minorcatharsis. . . .Hearing this regret about how little recompense yourfather had for his kindness puts me in mind of Tania’s griefwhen she learns that her father, Maciek’s grandfather, hasbeen murdered. This was, Maciek says, “the worst day inour lives” (page 184).Autobiographical fiction, on those rare occasions whenone can see it from the inside, so often seems to work thisway. What was in real life a son’s prayer for his father becomesin the novel a son’s prayer for himself. What was thegrief of a son for his father becomes the grief of a daughterfor hers, and so forth—all in service to the larger truth thatthe fiction attempts to convey.One might well think, though, that the “worst day”would have been that last ghastly day in Warsaw—the gangrapes, the baby dropped down a manhole, the moment-tomomentterror. What is it that makes this one death worsestill? Is it just that Tania loves her father so much? Earlier(page 69), Maciek says “she claimed she had always had aheart of stone except when it came to grandfather and me,and neither of us even knew she loved him.” Is it that at thismoment Maciek discovers that, yes, Tania does at least trulylove this one man? Or is it that Tania, so supremely adult onthe surface, having sustained herself through everything bythinking of the father who would somehow be there toshelter and protect her after the war was over, now becomessomething of a lost child herself ? And is Maciek—weepingfor grandfather, weeping in fear—weeping as well becausehe does not know whether Tania loves him as much as sheloved grandfather? This is the boy, one remembers, whoanxiously asked everyone, “Do you like me?” Finally, thinkingof your first answer, above, is this the worst day of theirlives because the grandfather has been killed by Pan Miska,his own former estate manager?LB: The answer to each of these questions is yes. I mightadd another reason: the immense weight of wartime fatigue.Those two do not think they have enough strength—nevermind hope—left to go on, to keep their bizarre and desperateshow on the road.Indeed, as you have doubtless noticed, soon afterwardTania makes her first big mistake. She permits herself to insultthe black market operator Nowak, who promptly denouncesthem to the German police.JM: “According to Tania, it’s just as well: Can you imagineher hand being kissed?” (page 195). Tania’s sardonic commentabout Maciek’s new stepmother caught me in a surpriselaugh, the only laugh in the book. It made me believethat Tania was going to be all right, after all. She may be oneof those women who only love vertically: up to father ordown to child. And yet, like her father (to her mother’sannoyance), she is vivacious, sexually unabashed, and stillyoung. One does not imagine her, years hence, quotingCatullus, as “our man” does in the opening pages, or yearningfor a healing that will not come. She is still herself, right?LB: I am probably less optimistic about Tania. Of course,the damage to her will be different from the damage done toMaciek. She is a grown-up with a fully formed and strongpersonality. But memories like hers are corrosive. Also, shemay never again have occasion to reach such heights ofcourage and resourcefulness. Will a more quiet life inevitablyseem mediocre and insipid?But that is speculation about matters that are outside mynovel and I have no better information about them than youor any other of my readers.JM: A somewhat similar moment—a moment of suddenvigor and freedom—comes for Maciek when he defeats hisrebellious dog and, later, reacts with murderous anger aswell as grief when the dog is run over. But in this revival,there is no flash of humor, and in the final paragraph weread: “Maciek will not rise to dance again.” Tania may bestill herself, but Maciek will always be looking for himselfbecause the lies of his wartime fell between his sixth and histwelfth year. He will remain, beneath the surface, twistedinto the shape those lies forced him to assume. Is this toomuch to say?LB: You are exactly right. That is the conclusion to whichI hoped to bring the reader.JM: When my neighbor’s sons, now teenagers, were small,I used to hear them and their friends at play through thewindow of my study. What struck me—always in a happyway—was the enormous excitement and animation theybrought to their games. In games, in make-believe, childrenare like that. Everything is a matter of utmost consequenceand urgency. But children’s accounts of actual urgency, orreal catastrophe, seem often to go to the opposite extreme. Ihave heard children in court speaking with a soft, almost affectlesssimplicity that was more affecting for the hearer thananimation would have been. It is difficult, for example, toimagine a child bringing an indictment against God, likeGoethe crying “Mehr Licht” on his deathbed. Do you seeany connection between your decision to make Maciekyour narrator for most of Wartime Lies and the restrainedstyle of the work? Would you care to comment on therhetorical range that suits this subject matter best? Where doyou locate this work in the literature that the Shoah has provoked?Or do you ever think of it that way at all?LB: I can give a partial answer.Clearly, the decision to have the little boy tell the story—a decision that I reached at the very outset and never put inquestion afterward—imposed the simplicity of the narrativestyle. There was also the constraint that came from my writingWartime Lies in English, although everything in it wastaking place in my mind in my native tongue, which is Polish. I wanted to be somehow faithful to the strains of PolishI heard in my ear, and a certain chastity of expression wasthe only solution I found. You will have doubtless noticed,by the way, that I avoided direct dialogue. That was becauseI would not have known how to render it in English. Togive you a small—but for me very important—example, Icould not have borne to have the little boy address his fatheras “Daddy”!You are right about the way children become almostsilent when hurt or under extreme pressure. That has been,almost always, my own response.Then there is the fact—an odd one—that when I waswriting Wartime Lies I had in mind Madame Lafayette’s “Princessede Clèves,” a love story set in late sixteenth-centuryFrance. The subject is clearly a world away from mine, I haveonly read Madame Lafayette’s masterpiece in French, and yetit is the style of that little novel, which is as pure as a diamondof the first water, that was my conscious model.I avoid placing myself on lists of writers or my novels onlists of works by other authors. Also, I have largely avoidedShoah literature, for some of the reasons I have attributed tothe “man with sad eyes” in an answer to one of your earlierquestions. The most I can do is to name the authors whohave written about the Holocaust I admire fervently: TadeuszBorowski and Primo Levi.JM: Dante for evil, Catullus for love, and Virgil, I suppose,the third poet who presides over this work, for catastrophicdefeat and noble recovery: Sunt lacrimae rerum. Virgil ratherthan Homer: Homer is for those who win their wars.On the language question, some have seen Joseph Conrad’sstyle in English as mysteriously indebted to Polish.Some survivors of the Holocaust have wanted to leave theirnative languages behind—as have, by the way, some Germans.Some, like Joseph Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz, havegone back and forth. The subject of how and why a writerchooses to write in a second language is a large and tangledone. Perhaps English, precisely by its foreignness, enabledyou to clothe memories that would have been, as it were,naked in your native language and too painful to speakaloud. Your reference to the word daddy is painful even toread. I suspect, though, that among the readers most gratefulfor your turning this subject into fiction are those who havehad comparable experiences themselves, comparable pain inspeaking of how the experiences marked them, and comparablereactions to what has been made of them in others’writings and others’ art. Wartime Lies has found a wide andvaried international audience; but had it been written evenfor them alone, as a long personal letter to the members ofa fraternity of pain, it would be a signal service as well as amoving literary achievement.
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