Friday, February 7, 2014

Memories of a Marriage by Louis Begley

Memories of a Marriage, by Louis Begley, takes its readers into the homes of upper class New Yorkers and delivers some scathing commentary on their lives. Similarly, it offers a glimpse into a failed marriage as seen by different principals - the ex-wife, the new wife, former lovers of the ex-wife, and the son. The result is a cool, voyeuristic novel about the pursuit of happiness,wealth and self-gratification. If the characters sound unlikeable, they indeed are.

The book's narrator, Philip, is himself a writer. He has previously lost a daughter, and only recently, has lost his beloved wife. Now, in the autumn of his years, Philip is at loose ends. "A widower, a childless father, an outsider. That essential loneliness is made more acute by the fact that Philip is a writer, a practitioner of that most solitary of occupations. He is a tale-monger, a soul-stealer, a man who is all too eager to look into someone else's heart."
                                                   (Washington Post review by Marie Arana, July 08, 2013)

During the intermission of a ballet at The Lincoln Center, Philip runs across a woman he had a dalliance with some forty years earlier. Lucy De Bourgh Snow was once a beautiful, adventurous hellion, unable to live within the sexual mores of the society into which she was born. Her numerous affairs, her excessive drinking, her thrice-weekly sessions with a chauvinistic psychoanalyst were all recipes for unhappiness.

But Lucy is far from a sympathetic character. She is both narcissistic and needy.  Her hatred of her late ex-husband, Thomas, is excessive. She labels him "a monster" - a man whose blind ambition was matched only by coarse sexual appetite. The story of Lucy's marriage continues during the second intermission and, from there, into the night in her Park Avenue apartment. Philip, ever the writer and observer, enticed by Lucy's tale of lurid sexual escapades and seeks to know Thomas's side of things. The rest of the book is made up of conversations with those who knew the couple both in their early lives together and throughout their marriage. It is left to the reader to decide where truth may lie.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this slim novel would not work. But Louis Begley, author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, including About Schmidt, is a writer of much talent. Born in the Polish Republic in 1933 in what is now Ukraine, he and his family survived World War II by posing as Polish Catholics. The family left Poland in 1947, and Begley eventually studied English Literature at Harvard. He went on to graduate from Harvard Law School in 1958 and become a partner in a prestigious New York law firm. He retired from the law firm only 8 years ago.

Marie Arana, in her Washington Post article, compares Begley to the great Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. She writes:

(Louis) Begley proves he is a master dissector of the American character.  Among contemporary novelists, he may be the wryest, most devastating critic of class in American society.  Like...Gombrowicz, who effectively skewered Poland's class system with probing, ironic novels that laid bare the absurdities of social convention, Begley delivers a literary stiletto to what Tiffany or Crate & Barrel might blithely call "the Gatsby set."

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