For me buying books is a complex process that always requires my full attention. I let guide myself by intuition, feelings and reason at somewhat equal parts. So on a different day, in a different mood and under different circumstances I wouldn’t even have considered the purchase of Louis Begley’s Matters of Honor, but as luck would have it, I needed a present for a friend. It was so urgent that I was determined not to leave the shop without a book, even if I couldn’t find anything meeting my usual literary standards. Of course, I had to speed-read the novel before giving it to my friend.
The cover text of Matters of Honor had led me to believe that it was just another one of those boring stories about college life in the USA, moreover in Harvard in the beginning of the 1950s. In a nutshell: I thought that it would be a light read for young adults about to leave home. What attracted my interest, though, was the fact that one of the protagonists was a Polish-Jewish survivor of World War II. This was a background that promised to give the novel a little more depth. And indeed, it was much better than I had expected. I learnt a lot about the USA in the 1950s, the characters of the story are well developed and the plot is convincing. All in all, I had a really good time reading this book.
Most of the story is set in Harvard, but it’s less about college life than it is about the search of identity and life-long friendship. The three protagonists first meet when they move into the same suite of the college dormitory. Sam Standish – the narrator – is the son of an old New England family who hasn’t yet come to terms with the rather recent discovery that he had been adopted as a baby by his parents who belong to an impoverished branch of the Standishes and who are so miserable about it that they took to drinking. As time progresses he becomes a renowned writer. Archibald P. Palmer, short Archie, is from a Texan army family that never stayed in the same place for long. From the beginning he is the socialite of the friends, someone who enjoys taking risks and hard drinks. The third of the party is Henry White, born Henryk Weiss, a Polish Jew from Krakow who survived the war by hiding and who came to the USA with both his parents in 1947. He strives for acceptance and tries to shake off his Jewish heritage. Anti-Semitism is strong in the USA at the time. Eventually Henry becomes a lawyer in the Paris subsidiary of a big New Yorker law firm... Discover the rest for yourself!
Louis Begley was 13 years old when he came to the USA in March 1947 – a Jewish survivor from Poland like Henry White in the novel. On the surface the story is thus autobiographical, but for the rest it’s all invented. Other novels of the writer are: Wartime Lies, As Max Saw It, The Man Who Was Late, About Schmidt, Mistler’s Exit, Schmidt Delivered, Shipwreck, Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, and Schmidt Steps Back.