Henry James in the Age of AIDS

By Louis Begley.
116pp. New York; Alfred A. Knopf. $21.

If Henry James had written an AIDS novel, one imagines that it would have looked very much like Louis Begley’s As Max Saw It. Set over a period of some 15 years in the 1970’s and 80’s, this short but powerful work by the author of Wartime Lies and The Man Who Was Late chronicles the enigmatic personal history of Max, a middle-aged Harvard law professor who tells us on the first page, “Relationships did not stick to me.”

And no wonder. Though he’s had romances, they seem to have been marked by a firmly enforced emotional distance. The author of a book on contract law, Max describes these liaisons in contractual terms. Early on, he speaks of “conducting” an affair with one woman; later he mentions “conducting” a courtship by mail with another, who finally “agreed to marry” him. Eventually these women dump Max, and in no case does he exhibit any feeling other than wounded dignity; even when the first of his two wives has a fling with a young gay man, his “principal sensation” is embarrassment over “the indignity of having been cuckolded by a little fruit.”

Or so he says. In truth, however, that “little fruit” appears to have mattered to Max in ways that he cannot begin to disclose explicitly. Their first meeting, in 1974, is the central event of the book’s opening pages. At La Rumorosa, an Italian villa, Max sees at pool side “a figure of such startlingly perfect beauty that I thought it was a girl.” But he’s wrong: it’s “Eros himself, longhaired and dimpled, his skin the color of pale amber.” Eros turns out to be Toby, a 16-year-old American who has a summer job in Geneva. His boss — and, perhaps, lover — is Max’s college friend Charlie, a famous architect

Years pass. During a teaching stint in Beijing, Max runs into Toby and Charlie, now an openly gay couple. Later they become his neighbors in western Massachusetts, where Max renews his friendship with Charlie. Meanwhile, Toby establishes himself as a strong if not easily classifiable presence in Max’s life. What’s going on here? Charlie suggests that Max is gay, and Mr. Begley effectively conveys between the lines of the first-person narrative that this is true and that Max strives to conceal his sexual nature even from himself.

As Max Saw It is, then, about deception — a theme that is shared with Mr. Begley’s two previous novels.  It’s no accident that Charlie’s ful name, Charles Swan, is borrowed from Proust, who disguised a real-life gay love story as a heterosexual one.  Indeed, echoes of Proust (whose Swann, of course, had two n’s in his name) abound here, as do parallels to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.

But the greatest literary presence in these pages is that of Henry James, the master of obliquity. The book’s first paragraph, a series of periphrastic sentences describing Max’s invitation to La Rumorosa, parodies James wittily, and the introduction of Toby and Charlie stirs memories of Roderick Hudson, “The Pupil” and other James narratives about men and their protégés. Like James, Mr. Begley addresses the theme of homosexuality with calculated indirection. Yet he is also, in a very contemporary sense, deeply concerned with this question: How moral is a life ruled by indirection in such matters?

Here, as in James, important things remain unspoken; this is an AIDS novel that never mentions AIDS. When Toby falls ill, Max reports his symptoms with a textbook’s dispassion, never asking Toby about his treatment. Why? “A mixture,” he claims, “of respect for Toby’s dignity, squeamishness about illness and fear of reaching that point where pity intersects with contempt.” Yet Max’s view of friendship as a contract gnaws at him: “Did I have the right to observe in silence?” he wonders. “Had I not assumed some sort of responsibility for how he was cared for?” The nexus between silence and responsibility — that’s the moral terrain of this remarkable book.

Among the many inspired touches here are the omission of quotation marks (which forces one to read carefully) and the shift to a third-person narrative in the account of Max’s first marriage (which nicely suggests his essential uninvolvement). Also effective is Mr. Begley’s judicious use of classical allusions and symbolism — for instance, the garden maze through which Max approaches La Rumorosa’s pool, and the cypresses (emblematic of death) surrounding it. While capturing the day-to-day sense that life consists simply of one thing after another, the novel races inexorably toward an ending that genuinely stuns even as it reveals the underlying pattern, the figure in the carpet of  Max’s life. As his title suggests, moreover, Mr. Begley accomplishes all this while showing us the world almost entirely through Max’s eyes.

“We’re all related,” a nurse comments near the end of the novel, “only people don’t take time to think about it.” That’s the closest anybody in this book comes to stating its moral. Beginning on the day of Richard Nixon’s resignation and concluding during the fall of Communism In Europe — historical events, tied up with monumental public lies, that underscore the perennial failure of human beings to recognize their connection to and responsibility for one another — As Max Saw It points up the brutal consequences of dishonesty and self-deception in supposedly private
matters. It is a consummately beautiful — and major — work of literary art.