As Max Saw It
“I am curious about obligations,” declares Maximilian Hafter Strong, by way of explaining why he teaches contract law at Harvard University. A curiosity about obligations is obligatory for any reader who would profit from As Max Saw It, his fictional memoir of an unlikely friendship. Yet Max, who writes an acclaimed treatise on contracts, demonstrates his curiosity through distance, through strategies of evasion. Though he admits that “relationships did not stick to me,” As Max Saw It is a meditation on relationships and obligations that the law professor has, willy-nilly, accumulated over the course of sixteen years and more. They continue to cling, regardless of whether Max acknowledges their claims on his memory and imagination. In his third novel, Louis Begley, an accomplished international lawyer who did not begin publishing fiction until 1991, with Wartime Lies, offers an elegant study in emotional insulation. It is unlikely that readers will view the experience that his narrator recounts quite as Max saw it.
As Max Saw It begins on the day that the narrator and Arthur, an old college chum, arrive at La Rumorosa, a sumptuous villa on the shores of Lake Como owned by Edna Joyce, an acquaintance from their days as Harvard undergraduates. Arthur is an opportunistic businessman who has cultivated the art of sponging off the rich, and Max, an obscure professor accustomed to living as and with a graduate student, is touring Europe by tagging along. The reader can deduce the date, August 9, 1974, from the fact that Max listens to Richard Nixon’s resignation speech that night on the radio in his room. The novel concentrates closely on the private lives of privileged characters, men and women with enough assets to indulge sumptuous tastes in dining, housing, and travel. Like Begley’s previous book The Man Who Was Late (1993), it shows a fine eye for the ranks and perquisites of wealth. Yet brief allusions to public events—the Tiananmen Square massacre, John Hinckley’s assault on Ronald Reagan, the death of baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti, the fall of the Berlin Wall— calibrate the time frame and remind the reader that no one—neither Nixon nor Max—can extricate himself entirely from history. Withdrawal into the merely personal is as futile as expecting immunity from a plague, especially during the age of AIDS.
At La Rumorosa, Max is immediately implicated in the life of Charlie Swan, another Harvard classmate though four years Max’s senior. In Cambridge, tall, brash Charlie was “noted for his prowess in a single scull and with a martini shaker,” but he has since become an internationally renowned architect. Though they have not seen each other for more than ten years, Charlie greets Max bluntly, favoring him with intimate confidences, as though recognizing in the reserved professor some mystic link to his own effusive self. While Charlie and all the other house guests spend the morning touring the region around La Rumorosa, Max stays behind and encounters by the poolside an extraordinarily attractive sixteen-year-old youth whom he describes as “Eros himself, longhaired and dimpled, his skin the color of pale amber.” He is Toby, Charlie’s protégé and an apprentice in his Geneva office. A few years later, while in Beijing to advise the Chinese government on legal matters, Max meets Charlie and Toby again and discovers that they are lovers.
In passing, Max, who comes of undistinguished Rhode Island stock, reveals a few details about his own life. He inherits great wealth from a cousin in Pennsylvania, and he marries an Englishwoman, Camilla, who works at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. Yet the narrator’s own fortunes are made to seem incidental to the story of Charlie and Toby and how their story intersects with Max’s. The professor’s newly acquired riches enable him to purchase a rural retreat in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, near one built by Charlie. Max and Camilla spend long weekends and vacations away from Cambridge in the company of Charlie and Toby as well as other unusual figures. These include Edwina and Ricky Howe, dotty English aristocrats who rotate residences to avoid taxes, and Roland Cartwright, a raffish English documentarian whom Max suspects of sleeping with Camilla. When Camilla announces that she is returning alone to London to accept a position at the National Gallery, Max is too detached from his own relationships to react in any way except to fall sleep.
More notable to Max than the disintegration of his marriage is the relationship between Charlie and Toby, which, despite disparities of age and social status, endures to Charlie’s sixtieth birthday. On the evening of the celebration, held at Charlie’s Berkshire house, it becomes indubitably clear that Toby, who has developed sores on his face, hands, and forearms, is gravely ill. A few months later, he dies in severe pain in Charlie’s bed.
Out of what he characterizes as “a mixture of respect for Toby’s dignity, squeamishness about illness, and fear of reaching that point where pity intersects with contempt,” Max restrains his curiosity about his friend’s dire...
(The entire section is 2120 words.)