Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Wartime Lies, Begley’s first novel, shares a long tradition of firsthand accounts of the Holocaust, the most famous being Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl (1947). The list continues to grow and contains both true and fictionalized accounts of the Holocaust. Begley chose to fictionalize his experiences because, he said, fiction gives him greater freedom in capturing the truthfulness of his emotions. It also gives him a way to dramatize philosophical and moral issues of his experience. Creating a fictional character such as Maciek also enables Begley to create a personal history whose design is consistent with the meaning of his story. Giving events a fictional structure allows him to bring together the development of character and theme, as he does in the novel’s climactic scene at the train station, where Tania achieves a psychological triumph over German brutality and turns the plot away from death in Auschwitz and toward safety in the village. Her heroism, predicated on masterful deception, is given a shape and drama that real life seldom, if ever, offers. Begley needs the novelist’s artful deception to give meaning to this scene.

In interviews, Begley has implied that historical truth would have taken him away from his purpose, which, readers may infer, was to portray a man who survived horrific times but, in doing so, lost his true self. This theme is also found in Begley’s second novel, The Man Who Was Late (1993), in which the protagonist, Ben, develops the theme of self-loathing introduced in Wartime Lies. Begley’s third novel, As Max Saw It (1994), returns to themes such as defiance, guilt, innocence, and suffering. All three novels are evidence that Begley remains haunted by the issues inherent in his childhood experiences. His fiction enables him to examine their philosophical nature while dramatizing their psychological effects.