cover image As Max Saw It

As Max Saw It

Louis Begley. Alfred A. Knopf, $21 (145pp) ISBN 978-0-679-43307-1

This piercingly observed and brilliant novel combines the ambience of Begley's The Man Who Came Late with some of the underlying themes of his Wartime Lies . Max Strong leads a life of privilege: a Harvard Law professor, he is also the author of a bestselling book, the unexpected heir of a sizable estate and the friend of jet-setting architects, moguls and diplomats. As narrator he devotes equal time to chronicling his own experiences and describing his intersections with Charlie Swan, a Harvard classmate with whom he is reunited one summer when both are guests at a villa at Lake Como. While Max, approaching 50, can say that his past has been ``unperceived, really not felt,'' Charlie is extravagant with his emotions, loudly exercising his passions. Max watches as Charlie becomes deeply involved with Toby, a breathtaking young man whom Max describes as ``Eros himself.'' When Toby gets AIDS--unnamed here but unmistakable--Max learns from Charlie what it means to endure, to survive and to surrender. Begley disarms the reader with his elegant prose, his ample sentences and ornate syntax cushioning the keenness of his perceptions. In the end, however, the reader, like Max, is forced to confront himself in the role of bystander and onlooker: Begley takes the measure not only of his characters, but also of his audience. (Apr.)