Our species has evolved to believe that complete knowledge of another human being is possible. For Charles Marlow, narrator of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, that is a genetic defect. "It is when we try to grapple with another man's intimate need," Marlow observes, "that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun." Conrad's awareness of the deficiencies of human understanding was heightened by the fact that he was writing in English, a third language he never quite conquered.
Like Conrad, Louis Begley was born in Poland and, though his command of English is more agile, he, too, came to the language as supplicant, not master. Both writers abandoned earlier careers Conrad at sea and Begley in law in order to pursue the writing life.
Like Conrad and like Henry James (with whom, because of a shared interest in point of view and lives of the elite, he is frequently linked), Begley often constructs his fictions around a narrator's futile attempt to comprehend another character. His 10th novel, Memories of a Marriage, offers a shifting take on two characters, a man and a woman with little in common but a broken wedlock.
During intermission of a concert at Lincoln Center, Philip, an aging, widowed novelist whose books attract prizes more readily than readers, runs into Lucy De Bourgh, scion of a Newport dynasty.
Philip, who recently sold his apartment in Paris to return to New York, knew Lucy in Europe 40 years earlier. Lucy had married Thomas Snow, a handsome, successful investment banker. Philip is reluctant to renew his acquaintance with Lucy, but when she refers to Thomas, who died in a swimming accident in Bahia, as "that monster," he is intrigued.
Thomas had become an internationally prominent pundit, and, before their divorce, Thomas and Lucy appeared to represent the acme of wealth, glamour and status. Lucy, who blames Thomas for her disappointments ("I have not had the life I had expected," she tells Philip. "Or the life I deserved"), is eager to share her memories of the marriage. During repeated meetings in Lucy's Park Avenue apartment, a posh Manhattan restaurant and his own country house in Connecticut, Philip listens raptly to her bitter testimony.
After Wartime Lies (1991), his autobiographical first novel about a Jewish boy's ordeal in Nazi Poland, Begley has focused on the haut monde privileged products of the right families and schools who maintain multiple residences in the right ZIP codes. "As is well known," says Philip, paraphrasing F. Scott Fitzgerald, "the very rich are different from the rest of us."
Unlike the very rich Lucy, Philip, with a city apartment, a country house and a private cook, is merely rich. Begley parses the nuances of wealth and rank, but, without echoing Hemingway's deflating riposte to Fitzgerald ("Yes, they have more money"), takes the 1 percent as his Yoknapatawpha County, finding universal drama in their desires, anxieties and blindnesses.
The plural in the title Memories of a Marriage refers not only to Lucy's rambling account but also to versions of Lucy and Thomas offered by others, including Thomas' second wife, Jane, a vivacious TV talk-show host; Alex van Buren, the New England patrician who introduced Thomas to Lucy; and Jamie, the offspring of the marriage who degrades his De Bourgh pedigree by becoming a screenwriter and marrying a Chicana.
Philip, who himself had a brief fling with Lucy long ago, learns of her extravagant sexual exploits and her psychological collapse. He discovers that Thomas' origins as a "townie," whose father repaired cars for Newport socialites, led Lucy to resent her husband as a social climber exploiting her for money, status and sex. Or was the problem that Lucy was a psychotic, conniving snob who never even liked Thomas?
Making coherent fiction of all this will be a challenge to Philip, who has never been able to summarize even a book. "I've never thought I knew what a novel somebody else's or mine is 'about,' " he explains, "a failing that has made it difficult to earn a modest supplementary income as an occasional book reviewer or to answer journalists wanting to know what message readers should take away from my most recent book."
Asked what Begley's novel is "about," an honest reviewer might respond that it is about the impossibility of making sense of others' folly and our own. Memories of a Marriage is a consummately constructed monument to human imperfection.