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Wartime Lies


Wartime Lies Cover



Author Q & A

A Conversation with Louis Begley

Jack Miles, former book editor of the Los Angeles Times and past president

of the National Book Critics Circle, won a Pulitzer Prize for his book

God: A Biography (Vintage). After the publication of Christ: A Crisis in

the Life of God in 2001, he was named a MacArthur Fellow. A former

Jesuit, widely published on cultural, religious, and literary topics, Miles

serves as senior advisor to the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust and

as senior fellow with the Pacific Council on International Policy.

Jack Miles: The body of this novel is written in the first

person, but it opens and closes in the third person, and the

voice we hear then intrudes twice along the way—I think,

especially, of the end of Chapter IV. What were you aiming

at by this shift? What should readers be watching for in their

own reaction at these points?

Louis Begley: There are several reasons for the change

that occurs at the very end of Chapter IV from first-person

narration—the speaker until then having been ostensibly

little Maciek—to narration in the third person by an authorial


The first one involved my personal, very intimate feelings.

During those years of catastrophe and horror, the conduct

that hurt and humiliated me most was that of my

fellow Poles: their hatred of Jews, their utter callousness in

the face of the unspeakable suffering and extinction of their

former friends and neighbors, their contemptible duplicity.

It was a breach of fundamental good faith and betrayal that

scarred me more than anything I saw done by Germans or

Ukrainians. I know perfectly well—and you and my readers

should not doubt—that there were Poles who showed extraordinary

decency and courage in their dealings with Polish

Jews, risking death and torture at the hands of Germans.

Alas, they were invisible to me in the vast grey mass of the

others. The ultimate injury and betrayal was, of course, the

virulence of Polish anti-Semitism in evidence immediately

after the Soviet army drove the Germans out of Polish territory,

as demonstrated for instance by the pogroms and

killings in Kielce and Cracow, events that cause little Maciek,

his aunt, and his father to continue the lie of Aryan

identity. I found myself overwhelmed, unable to control my

voice, when I tried to describe the continued humiliation in

words spoken by Maciek, and to show through him the

depth of his disillusionment and despair. It occurred to me

that this was a job for a grownup. So I let the author or perhaps

—the ambiguity is intentional—the same “man with a

nice face and sad eyes” who in the first pages of the book

remembers his childhood in Poland express Maciek’s anger

and scorn. And, of course, announce the “death” of the

little boy.

Second, I thought that as a matter of aesthetic choice it

would be right to balance the first pages of the book, which

give the point of view of a grownup—the man who we are

led to think was the child he chooses to call Maciek—with

a return on the closing pages to a grownup’s vision and tone

of voice. Finally—I return here to deeply personal feelings—there

were moments during the composition of Wartime Lies when

I literally needed to pause for breath. The italicized passages

drawing on Dante’s Inferno are such stops on my via dolorosa.

They represent attempts by “the man with a nice face,” or

perhaps by the author, to call to his aid the greatest connoisseur

of evil in Western literature, one who was equipped

with a remarkable grid of values through which to assess it.

They allowed me to have someone other than Maciek speak.

That was an urgent necessity. Curiously, I thought of those

passages at the time as a window letting in fresh air just as I

was close to suffocating. Something of the same nature was

at work in the intrusion that closes Chapter IV.

It is a task for the reader’s sympathy and imagination to

search for further links between these disclosures and Maciek’s


JM: Is your ideal reader one who will forget the adult

Maciek—actually, as you point out, an unnamed, sad-eyed

adult—most of the time and simply relive the harrowing,

suspenseful experiences of the boy? Or do you instead

dream of a reader who will, at each step of the journey, think

not so much of the boy as of the adult remembering him?

LB: My ideal reader is attentive and blessed by the gifts of

sympathy and imagination. You will note that I am going

back in this reply to what I said in answer to your first question.

Provided the reader has those qualities, all I want to do

is to withdraw, to get out of the way and let the reader make

of my work what he or she wishes.

That being said, I believe that if I were the reader I would

think of myself as Maciek; I would crawl into his skin. I also

believe that I would not be able to keep out of my mind the

questions raised by the passage in which the adult man remembers

what may have been his own childhood: What is

such a man like? How does one grow up after a childhood

that has been similarly blasted?

It may interest you that my working title for Wartime Lies,

which I abandoned with some reluctance, was The Education

of a Monster.

JM: That title strikes the ear as a slap strikes the face. I

wince at it. But even Wartime Lies, as a less confrontational

alternative, has something hard and unflinching about it.

“Lies?” the reader thinks; “Don’t you mean disguises? Or

maybe ruses?” But what were objectively disguises or ruses

were subjectively lies. To give the matter a very innocuous

formulation, Maciek acquired some bad habits, thanks to

Nazism and Polish anti-Semitism. When wartime Poland

was behind him and he could finally drop the ruse and

shed the disguise, those bad habits may have lingered.

Something in the reader, as this theft of childhood takes

place, wants you to go a little easier on Maciek—one might

even want you to like him a little better. But during the war,

Maciek dared not go easy on himself or, so to speak, sweet

on himself. A single moment of self-indulgence, and all

would have been lost. This may be the wartime attitude—I

do not call it a lie—that lingers most powerfully into this

book about his experiences.

Perhaps Maciek’s “education,” in the dark sense of your

abandoned title, begins on page 39, when just after a Jewish

visitor, Bern, has left the house, Maciek’s grandmother gives

a bitter little speech, repudiating her daughter and her husband

at a stroke and linking them by emotional association

to, of all things, a pogrom she witnessed as a girl. This is

shocking enough, but then she says that as bad as that was,

what Bern has said is worse: . . . never, in all that time, or

anytime until now, had she heard anyone talk as shamelessly

as Bern.” What is so utterly shameless about what Bern has

said? How could it possibly be worse than a pogrom?

LB: Here’s why. Bern, after musing about how in the town

of T. the Germans have already imposed on Jews the obligation

to wear the armband and the yellow Star of David, goes

on to say that “If the Jewish community offices acted responsibly,

and our dear café intellectuals for once avoided

provoking the Poles, perhaps we could remain as we were.”

Of course, this is nonsense and goes to prove—if additional

proof is needed—that Bern is a fool. The disasters befalling

Polish Jews have nothing to do with whether they “act

responsibly” by collaborating with the Germans or with

whether Jewish intellectuals “avoid provoking” the Catholic

Poles. They are instead irreversible steps being taken by the

German occupying forces on the road to the final solution.

The grandmother is not as bright as Tania and does not

seem capable of the deep, fearless insights of the grandfather.

But she has her common sense which makes her understand

the shameful reality that lies behind Bern’s chatter:

Bern is identifying himself with the enemy, and adopting

the enemy’s point of view, probably because the German

enemy is overwhelmingly strong and the Catholic Poles

who abet the enemy are so dangerous. He is deserting his

own side, if I may use that metaphor, although he does this

for a short while only: Soon afterward he flees to the forest

to join a group of partisans. Something rather similar happens

to Maciek when he kills bedbugs in the various rooming

houses in Warsaw (pages 93–94) and when, in the games

he plays with lead soldiers, he decides that his best troops are

the Wehrmacht and the SS because “they looked like winners”

(page 66). Perhaps today one would conclude that

Bern and Maciek suffer from Stockholm Syndrome.

Why is what Bern said worse than a pogrom? I suppose

because the pogrom that the grandmother remembers did

not shatter the solidarity of Jews in the face of their tormentors.

Now she perceives the possibility that Jews may be

turning against other Jews.

JM: Let’s talk about some more complex and costly desertions.

On pages 68–69, Maciek says “Now [Tania] thought

she loved [Reinhard, a German soldier who had become

her lover and the family’s protector], probably as much as

she had ever loved anybody.” Am I right to link this to page

120, “The day of my first Communion came. Tania offered

to give me breakfast on the sly in our room, but I refused. I

wanted to be clean inside, just as Father P. had directed?”

Tania’s most extended, elaborate dissimulation involves

sex; Maciek’s involves religion. She has a German lover;

he is about to make his First Communion as a supposed

Catholic. Absent all duress, Tania and Reinhard would almost

certainly not be a couple, and Maciek would not be

taking instruction from Father P. Are they deceiving others

or deceiving themselves?

LB: Perhaps I should go back to your question about the

grandmother and Bern, at page 39. At the top of the very

next page Maciek relates how Tania responded to the

grandmother: “Tania looked very tired and very calm. After

a while, she turned to my grandmother and said, You don’t

know yet what is shameless, you don’t know yet what we

will do, just wait, you will see before you die.” Of course,

Tania is right, because worse is yet to come, including—

although she cannot possibly foresee it specifically—her liaison

with the good German, Reinhard. However understandable

and justifiable, that is the ultimate disgrace, and a

reader who follows carefully Maciek’s report of Tania’s and

his own existence in Lwów (especially pages 60–73) will see

how that aspect of her condition is present in her mind.

This leads me to think that you are right in your assessment:

To love Reinhard—possibly she really thinks she does—

makes her case less sordid, even if it doesn’t exculpate her. I

believe also that she is likely to think that telling the little

boy that she loves Reinhard will make it easier for him to

accept the searing fact of their ménage.

I agree that something similar is at work when it comes to

Maciek’s catechism class and taking Communion. According

to Maciek’s rules of decency, what he is doing is despicable.

He will do it nevertheless, because he has no choice,

but he will perform the defiling act as cleanly and respectfully

as possible. An absurd notion? Perhaps. But I think that

is the psychological truth.

JM: And that subtle psychological truth is, I gather, what

you want the reader to understand, whether the reader excuses

it or not. Earlier in this conversation, you called Dante

a “connoisseur of evil.” Perhaps only a connoisseur of evil

would see Tania’s interaction with the begging Jew, Hertz, as

bringing her to a point “so degraded, that she had no trust left

and no pity.” A coarser mind might think that sleeping with a

German soldier had degraded her worse. But this is not how

she sees the matter (page 73), and the aftermath of her encounter

with Hertz is evidently one of those moments in the

writing of this book that were so intense for you in the writing

that you had to, as you say, “pause for breath” in the interlude

on pages 73–75. Would you care to comment?

LB: Yes. Once again, I must go back to the grandmother,

and her outburst about the shamelessness of Bern’s talk. As I

have said, I think she has in mind the shattering of solidarity

among Jews. In the passage you have now referred to, Tania’s sees further

and more deeply. I believe that she takes her fear and

distrust of Hertz to be signs of the shattering of all human

solidarity, a vaster, and, for me, an unbearable vision.

JM: “I was chained to the habit of lying, and I no longer

believed that weakness or foolishness or mistakes could be

forgiven by Tania or me” (page 171). This seems to be a

moment of bleak truth for Maciek corresponding to the

one mentioned just above for Tania. The reader is prepared

to forgive the two of them almost anything and wants to believe

that their integrity will emerge unscathed from their

ordeal. They themselves seem not to share this belief. They

do not see moral integrity and psychological deformity as

mutually exclusive. Innocent though they are, their experience

has left them in some sense morally damaged. It must

be both emotionally and conceptually difficult to speak of

this damage and yet pointless to speak of the experience at

all without speaking of this aspect of it. Does this explain

why “Our man avoids Holocaust books and dinner conversation

about Poland in the Second World War” (page 4)?

LB: I do not think that the man with “sad eyes” would

agree that he has—except for his skin being “intact and

virgin of tattoo”—escaped unscathed, and I doubt that he

thinks that Tania has had that good fortune. On the contrary,

“he believes that he has been changed inside forever,

like a beaten dog . . .” (page 5). He expresses no view about

Tania but I think that if he were to do so it would turn out

to be the same. He avoids “Holocaust books” and conversations

about wartime Poland for complex and somewhat

contradictory reasons. As for conversations, there is first of

all his pudor, his sense of decency: he does not want to desecrate

this subject by loose talk. Books either do not come

close enough to the truth as he understands it and, therefore,

their effect may also be a form of desecration, or, on

the contrary, when by the force of their emotional truth

they put him face-to-face with his memories, they are unbearably

painful to read.

There must be in all developed religions and in secular

ethics permission to lie in self-defense, in order to avoid

gruesome death. I doubt that the man with “sad eyes” is

concerned about lies told in order to survive or other deceptions

or even the devastating need to take Communion.

But innocence and moral integrity? I am not religious, but

if I were I wonder whether I would think of either Tania or

Maciek as “innocent.” What do we make of Maciek’s sexual

longings and his nascent sadism?

I tend to think of the world described in Wartime Lies as a

world where everyone bears a burden of guilt. However, no

amount of guilt that Maciek or Tania or the grandparents or

any other Jews I mention may bear justifies, so far as I am

concerned, the punishment visited upon them by Dante’s

somma sapïenza e ‘l primo amore.

JM: “The highest wisdom and first love. . . .” God is ultimately

the guilty party, but neither Tania nor Maciek ever

brings the indictment. There are moments when the indictment

would be justified, but it is as if they have no room for

it in their minds, no energy left to drag Him into court.

There is actually one prayer in the book, a borrowed

prayer. On page 5, the man with “sad eyes” quotes the

prayer of Catullus, “Grant me this, O gods, for my piety’s

sake” (O di, reddite hoc mi pro pietate mea). Catullus was a connoisseur

of love, as Dante of evil, but of the afflictions and

perversions of love no less than of the joys. In another line

that echoes in the man’s memory, Catullus says, “Myself, I

yearn to heal and to shed this foul morbidity” (Ipse valere

opto et taetrum hunc deponere morbum). Can he not love with a

joyous, youthful spontaneity?

During the years covered by the novel, Maciek has a degree

of physical access to women unusual for his age (six to

twelve). There is nothing feigned or falsified about his attraction

to them. It is, on the contrary, the most honest and

authentic part of his life. Why, then, does the man who remembers

this boyhood sexuality repeat a borrowed prayer

for recovery? Or do I misread him? Is his prayer rather to

have just that kind of intimacy back again?

LB: In part you may have misread me; in part you have put

your hand on something very important.

The references to Catullus are neither an indication that

“the man with sad eyes” cannot love joyfully or spontaneously

—except as his childhood experiences may have

made him in all respects less joyous and spontaneous than

someone whose childhood was such as he imagines Catullus’s,

filled with sunlight and pleasures—or with our man’s

precocious sexual awareness and longings. That is, in any

event, what I think.

One reason why our man dwells on Catullus is that he

feels that Catullus’s need to “shed this foul illness,” taetrum

hunc deponere morbum, is the same in its dynamics and is

equally doomed to fail as his own attempts to heal. Of

course, the etiology of the two illnesses is different: desperate

and betrayed love in the case of Catullus, and the hurt of

war for our man. And that leads him to borrow Catullus’s

prayer, although, as he notes, the gods will not cure what

ails him and, unlike the poet, he has no good deeds to look

back upon that might be recompensed. He might have

added that he has no gods to pray to.

A more profound reason is my personal obsession with

the poet’s O di reddite mi hoc pro pietate mea, O gods, grant me

this for my piety’s sake. I used to repeat those words to myself

over and over, thinking about my father and about how

little good came to that kind man in return for all the good

he had done.

JM: You endow literary quotation with an almost liturgical

effect. When you quote Catullus, it is as if you acknowledge

the legitimacy of the wish and, to that extent at least, assuage

the pain of its unfulfillment. Quotation as minor

catharsis. . . .

Hearing this regret about how little recompense your

father had for his kindness puts me in mind of Tania’s grief

when she learns that her father, Maciek’s grandfather, has

been murdered. This was, Maciek says, “the worst day in

our lives” (page 184).Autobiographical fiction, on those rare occasions when

one can see it from the inside, so often seems to work this

way. What was in real life a son’s prayer for his father becomes

in the novel a son’s prayer for himself. What was the

grief of a son for his father becomes the grief of a daughter

for hers, and so forth—all in service to the larger truth that

the fiction attempts to convey.

One might well think, though, that the “worst day”

would have been that last ghastly day in Warsaw—the gang

rapes, the baby dropped down a manhole, the moment-tomoment

terror. What is it that makes this one death worse

still? Is it just that Tania loves her father so much? Earlier

(page 69), Maciek says “she claimed she had always had a

heart of stone except when it came to grandfather and me,

and neither of us even knew she loved him.” Is it that at this

moment Maciek discovers that, yes, Tania does at least truly

love this one man? Or is it that Tania, so supremely adult on

the surface, having sustained herself through everything by

thinking of the father who would somehow be there to

shelter and protect her after the war was over, now becomes

something of a lost child herself ? And is Maciek—weeping

for grandfather, weeping in fear—weeping as well because

he does not know whether Tania loves him as much as she

loved grandfather? This is the boy, one remembers, who

anxiously asked everyone, “Do you like me?” Finally, thinking

of your first answer, above, is this the worst day of their

lives because the grandfather has been killed by Pan Miska,

his own former estate manager?

LB: The answer to each of these questions is yes. I might

add another reason: the immense weight of wartime fatigue.

Those two do not think they have enough strength—never

mind hope—left to go on, to keep their bizarre and desperate

show on the road.

Indeed, as you have doubtless noticed, soon afterward

Tania makes her first big mistake. She permits herself to insult

the black market operator Nowak, who promptly denounces

them to the German police.

JM: “According to Tania, it’s just as well: Can you imagine

her hand being kissed?” (page 195). Tania’s sardonic comment

about Maciek’s new stepmother caught me in a surprise

laugh, the only laugh in the book. It made me believe

that Tania was going to be all right, after all. She may be one

of those women who only love vertically: up to father or

down to child. And yet, like her father (to her mother’s

annoyance), she is vivacious, sexually unabashed, and still

young. One does not imagine her, years hence, quoting

Catullus, as “our man” does in the opening pages, or yearning

for a healing that will not come. She is still herself, right?

LB: I am probably less optimistic about Tania. Of course,

the damage to her will be different from the damage done to

Maciek. She is a grown-up with a fully formed and strong

personality. But memories like hers are corrosive. Also, she

may never again have occasion to reach such heights of

courage and resourcefulness. Will a more quiet life inevitably

seem mediocre and insipid?

But that is speculation about matters that are outside my

novel and I have no better information about them than you

or any other of my readers.

JM: A somewhat similar moment—a moment of sudden

vigor and freedom—comes for Maciek when he defeats his

rebellious dog and, later, reacts with murderous anger as

well as grief when the dog is run over. But in this revival,

there is no flash of humor, and in the final paragraph we

read: “Maciek will not rise to dance again.” Tania may be

still herself, but Maciek will always be looking for himself

because the lies of his wartime fell between his sixth and his

twelfth year. He will remain, beneath the surface, twisted

into the shape those lies forced him to assume. Is this too

much to say?

LB: You are exactly right. That is the conclusion to which

I hoped to bring the reader.

JM: When my neighbor’s sons, now teenagers, were small,

I used to hear them and their friends at play through the

window of my study. What struck me—always in a happy

way—was the enormous excitement and animation they

brought to their games. In games, in make-believe, children

are like that. Everything is a matter of utmost consequence

and urgency. But children’s accounts of actual urgency, or

real catastrophe, seem often to go to the opposite extreme. I

have heard children in court speaking with a soft, almost affectless

simplicity that was more affecting for the hearer than

animation would have been. It is difficult, for example, to

imagine a child bringing an indictment against God, like

Goethe crying “Mehr Licht” on his deathbed. Do you see

any connection between your decision to make Maciek

your narrator for most of Wartime Lies and the restrained

style of the work? Would you care to comment on the

rhetorical range that suits this subject matter best? Where do

you locate this work in the literature that the Shoah has provoked?

Or do you ever think of it that way at all?

LB: I can give a partial answer.

Clearly, the decision to have the little boy tell the story—

a decision that I reached at the very outset and never put in

question afterward—imposed the simplicity of the narrative

style. There was also the constraint that came from my writing

Wartime Lies in English, although everything in it was

taking place in my mind in my native tongue, which is Polish. I wanted to be somehow faithful to the strains of Polish

I heard in my ear, and a certain chastity of expression was

the only solution I found. You will have doubtless noticed,

by the way, that I avoided direct dialogue. That was because

I would not have known how to render it in English. To

give you a small—but for me very important—example, I

could not have borne to have the little boy address his father

as “Daddy”!

You are right about the way children become almost

silent when hurt or under extreme pressure. That has been,

almost always, my own response.

Then there is the fact—an odd one—that when I was

writing Wartime Lies I had in mind Madame Lafayette’s “Princesse

de Clèves,” a love story set in late sixteenth-century

France. The subject is clearly a world away from mine, I have

only read Madame Lafayette’s masterpiece in French, and yet

it is the style of that little novel, which is as pure as a diamond

of the first water, that was my conscious model.

I avoid placing myself on lists of writers or my novels on

lists of works by other authors. Also, I have largely avoided

Shoah literature, for some of the reasons I have attributed to

the “man with sad eyes” in an answer to one of your earlier

questions. The most I can do is to name the authors who

have written about the Holocaust I admire fervently: Tadeusz

Borowski and Primo Levi.

JM: Dante for evil, Catullus for love, and Virgil, I suppose,

the third poet who presides over this work, for catastrophic

defeat and noble recovery: Sunt lacrimae rerum. Virgil rather

than Homer: Homer is for those who win their wars.

On the language question, some have seen Joseph Conrad’s

style in English as mysteriously indebted to Polish.

Some survivors of the Holocaust have wanted to leave their

native languages behind—as have, by the way, some Germans.

Some, like Joseph Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz, have

gone back and forth. The subject of how and why a writer

chooses to write in a second language is a large and tangled

one. Perhaps English, precisely by its foreignness, enabled

you to clothe memories that would have been, as it were,

naked in your native language and too painful to speak

aloud. Your reference to the word daddy is painful even to

read. I suspect, though, that among the readers most grateful

for your turning this subject into fiction are those who have

had comparable experiences themselves, comparable pain in

speaking of how the experiences marked them, and comparable

reactions to what has been made of them in others’

writings and others’ art. Wartime Lies has found a wide and

varied international audience; but had it been written even

for them alone, as a long personal letter to the members of

a fraternity of pain, it would be a signal service as well as a

moving literary achievement.

Product Details

Begley, Louis
Ballantine Books
Golabek, Mona
Cohen, Lee
World war, 1939-1945
World War, 1939-1945 -- Poland.
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8 x 5.14 x 0.53 in 0.5 lb

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