You know you're getting older when the Penguin Modern Classics start getting younger. Louis Begley's debut novel Wartime Lies was published in 1991, and yet here it is, getting a little silver in its spine already.
Begley is best known, if at all, for writing the novel on which the Alexander Payne/Jack Nicholson film About Schmidt was based, and clearly writes his own About the Author blurbs (details of his children's occupations, anyone?).
Wartime Lies is written by a man looking back at his childhood in Poland in the 1940s, and tells us his story as a boy ("not very different from my own life during that time," as Begley tells us in a 2004 Afterword). 1940s Poland means of course that this is a story of the Jewish experience of the Nazis, and Begley writes with clear-eyed lack of sentimentality. And yet one can't help feeling that there's something lacking when the boy, Maciek, doesn't much mourn his (probably permanent) separation from his family, when he and his aunt Tania flee to live undercover as the wife of a Polish doctor who has been imprisoned by the Russians.
And the story begins with a desperately obtuse opening chapter - testing our stamina, Begley, with your convoluted Classical references? - and continues for a time in a somewhat dull style. However it does pick up once Maciek and Tania are in hiding and on the run, and some vivid details stick out, like the brutality of the Lithuanian soldiers, and the brilliant escape which Tania effects from the trains to Auschwitz.
Nonetheless in a glut of fictionalised memoirs of this sort - from Primo Levi to Aharon Appelfeld - Wartime Lies doesn't stand out from the crowd. It's worth reading, but modern classic status is probably a few decades off just yet.