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Wartime Lies (Penguin Modern Classics) [Paperback]

Louis Begley
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

4 Jan 2007 Penguin Modern Classics
Poland, 1939. The comfortable, secure world of assimilated Jews is blown away by the invasion of the Third Reich. Maciek's father disappears into the war's vortex, leaving the orphaned child with his acerbic and beautiful Aunt Tania. It is her cool inventiveness, in their dramatic flight through a landscape of oppression, that will ensure their fragile survival.

Product details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (4 Jan 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141188693
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141188690
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 12.9 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 444,804 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

About the Author

Louis Begley was born in 1933 in Poland. Among his novels are Wartime Lies (1991), About Schmidt (1996), Mistler's Exit (1998), Schmidt Delivered (2000), Shipwreck (2003). He has received the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Fiction Award, the Irish Times - Aer Lingus Book Prize, the Prix Médicis Étranger (all for Wartime Lies), and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. He lives in New York.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wartime Lows 30 Jan 2007
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.
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By sally tarbox TOP 500 REVIEWER
Short and intensely moving story of a Jewish child's experiences in World War 2 Poland. The first chapter describes a pleasant middle-class upbringing but ends 'less than one year later came September 1939 and it was all over'.
From then on, the family is split up with the narrator travelling through Poland with his resourceful aunt, using false identity papers. Suspicious of everyone, careful of their every move, they pass themselves off as Catholic Poles and come close to losing their lives on a number of occasions.
Yet even in the last chapter when the war is over, the lies must be kept up. Pogroms continue in liberated Poland and as Begley concludes:
'And where is Maciek now? He became an embarrassment and slowly died. A man who bears one of the names Maciek used has replaced him. Is there much of Maciek in that man? No: Maciek was a child and our man has no childhood that he can bear to remember; he has had to invent one.'
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
This is a most incredibly beautiful, and at times, painful book: my own copy has been read countless times by myself, and by family visitors. The narrative, typical of those who have lived through great trauma, is very 'matter of fact', with the main characters drawing the reader into their rapidly changing lives, where life itself at times is dependant upon stylish quick-wits and intellect. The back drops of pre-war Polish life as enjoyed by a well-off Jewish family, who always thought themselves merely to be 'Polish', are tightly crafted adding to the poignancy of the coming years.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An unforgettable, moving, unputdownable read 16 Jan 2007
This short book is one you will read in a single setting and be passing on to friends afterward. Perhaps the best short novel set during the Second World War, its success is probably due to the combination of the author's own personal experience - transformed into fiction - and his ability to write so well. The novel is gripping and moving. Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost features Begley's mother as a character if you're interested in reading more.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  20 reviews
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The war ends; the lies and sadness don't. 31 May 2004
By abt1950 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Mass Market Paperback
This affecting autobiographical novel chronicles the life of a little Jewish boy and his family during World War II Poland. It is narrated by the now grown boy, who begins by reflecting on his adult life and his attachment to the Aeneid, whose eponymous character likewise escaped the destruction of the world he knew. But unlike Aeneas, who survived to found the city of Rome, Begley's narrator finds no new home for himself--all he had and, even all he was, was ripped away by the lies that allowed him to survive.
Maciek, the little boy the narrator once was, is a Jewish child who grows up cosseted and loved by his family. The outbreak of the war changes all that, as the family's survival depends on moving from one place to another, always hiding their Jewish identity and blending in with the general population. One by one, most of his family die or vanish. Maciek and his Aunt Tania somehow survive, cautiously maintaining a fearful distance from those around them in order to keep from being discovered. But survival takes its toll--after the war is over, the lies have become protective coloration and aren't so easily disposed of. The little boy Maciek was is no longer.
"Wartime Lies" has its moments of suspense, but those aren't what linger at the end. The true impact of the book comes from the child's matter-of-fact narration. Many of the situations in the book should be emotionally charged, but the flatness of the narrative doesn't reflect this. It's as if the adult narrator is talking about a different person, and in many ways he is. The distance between child and adult reflects the true tragedy of the story. In order to survive physically, the child's psyche has been irreparably damaged.
All told, "Wartime Lies" is a stunning book, quietly moving. It is one of the best Holocaust novels that I have read.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good book that would have made a great film 22 Aug 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
It's heartbreak to realize that the late great filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick, came very close to turning this book into a movie in the early-to-mid 1990's that was to be called "Aryan Papers." And then along came Speilberg's "Schindler's List" and he dropped the project. If you are a Kubrick fan, you should read this book just to see what might have been. The ending is very "Kubrikian" indeed.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Survival rendered hollow 25 Mar 2005
By beth black - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Mass Market Paperback
Louis Begley is able to convincingly write of survival as seen through the innocence and straightforwardness of a young Jewish boy. A boy whose life gradually becomes a web of lies and inward and outward loss. Loss which he will ultimately not be able to ever recover from. This is a short book with appeal to adults and young adults given the young protagonist and appropriate content.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Child's View of Nazi's in Poland 28 Mar 1997
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Mass Market Paperback
Begley's book is a gripping, stark tale of a Jewish child and his young aunt struggling, and I do mean, struggling to survive and hide from the Nazis and unsympathetic Poles in Poland during WWII. Although there are many, many stories about this dark period in our history, rare is the one written in this book's unnerving style. Sparse, riveting and fluidly crafted, Begley's tale is told from the viewpoint of child with absolutely NO dialogue - just the child's probing inner thoughts and frightening depictions of the crumbling and menancing world around him. The lies and fabrications the young boy and his aunt weave to hide from persecution at every turn are unbelievably fragile, thereby creating a kinetic tension throughout the novel which gives the reader no hint of the outcome - is it tragedy or triumph? One must read to find out the truth behind these wartime lies
16 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Old Tale, New Twist 29 Oct 2002
By John Zakrzewski - Published on Amazon.com
Louis Begley's novel, Wartime Lies, is set during the German invasion of Poland in World War II. After the Nazis take over their town and send them to a ghetto, Maciek-a young Jewish boy-and his family must to take on new identities in order to survive the German occupation. The family is forced to separate and only Maciek and his aunt Tania are left together, posing as a widowed mother and her son while they travel through Poland looking for refuge.

I don't tend to dwell much on my ethnic background. I'm an American. I was born in America, as were my parents and my parent's parents. Still, if you ask me what nationalities I am, I'll tell you. I'm half Polish, with the other half being mostly Irish, with some English, and Welsh. I don't look stereotypically Polish or Irish, and both my families come from Christian backgrounds, so I don't look Jewish. I've never been to any of these countries, I don't speak their languages, and I'm not particularly well versed in their histories. I'm just your average American, with a very Polish last name, Zakrzewski. My family simplified the pronunciation to "Za-crew-ski," though it sounds quite different in Polish. I'd like to know more about my family's background and what brought both branches here to America. I could ask my Grandmothers and I know they'd tell me, but it just isn't something that we seem to talk about in my family. Out of the two countries, I probably know the least about Poland. If my last named started with "Mc" or "Mac" maybe I wouldn't care as much, but since I'll always be identified first as Polish, I have some deep, unfulfilled interest in this nation.
It's not everyday I read about Poland. I've learned about World War II, and the atrocities of the Holocaust. I know about Germany's invasion of Poland and of Auschwitz, but it's all textbook knowledge and documentaries from the Discovery Channel. Most of the information I know is cold and sterile. As someone who wasn't born until 1981, the closest thing I can get to a first hand experience is usually from a survivor of a concentration camp. Rarely does myself-or anyone for that matter-get a fist hand look at what it was to live during these times, outside the nazi camps and Jewish ghettos. Bagley does a fine job in showing us what it meant to be a Jew in Poland during World War II from a perspective greatly different from those poor souls who ended up in Hitler's death camps.
Like Dante's pseudo-self in his Divine Comedy, Maciek-the hero of Bagley's tale-wanders around his own hell with his aunt Tania as a protector and guide. Just like Dante, Maciek is immune to the actual terrors of the German invasion, due to his forged documents stating he is of Aryan decent, and must travel through his ravished homeland as an outsider observing the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Since Maciek is only one person, the purpose of his journey isn't to change his homeland. His task is to inform the rest of his country, and the world, of what actually occurred in Poland, so that it can hopefully never happen again. He is merely a tool used to relate these horrors.
As I've already said, I know very little about Poland and its people. Most of what I do know centers around the county's tendency to be conquered by other nations, but probably the most widely known chapter in Poland's history occurred during the Nazi Holocaust. Bagley's novel is the first time I've every encountered these events related from an objective view. This book has given me a better understanding of what actually transpired during the German occupation then any other source I've ever encountered. Wartime Lies not only gives us a chronological history of events, but also an emotional history of a person who lived through them. This marriage of history and personal exploration paints a more vivid picture then any textbook or documentary could.
Even after the war, Maciek and the remains of his family still lived under false pretenses, fearing what still might occur if their Jewish heritage were discovered. While I have no fear of others knowing I'm Polish, in some ways I understand the feeling of not being true to ones background. While I don't attempt to hide my ethnic background, I make no strides in exposing it either. If anything, Bagley has not only kindled in me a desire to learn more about my own family and nationality, but his book has also given me a new perspective on events that I thought I knew all to well.
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