BOOKS: What's the Diffidence?

Louis Begley's prose is perfect, but his new book lacks passion

Craftsmanship is one of those old-fashioned words ruined by decades of pompous automobile ads. Applied to fiction, the word suggests a stubbornly unfashionable emphasis on structure and language over movie tie-ins and seven- digit advances. As Max Saw It (Knopf; 146 pages; $21) -- Louis Begley's second novel after his award-winning 1991 debut, Wartime Lies -- is simultaneously contemporary and the work of an elegant craftsman of the old school. Containing nary an ill-chosen word, As Max Saw It may turn out to be the most perfectly constructed novel of 1994.

The eponymous narrator, a self-contained middle-aged law professor at Harvard,...

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