Louis Begley Essay - Critical Essays

Begley, Louis

Introduction

Louis Begley 1933-

(Born Ludwik Begleiter) Polish-born American novelist.

The following entry provides an overview of Begley's career through 2003.

Although he did not begin writing until age fifty-five, Begley's literary debut, the novel Wartime Lies (1991), became a highly celebrated and award-winning publication. Focusing on a young Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied Poland, Wartime Lies has been compared to works by Primo Levi, Jerzy Kosinski, and other Holocaust writers; Begley's other novels have drawn comparisons to works by Edith Wharton and Henry James. While much of his writing contains autobiographical elements, Begley strongly emphasizes the fictional aspects of his works. Critics have praised his witty narratives and unapologetic presentation of flawed characters—elements that have proven popular with readers and reviewers alike. Begley's fourth novel, About Schmidt (1996), was adapted into a successful, award-winning motion picture starring Jack Nicholson in 2002.

Biographical Information

Begley was born in Stryj, Poland (located in present-day Ukraine) on October 6, 1933, to Edward, a Jewish physician, and his wife, Frances. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Begley's father, who worked as a physician for the Russian army, was forced to retreat with the Russians, leaving his wife and son stranded in occupied Poland. To avoid being sent to concentration camps, Begley and his mother obtained false papers and pretended to be Polish Catholics. Many of the difficulties and strife they experienced provide the basis for Wartime Lies. At the end of the war the family was reunited. They briefly relocated to Paris and in 1947 moved to New York. Begley graduated from Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High School in 1950 and earned a scholarship to Harvard University. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1953 and in 1954 earned a summa cum laude degree in English literature.

After graduation, Begley registered for the draft and served eighteen months in Germany with the U.S. Army 9th Division. In 1956 he married Sally Higginson, whom he met at Harvard, and enrolled in Harvard Law School. Upon graduation he accepted a position at Debevoise & Plimpton, a prestigious Manhattan law firm. His marriage to Higginson ended in 1970 and in 1974 he married Anka Muhlstein, a French-born writer. In 1989, at the age of fifty-five, Begley began to write his first work, Wartime Lies. The novel received the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Aer-Lingus International Fiction Prize, and the Prix Médicis Etranger. Begley continues to work for Debevoise & Plimpton and writes on weekends and on summer sabbaticals. He resides with Anka in New York City and vacations yearly in Venice, Italy.

Major Works

Wartime Lies recounts the hardships of six-year-old orphan Maciek and his resilient and resourceful Aunt Tania—both Jews in German-occupied Poland during World War II. Tania protects Maciek and, through a succession of ruses and fabrications, she and Maciek survive extermination by posing as Catholics. The false pretenses save them, but Maciek has difficulty maintaining his real identity after many years of presenting an untrue image of himself. At the conclusion of the novel, the narrator—an aging man who is acknowledged as the present-day Maciek—states that his childhood was too horrible to remember; that Maciek's story is just another lie passed off as the truth by the narrator. The topic of fabricated identity is also a main theme in Begley's second novel, The Man Who Was Late (1993). The protagonist, Ben, is a man haunted by his past—he too is a Holocaust survivor—and he tries to suppress his memories of childhood. He recreates his past in an attempt to achieve personal perfection, surrounding himself with the finest goods, socializing with the elite, and presenting himself as a sophisticated, elegant man. Because he expends extravagant effort on controlling himself, he cannot release his emotions, causing difficulties in his relationships. Through complicated decisions he loses his marriage, the affection of his stepchildren, a chance at true love, and ultimately his own life. In As Max Saw It (1994) Begley introduces another man of privilege, detached from human relationships. Max is coerced into a friendship with Charlie, an overbearing college acquaintance, and Toby, Charlie's Adonis-like lover. Max tries to maintain his distance but when Toby begins to die from AIDS, Max is torn between his desire to remain aloof and his newly acquired sense of responsibility to his friend. Death and mortality become the main points of focus in Mistler's Exit (1998). Mistler has been diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer and is given only a few months to live. Although he is married and has a son, he decides to keep his condition secret and travels to Venice under the pretense of a business trip. While in Venice he becomes involved in a brief, torrid affair with a much younger woman, reunites with an old flame from college, and contemplates his life and impending death. Many critics have interpreted the character of Mistler as a vehicle for Begley to explore what he regards as a warped sense of ethics and morals present in America's elite social circles. Begley continues to examine moral flaws of the wealthy in modern America in About Schmidt (1996) and Schmidt Delivered (2000). Albert Schmidt is a lonely and unlikable man—argumentative, self-centered, and an anti-Semite. His inflexible views and politically incorrect stances are considered status quo among his elite circle of friends. He is confronted with his anti-Semitic viewpoints when Charlotte, his only child, marries a Jewish lawyer. In his search for contentment, he begins an affair with Carrie, a Puerto Rican waitress younger than his daughter. Through Carrie, Schmidt finds happiness and begins to gain some measure of tolerance, but ultimately remains steadfast in his ways, and in Schmidt Delivered, he loses Carrie because of his selfishness and intractability. In Shipwreck (2003) Begley examines a married man who obsessively desires a young woman. As in his other novels, Begley dispassionately writes about the man's trials—neither excusing the man's behavior nor condemning it, but merely presenting the story to let readers pass judgment.

Critical Reception

Upon publication, Wartime Lies was viewed as an astoundingly accomplished first novel. Critics have applauded Begley's depiction of identity loss and the survivor's guilt common among Holocaust survivors. While critical response to Wartime Lies was overwhelmingly positive, Begley's other novels have elicited mixed opinions. Some reviewers have been disgusted by the shallowness of such characters as Mistler and Schmidt. Conversely, others have found that Begley's creation of these unlikable men—and his sympathetic portrayal of them—is skillful, shrewd, and appealing to readers. Commentators have complimented Begley's clear prose and elegant phrasing, and his novels have been noted for unmasking the façade of perfection among the social elite. Thomas Hines wrote “Begley uses his intimate attunement to the language, habits and assumptions of the upper classes to reveal the tiny cracks in the system and to excavate the subtle cruelties and disarray that lie quietly beneath the surface.”

Principal Works

Wartime Lies (novel) 1991

The Man Who Was Late (novel) 1993

As Max Saw It (novel) 1994

About Schmidt (novel) 1996

Mistler's Exit (novel) 1998

Schmidt Delivered (novel) 2000

Shipwreck (novel) 2003

Criticism

Janet Malcolm (review date 13 June 1991)

SOURCE: Malcolm, Janet. “A Matter of Life and Death.” New York Review of Books 38, no. 11 (13 June 1991): 16-17.

[In the following review, Malcolm examines the nature of survival in Wartime Lies, pondering the effects on the young protagonist produced by random and indifferent deaths.]

Early in this chilling novel [Wartime Lies] about a Jewish boy named Maciek and his aunt Tania, who survive the Nazi years in Poland by acquiring false Aryan papers, the question of the child's circumcised penis is raised. As the narrator dryly points out, Jewish women could represent themselves as Aryans easily enough, but

with men,...

(The entire section is 2264 words.)

Bryan Cheyette (review date 16 August 1991)

SOURCE: Cheyette, Bryan. “Recapturing a Lost Childhood.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4611 (16 August 1991): 23.

[In the following review, Cheyette examines the protagonist's loss of identity in Wartime Lies, contending that the story is well written, but that Begley's ease with the language denotes his need to justify his own survival of the Holocaust.]

The Holocaust still claims its victims, to this day. The children of survivors, often the unwitting receptacles of their parents' suffering, have themselves begun to comprehend the ramifications for their own lives of a history which has been agonizingly repressed. Returning to the origins of this cycle of...

(The entire section is 864 words.)

Julian Duplain (review date 15 January 1993)

SOURCE: Duplain, Julian. “Loss Adjuster.” New Statesman & Society 6, no. 235 (15 January 1993): 39.

[In the following review, Duplain applauds Begley's precise descriptions of places in The Man Who Was Late.]

Two years ago Louis Begley published his first novel, Wartime Lies, the story of a Jewish boy in eastern Poland who survived the Holocaust, almost alone from his family, by a mixture of assimilation and blind cunning. The horror was narrated from a distance of 40 years, across the Atlantic, by a reticent man with “a nice face and sad eyes” who nowadays reveals his suffering past only in the line of his jaw, never in conversation.

...

(The entire section is 702 words.)

Adam Mars-Jones (review date 22 January 1993)

SOURCE: Mars-Jones, Adam. “Ascending to Gentility.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4686 (22 January 1993): 19.

[In the following review, Mars-Jones questions Begley's ability to successfully balance the dispassion of the wealthy with the façade of sophistication that the protagonist in The Man Who Was Late strives to obtain.]

Ben, the protagonist of The Man Who Was Late, misses not mundane appointments—planes, trains, buses if he was the class of man to take them—but the highest kind of existential rendezvous, the meeting with his best self. He marries, for instance, the mother of young twins; infertile himself, he puts his heart and soul into...

(The entire section is 868 words.)

Julia Braun Kessler (review date 24 January 1993)

SOURCE: Kessler, Julia Braun. “Survivors' Shadows.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (24 January 1993): 3, 7.

[In the following review, Kessler focuses on the psychological state of Ben, the protagonist in The Man Who Was Late, and probes Ben's relationship with Jack, the narrator.]

Ghosts hover over Louis Begley's second novel, The Man Who Was Late. Quite soon it begins to seem as if the most prominent among them is his own.

Begley's Wartime Lies, which appeared in 1991, was a stunning first book, nominated for prestigious prizes—the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and others. Its account of a boy's...

(The entire section is 914 words.)

Gabriele Annan (review date 28 January 1993)

SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Peacetime Lies.” New York Review of Books 40, no. 3 (28 January 1993): 16-17.

[In the following review, Annan explores overt and subtle references to such classic authors as Rainer Maria Rilke, and Marcel Proust in The Man Who Was Late, praising Begley's structure and tone, and asserting that his writing is becoming more polished.]

Louis Begley published his first novel last year. It was autobiographical, about a young Jewish boy in occupied Poland being coached to pass as a Christian, and succeeding. It was called Wartime Lies. The new novel [The Man Who Was Late] is in many ways a sequel, and could well be called...

(The entire section is 1777 words.)

Georgia Jones-Davis (review date 28 April 1994)

SOURCE: Jones-Davis, Georgia. “Passion Bubbles over in a Rarefied World.” Los Angeles Times (28 April 1994): E9.

[In the following review, Jones-Davis lauds Begley's understated writing style in As Max Saw It and analyzes the dynamics of the relationships between Max, his friend Charlie, and Charlie's lover, Toby.]

Louis Begley writes with intimate knowledge about patrician America—Eastern Old Money, Auchincloss country—but with a good deal less politeness or the submerged emotions of his literary upper-crust counterparts. This was true in his second novel, The Man Who Was Late, as well as in his newest, As Max Saw It.

...

(The entire section is 926 words.)

Louis Begley and Elizabeth Devereaux (interview date 2 May 1994)

SOURCE: Begley, Louis, and Elizabeth Devereaux. “PW Interviews: Louis Begley.” Publishers Weekly 241, no. 18 (2 May 1994): 276-78.

[In the following interview, Begley discusses his career as a lawyer, his decision to write his first novel, and his opinions on illness and dying—further illuminating the portrayal of Toby's death in As Max Saw It.]

Louis Begley has just returned from business in Japan, but he brushes off the notion of jet lag. “I never have it,” he says. Looking at the man in the unimpeachable gray suit, in his beautifully ordered corner office on the 25th floor of a building in midtown Manhattan, it's easy to believe him. It would take a...

(The entire section is 2256 words.)

Thomas Hines (review date 15 September 1996)

SOURCE: Hines, Thomas. “A Well-Behaved Bigot.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (15 September 1996): 3.

[In the following review, Hines believes that although About Schmidt has an illogical and somewhat confusing ending, readers are not disappointed due to Begley's masterful storytelling.]

For most of his life, Albert Schmidt had it all [in About Schmidt]. Rising to partnership at the ancient and venerable New York law firm of Wood & King during the golden age of the American Century, Schmidt did all he was expected to do: He married a promising editor, entertained in his Fifth Avenue apartment, sent his only daughter to private schools and Harvard,...

(The entire section is 972 words.)

Francine Prose (review date 15 September 1996)

SOURCE: Prose, Francine. “The Lawyer in His Labyrinth.” Washington Post Book World 26, no. 37 (15 September 1996): 5.

[In the following review of About Schmidt, Prose lauds Begley's depiction of an unsympathetic and unapologetic anti-hero, holding that the author's refusal to create a likeable character is refreshing in light of the glut of contemporary novels containing congenial and sensitive protagonists.]

Like many of us, Albert Schmidt—the retired lawyer at the center of Louis Begley's new novel [About Schmidt]—spends a certain fraction of his time fretting about personal finances, tallying the figures upon which his future depends. But among...

(The entire section is 862 words.)

Thomas R. Edwards (review date 31 October 1996)

SOURCE: Edwards, Thomas R. “Palm Beach Story.” New York Review of Books 43, no. 17 (31 October 1996): 63-5.

[In the following review, Edwards discusses Begley's first three novels, asserting that About Schmidt is second in quality only to Wartime Lies. ]

The burden of Louis Begley's first novel, Wartime Lies (1991), was the dependence of life, in extreme conditions and perhaps ordinary ones too, on falsehood. Drawing on the author's childhood experiences, it tells how a seven-year-old Jewish boy called Maciek, with the help of his resourceful young aunt, survives the German occupation of Poland in World War II by pretending to be what he is not. The...

(The entire section is 3058 words.)

Victoria N. Alexander (essay date summer 1997)

SOURCE: Alexander, Victoria N. “Louis Begley: Trying to Make Sense of It.” Antioch Review 55, no. 3 (summer 1997): 292-304.

[In the following essay, Alexander considers the use of irony in Begley's novels, asserting that the most sympathetic characters undergo difficult and painful experiences, but that Schmidt, Begley's least appealing character, is extremely fortunate.]

Louis Begley's first novel, Wartime Lies (1991), a semi-autobiographical account of a well-born Jewish boy who is able to elude the Nazis by purchasing a false identity, won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize, and the Prix Médicis Etranger....

(The entire section is 5590 words.)

Allan Hepburn (essay date fall 1998)

SOURCE: Hepburn, Allan. “Lost Time: Trauma and Belatedness in Louis Begley's The Man Who Was Late.Contemporary Literature 39, no. 3 (fall 1998): 380-404.

[In the following essay, Hepburn discusses The Man Who Was Late within a psychoanalytic context and in relation to postmodern literary thought.]

After graduating from Harvard with a degree in English in 1954 and a degree in law in 1959, Louis Begley began a career as a lawyer with the firm Debevoise and Plimpton in New York City, specializing in international corporate law.1 Belatedly, Begley published his first novel, Wartime Lies, in 1991. Making up for lost time, he has...

(The entire section is 9910 words.)

Heller McAlpin (review date 19 October 1998)

SOURCE: McAlpin, Heller. “An Emptiness Worse Than Death.” Los Angeles Times (19 October 1998): 5.

[In the following review, McAlpin provides a mixed assessment of Begley's Mistler's Exit.]

When Thomas Mistler, the anti-hero of Louis Begley's fifth novel [Mistler's Exit], read Anna Karenina as a boy, he impressed his father by sympathizing with Anna's husband, Karenin. His father, an investment banker whose sense of duty kept him from running off with the young Frenchwoman he loved, commented, “That's a very grown-up response, to sympathize with an unattractive man who is in an impossible situation.”

Mistler is an unattractive man...

(The entire section is 511 words.)

Gabriele Annan (review date 5 November 1998)

SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Pricks and Kicks.” New York Review of Books 45, no. 17 (5 November 1998): 44-6.

[In the following excerpt, Annan proposes that in Mistler's Exit the ennui and dispassion in the narrative voice makes readers less interested in the protagonist's impending death.]

The novels by Louis Begley and Tim Parks, one American, the other English, present a violent contrast in tempo, temperament, and tone, and yet they have a lot in common. The half-hidden theme in both is free will: or rather its absence, which both heroes come to recognize and furiously resent. Both are highly cultivated, well-read, self-aware WASP males exercising their...

(The entire section is 1681 words.)

William H. Pritchard (review date winter 1999)

SOURCE: Pritchard, William H. “Fiction Rules.” Hudson Review 51, no. 4 (winter 1999): 764-65.

[In the following excerpt, Pritchard provides a positive review of Mistler's Exit, asserting that Begley incorporates strong narrative skills within a compelling tale.]

I have it on reliable authority that Louis Begley, whose Holocaust memoir Wartime Lies (1991) won much acclaim, was graduated as one of the two summa degrees in the Harvard College class of 1954, the other being John Updike. For decades Begley contented himself with being a New York City lawyer, then in this decade has come forth with a series of books, among which his last one,...

(The entire section is 384 words.)

Steven G. Kellman (essay date June 1999)

SOURCE: Kellman, Steven G. “Louis Begley Joins the Firm.” Hollins Critic 36, no. 3 (June 1999): 1-11.

[In the following essay, Kellman explores the lies and pretense that Begley's protagonists use to cover their respective pasts and to rewrite their respective futures.]

For nine-year-old Maciek [in Wartime Lies], fluency in German is no academic matter. As a fugitive Galician Jew during the Nazi occupation of Poland, he does not attend school, but language offers camouflage against those intent on exterminating all but Aryans. So, while careful to keep his identifying circumcision concealed from prying eyes, the boy masters the tongue of his tormentor by...

(The entire section is 4873 words.)

Carolyn See (review date 26 November 2000)

SOURCE: See, Carolyn. “The Artful Codger.” Washington Post Book World (26 November 2000): X7.

[In the following review, See applauds Begley's characterizations and asserts that in Schmidt Delivered readers experience conflicting feelings regarding the protagonist.]

The only thing worse than being bound and gagged by life, tied down by hundreds of business and familial obligations, is to be cut loose from them entirely. Albert Schmidt, former husband of a successful literary agent, father to a loved but difficult daughter, and senior partner in a hot-shot law firm [in Schmidt Delivered], is a widower now, retired to the Hamptons, having been forced out...

(The entire section is 874 words.)

Peter Filkins (review date March 2001)

SOURCE: Filkins, Peter. “The Limits of Redemption.” World & I 16, no. 3 (March 2001): 234.

[In the following review, Filkins traces Schmidt's trials, epiphanies of thought, and subsequent redemption in Schmidt Delivered.]

With the publication of Wartime Lies in 1991, Louis Begley stepped to the center of international letters with the deeply compelling tale of a young Polish Jew forced to abandon his childhood while waiting out World War II with his aunt, both of them disguised as Christians. Their harrowing efforts to escape detection by the Germans made for a powerful debut by a writer who took up the pen in late middle age after spending his entire...

(The entire section is 2775 words.)

Louis Begley and James Atlas (interview date summer 2002)

SOURCE: Begley, Louis, and James Atlas. “Louis Begley: The Art of Fiction CLXXII.” Paris Review 44, no. 162 (summer 2002): 110-43.

[In the following interview, Begley discusses the difference between autobiography and fictionalization in his novels, lists his favorite authors and works of literature, and defends his protagonists against the charge of being unlikable and unsympathetic.]

Louis Begley was a lawyer with the distinguished white-shoe firm of Debevoise & Plimpton when he surprised his colleagues—and the literary world—by publishing his first novel, Wartime Lies, about a young Polish Jew caught up in the inferno of the Holocaust. The novel...

(The entire section is 8839 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 August 2003)

SOURCE: Review of Shipwreck, by Louis Begley. Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 16 (15 August 2003): 1030.

[In the following review, the critic argues that the narrative in Shipwreck is both “rambling” and “overworked to the point of caricature.”]

[Shipwreck is a] precious account of an American writer's love affair with a young Frenchwoman.

John North is someone who has pretty much achieved everything he could hope for in life. Happily married to a renowned New York physician, John is a well-regarded novelist with plenty of money, an extensive circle of friends (in America and abroad), a nice apartment in Manhattan, and a weekend...

(The entire section is 364 words.)