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.
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.
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.
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.”
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, there was no cheating, no place for Jewish ruses. Very early in the process would come the simple, logical invitation: If Pan is not a kike, a zidlak, would he please let down his trousers? A thousand excuses if we are wrong.
“With his old man's flabby skin” the boy's grandfather “might even pass the trousers test if he was careful. It was possible, with surgical glue, to shape and fasten enough skin around the gland to imitate a real uncut foreskin. Grandfather was duly equipped with such glue.” But for the boy, only surgery with skin grafts could achieve the desired effect, an alternative considered by the aunt and the grandparents, and ultimately rejected. For, in addition to the risk...
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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 pain, Louis Begley, a Jewish child-survivor of Nazi-occupied Poland, has waited over forty years to write his first novel, Wartime Lies, in a bid to recapture his lost childhood. The book is as much about the psychological consequences of this loss as anything else.
The short opening section of Wartime Lies, which anticipates the novel as a whole, is written from the standpoint of a fifty-year-old man who, looking back on his boyhood in Poland, thinks of himself as a “voyeur of evil”: “is that the inevitable evolution of the child he once was, the price to be paid for his sort of survival?” The child in question is named Maciek, after an old Polish song, and he was born in the fateful year of 1933....
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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 Man Who Was Late is an oblique sequel. Ben, Harvard graduate and the consummate American banker, is not the Maciek who survived the Warsaw Uprising, but the hints of a central European ghetto history are there. There's the name, of course, and his voice with “an overlay of strangeness of which he was always aware”: a reference to Jerzy Kosinski's Holocaust novel, The Painted Bird. But when Ben goes so far as to mention an incident of Nazi brutality, in the initial intimacy of the adulterous affair that forms the main action of the novel, he is incapable of describing what happened next: “I don't know, or perhaps I had forgotten that too.”
Ben's careful erasure of any personal history enables...
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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 stepfatherhood, but when the marriage breaks up he discovers that love confers no rights. He was too late to be loved back.
Ben's subsequent history is recounted by his old friend Jack (they overlapped at Harvard, but became friends only later), sharer of regular lunches down the years and inheritor of Ben's papers, after his untimely death.
Jack is a writer, who published a successful novel “at the midpoint between the appearance of The Old Man and the Sea and Goodbye, Columbus”, though thereafter he turned to high-class journalism. On stylistic grounds he would seem to belong to an earlier generation than Hemingway, let alone Roth. He favours a Jamesian weight of utterance: “I was at...
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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 torturous evasion of the Holocaust in Poland, of the lives he and his aunt invented to survive, was praised not only for its unflinching authenticity as witness to the event, but for its sustained lyric power. Critics even compared the style of this writer-turned-lawyer with geniuses as diverse as Balzac, Wharton and Proust.
Ostensibly, Begley has turned away from that terrifying time to lead his survivor toward a dazzling and open future. Ben, his hero, is now a successful banker and financier living an enviable life of ease in glamorous cities like Paris, Rio, New York and Tokyo. At first glance, it would seem that the once victimized has not merely survived that terror but prevailed, and now has the world at his feet....
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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 Peacetime Lies. The hero is a postwar Jewish child immigrant. Back home his father was a respected lawyer and he himself “the Little Lord Fauntleroy of a Central European town.” In New Jersey they are disoriented and poor.
The boy, Ben, is an achiever. He wins a scholarship to Harvard, is accepted into the upper crust of student society, and then, even more surprisingly, into a Morgan Grenfell-type bank: “Only his mother and father were not astonished, in part because they did not fully measure the droll uniqueness of finding a postwar refugee from Central Europe within those precincts.” Ben marries a well-born WASP divorcée and becomes an affectionate and conscientious stepfather to her twin daughters. By the...
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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.
There are terrors lurking in the paradise he evokes: Auschwitz, with its legacy of death and tormented souls; sex as a battlefield and harbinger of disaster; aching loneliness, suicide and AIDS.
Begley first hands us a passport to the peaceable kingdom of Town & Country, where we find the not-so-beautiful but elegantly maintained women, with champagne-colored hair pulled back into short ponytails, and their consorts—the investment bankers. Wall Street lawyers, gray-haired handsome men timelessly fashionable in their cashmere and worn, white linen. The Town & Country features endlessly alternate between Deauville, Caribbean hideaways, the Hamptons and Italian villas.
The novel opens in that typical...
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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 lot more than crossing the international date line to discomfit Mr. Begley, an internationally acclaimed novelist whose literary career is no less astonishing than the rest of his remarkable history.
His is a story worthy of Hollywood: Guided by a preternaturally quick-witted mother, a young Jewish boy survives World War II in Poland, living among Christians under a series of false identities. After the war, the boy's father finds his wife and son, takes them to Paris and, in 1947, to the United States. After attending high school in Brooklyn, the boy wins a scholarship to Harvard, where he earns a summa cum laude degree in English literature. He marries a woman of means; he attends Harvard Law School and enters one of...
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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, and “weekended” and “summered” at an old family home in Bridgehampton. It was a life devoted to taste, manners and, above all, to the quiet and systematic business of the WASP ascendancy—“exclusive” in every sense of the word.
But now, at 60, something has gone terribly, if quietly, wrong for Schmidt. Early retirement has left him without purpose. The sale of his Manhattan apartment and a permanent move to his summer house have left him isolated. The death of his wife has shaken his faith not only in happiness but even in his ability to cobble together some sort of bearable existence. And, as Louis Begley's fourth novel opens, comes Schmidt's coup de grace: His only daughter announces her impending...
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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 significant differences between the eponymous protagonist of About Schmidt and (one assumes) most of Begley's readers is the magnitude of the numbers these calculations involve: “He would have to take almost three million of his cash and invest it in … the purchase of a new house he didn't want and, in theory, didn't need … He would still have the payments from his firm—one hundred and eighty thousand per year—and the income from the balance of his savings, perhaps another hundred and fifty thousand tax free … It occurred to Schmidt that, to the average American, this would seem a pretty good deal for a single sixty-year-old codger with no dependents, but was the average American accustomed to living as Schmidt had...
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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 book was deservedly praised, and the literary debut it marked seemed all the more remarkable for coming from someone then in his late fifties who was not a professional writer but a successful New York lawyer, and whose native tongue was not English.
Maciek begins as a total outsider—a Jew in a Roman Catholic country, a Pole among German conquerors, a child among adults. But he has the saving ability to imagine himself otherwise. When playing with toy soldiers he takes the side of the Wehrmacht: concealing his Jewishness by masquerading as a Catholic, he is powerfully drawn to the rituals and creed of a faith not, at least then and there, much better disposed toward Judaism than the Nazis were. His impersonations work, he...
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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. Begley, then fifty-eight, head of the international department of the prestigious law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, was celebrated as much for his interesting background as for his writing. Though he has been correctly recognized as one of this century's most elegant and urbane stylists, too much, I think, is made of his leisured lifestyle and extensive connections. Critics of Begley's three successive novels have been distracted by issues of money and power, neglecting his central theme. I have discussed Begley's work with him at length, and in conversation, as in his novels, he keeps coming back to the same provocative question about justice. War experiences such as his are not to be forgotten, no matter how high one is on the socioeconomic...
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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 completed three other novels in quick succession: The Man Who Was Late (1993), As Max Saw It (1994), and About Schmidt (1996). Lateness in starting a literary career—speech after long silence from a Polish-born writer who witnessed the arrest and deportation of European Jews—attests to the difficulty of finding the appropriate narrative form for atrocity.2 History intersects individual lives and sunders connections to place, family, past, objects, habits, possessions. Lateness, as a symptom of neurosis, afflicts those who have shed their identities under the pressure of traumatic history and have invented alternative identities that have no reference to the past. Belatedness is itself a sign of trauma, as...
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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 in an impossible situation. He is a privileged, cultivated advertising mogul born “with a silver spoon stuck firmly in his mouth,” who is diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer at 60. If the task Begley set for himself in Mistler's Exit was to render Mistler sympathetic, he has failed miserably. Mistler is outwardly successful, primly proper, snobbishly clothes conscious, routinely and somewhat randomly unfaithful to his wife. He is also alienated, sexist, bookish and deeply pessimistic. He feels that even without the cancer, his best years are behind him. In short, Mistler and these other Begley protagonists exhibit none of the stark, powerful, unpitying stalwartness of the little Polish boy and his aunt who escaped the Nazis...
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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 considerable sensibilities in Europe. Parks's Jerry is a middle-class English academic; Begley's Mistler [in Mistler's Exit] an upper-crust New Yorker. Jerry is the first-person narrator in Europa, whereas Mistler's Exit is written in the third person. It makes very little difference: everything that happens in Louis Begley's novel is seen, felt, and judged by Mistler: he is just as much the “I” as Jerry is. Besides, Begley's minor characters are definitely minor and more schematic than Parks's.
Jerry and Mistler both show off (or maybe it's their authors who do; but it suits the characters anyway) their familiarity with European idioms and preoccupations: the pages bristle with Italian and French...
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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, About Schmidt (1996), is an especially compelling and witty piece of novel-making. The new one, Mistler's Exit, is only a shade less good, which puts it well beyond the reach of most practitioners. Head of a highly successful advertising agency, Thomas Mistler discovers in his sixties that he has liver cancer and, disdaining treatment, decides to give himself a last holiday in Venice: “Preposterously, unmistakably, he begins to rejoice. The horizon would no longer recede. The space and time left to him were defined; he had been set free.” That buoyancy of course doesn't last, as Mistler's sexual adventures—an affair with a young woman (as in About Schmidt) and a final meeting with a former beloved—serve to take him...
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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 mimicking German broadcasts. He also ingratiates himself with a Gentile landlady, the widow of a Belgian engineer, by acquiescing in her desire to teach him French. However, perfect command of Polish is also crucial to eluding blackmailers who might threaten to betray a Jewish suspect to the police—“Although they often spoke themselves like true children of the slums, they could hear in the speech of a former eminent lawyer or professor of classics the unmistakable gay or sad little tune from the shtetl.”
In and through Wartime Lies (1991), Louis Begley all but purged himself of those vulgar tunes. Published when its author was fifty-seven, this autobiographical first novel is a remarkably accomplished work of...
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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 of that law firm by his obnoxious son-in-law. Schmidt is rich, not ultra-rich like the billionaire Egyptian neighbor who wants to be his new best friend, but rich with fairly old, Anglo-Saxon money. Enough—more than enough—money.
But Schmidt is so tweaked—the cosmos has been pinching him fiercely—that any “normal” thing he does is an enormous accomplishment. If he acts like a moderately sane person for a full day, that's the equivalent of Napoleon invading Russia, and just about as hopeless an endeavor. In the past, he used to be part of a very particular world, faking his way into the adult community, as the saying goes, but that world has spit him out. He's currently living with Carrie, a Puerto Rican...
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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 adult life working as a lawyer.
Begley's admission that Maciek's story paralleled his own experience in general terms gave additional weight to the book's central theme of deception and the terrible price paid for the loss of one's identity. The nameless middle-aged narrator who begins the novel describes himself as having been “changed inside forever, like a beaten dog,” condemned to a perpetual hell by having been forced to live a lie in order to survive. It seemed logical to apply this insight to Begley as well, for he too had spent decades living the life of a successful member of high society with little acknowledgment of his past.
The ability to shed light on such dark material through the...
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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 appeared in 1991, when Begley was fifty-seven, and had great success, winning the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for a First Work of Fiction and the Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize. In the decade since, Begley has published five novels: The Man Who Was Late (1992), As Max Saw It (1994), About Schmidt (1996), Mistler's Exit (1998), and Schmidt Delivered (2000). One of the most striking features of his work is the rapidity with which he developed, relatively late in life, a singular and self-assured literary voice.
Born in Stryj, Poland, in 1933, Begley—then Ludwik Begleiter—survived the Holocaust through circumstances that closely parallel the trials endured by...
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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 house in East Hampton. He's sophisticated, respected, and serious—in other words, a stuffed shirt. And he knows it, too. In Paris to promote the French translation of one of his books, John is so overwhelmed by the burden of his persona that he accosts a perfect stranger in a café one night and proceeds to tell him the true story of his life. His rambling confession soon focuses on Lea Morini, a Parisian journalist and artist who interviewed him during another book tour. Young, exquisite, and emotionally ambiguous, Lea is the mistress of a prominent French banker and has several lovers besides. She soon adds John to her list, and the two proceed to carry on a now-and-then affair on both sides of the Atlantic that's exciting for John but...
(The entire section is 364 words.)
Begley, Louis. “About Schmidt Was Changed, but Not Its Core.” New York Times (19 January 2003): L1.
Begley defends the film version of About Schmidt, noting that the movie changed certain elements of his book, but stayed true to the main themes of the novel.
Birkerts, Sven. “Alone and Aloof.” Washington Post Book World 24, no. 17 (24 April 1994): 4.
Compares Begley's writing style to that of Henry James, but contends that in As Max Saw It, Begley leaves readers exasperated and confused, with many unanswered questions.
Buttenwieser, Paul. “A Survivor's Lonely Journey.” Washington Post Book World 23, no. 2 (10 January 1993): 1, 4.
Compliments Begley's characterizations and skillful use of irony in The Man Who Was Late.
Eder, Richard. “Horrors of Survival, Clothed in Grace.” Los Angeles Times (16 May 1991): E9.
Contends that Wartime Lies presents a heart-wrenching story of a boy growing up as a Jew in World War II Poland, detailing the myriad adaptations the boy must make in order to survive.
Finn, Molly. “Critic's Choices for Christmas.” Commonweal 118, no. 21 (6 December 1991): 720.
Provides a brief synopsis of Wartime Lies.
(The entire section is 410 words.)