(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Usually authors who start their writing careers later in life are telling only one story, even if they tell it in a series of books. It is difficult enough for a writer who follows a conventional career trajectory to be animated by fresh ideas, so much more the challenge for the writer who begins at a mature age. Louis Begley, whose first book, the well-received Wartime Lies (1991) was partially based on his boyhood experiences in Holocaust-era Poland, has confounded expectations by writing a totally new book each time out. Even Schmidt Delivered (2000), a sequel to the popular About Schmidt (1996), is so drastic a departure from its predecessor that it unnerved many who had admired the earlier volume. Of contemporary novelists who have begun late, only the British writer Anita Brookner has managed a similar originality.

Shipwreck is different from anything else Begley has written because it is more theoretical and more self-conscious than his other novels. Had a writer advertised as an experimentalist written it, one would not be surprised. Intricacies abound. John North, the book’s main storyteller (though not its narrator), is himself a novelist, and the success of his book The Anthill plays a considerable role in Shipwreck. He tells his story to the narrator of the novel, an unnamed man whom North meets in a café called L’Entre Deux Mondes (between two worlds), denoting a kind of metaphysical bridge between fantasy and reality, salvation and damnation.

Self-reflexivity, once thought to be very avant-garde, has in the hands of younger American writers of the 1990’s and 2000’s become rather routine. No longer does it cause the frisson of aesthetic risk it did in the days of Jorge Luis Borges or Vladimir Nabokov a generation ago. Begley, however, brings a new sense of purpose to self-reflexivity. He persuades the reader that the figure of the novelist within a novel is not just a surrogate for Begley himself. It is a figure for a man prone to regard the contexts of his life as simply fictions from which he can distance himself as he wishes.

The narrator never seems to become bored with North’s story, nor does he become frightened at North’s frequent agitation and emotional outbursts. Occasionally, though, North does buy the narrator food or drink or make some other soothing social gesture. The reader, then, is conscious that, though in principle a monologue, the story is in form a dialogue. A fascinating moment occurs when North warns the narrator that the story is going to take on more sinister overtones. At that point, the two men cease drinks and hors d’oeuvres and shift to the main course.

The narrator gradually learns details of North’s personal life. North is in his mid-forties and is married to the former Lydia Frank, a successful New York doctor who is five years older than he. The Franks are a wealthy family who have made their fortune in real estate. Their background is explicitly described as Jewish rather than white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (this fact has eluded many reviewers who see both the Franks and Norths as WASPs). North’s own family is far less accomplished in immediate terms, although with far greater ancestral prestige. The usual scenario of the arriviste man of the newly wealthy family marrying the daughter of the aristocratic set is reversed. The Franks are not keen on North as a suitor. They see him as an improvident aesthete, whereas all their other in-laws are Wall Street millionaires.

Despite having no children (their only daughter is stillborn), North and Lydia have a happy marriage. North achieves success, unexpectedly, rather late with his novel The Anthill. Again, Begley shakes up customary expectations, as one might expect the success as a novelist (and the consequent laurels of prizes and lucrative film adaptation) to make North jovial and spirited. Alternating between biliousness and melancholy, though, he is no better off than before. He is working on a novel calledLoss. This word not only has negative connotations but also specifically unbuilds the accumulation implied in The Anthill, as if both art and life were zero-sum games. He visits Paris, a city he knows and loves and where he has friends, to support his book’s publicity. Even this does not seem to set off in him any zeal or spark. When North meets a young journalist from the French...

(The entire section is 1801 words.)