Louis Begley Introduction - Essay

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.”