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 of infection and of the graft not taking,
there was the problem of growth. My penis would become longer but the grafted skin would not keep pace. I would have trouble with erections. This last consideration tipped the scales. They decided to leave me as I was.
The passage is typical of the book's irony and metaphoric proficiency. As the narrative unfolds, we see that “the problem of growth” extends beyond the operation of de-circumcision and is the problem of the book. What happens to a child's soul when he lives his childhood in constant fear for his life and witnesses atrocities that no child should know of, no less witness? In a prologue, the narrator—who is the adult the child has become, “a man with a nice face and sad eyes, fifty or more winters on his back, living a moderately pleasant life in a tranquil country”—refers to skin that covers another part of the anatomy. The man is “a bookish fellow,” a Latinist who “reveres” the Aeneid because “that is where he first found civil expression for his own shame at being alive, his skin intact and virgin of tattoo, when his kinsmen and almost all the others, so many surely more deserving than he, perished in the conflagration.” Between the images of the tattooed arm and the erect penis Begley has situated his austere moral and psychological fable of survival. Like other contributors to what Lawrence Langer has called the literature of atrocity, Begley writes with a kind of muted and stunned air, as if the words are sticking in his throat. The exquisite soft note of the master writer of the genre, Primo Levi, is sometimes heard in the novel, and Levi's bitter reflection (so quietly murmured, in The Drowned and the Saved, that it goes by almost unnoticed) that “the worst survived, that is, the fittest; the best all died” has not gone unremarked by Begley. The thought inhabits the novel and gives it its pervasive atmosphere of moral anxiety.
It is a woman, the aunt Tania, who is the instrument of survival, and who is equipped by character and temperament to take the assertive measures necessary to cheat death in the time of its near-total ascendancy....
(This entire section contains 2264 words.)
To create his remarkable heroine Begley has drawn on ancient and modern literary models: the character has the courage and selflessness of Alcestis, the brilliance and inventiveness of the Duchessa Sanseverina, the hardness of Becky Sharp. He has also drawn on Freud for his elucidation of the remarkable psychological situation in which his fable is set—the situation of a boy upon whom dire circumstances have imposed the fulfillment of a child's headiest Oedipal wishes. The father is absent—he disappears into Russia at the beginning of the novel—and the grandparents also disappear from the boy's childhood as part of the strategy of survival whereby Jewish families with false papers split up in order to be less conspicuous. Tania, who has been Maciek's surrogate mother all his life (the real mother died in childbirth), briefly provides him with a surrogate father when she takes up with an influential German officer named Reinhard, a kind of Moscamanqué, but he, too, passes out of the picture, and the field is left to the nine-year-old Maciek.
The aunt and the boy move from place to place with their false identities, never daring to stay anywhere too long (blackmailers, who bleed Jews dry and then turn them over to the Gestapo, lurk like sharks throughout Nazi-occupied Poland); they are like a pair of traveling charlatans, working in ever more perfect sync, and becoming intimate in ways that people who do not lie together (the pun serves the idea) possibly never know. Near the end of the book, the boy begins to feel the debit side of sleeping with his mother. (Although, as it happens, the pair sleep in the same bed throughout most of the novel, they do not literally breach the incest barrier or come anywhere near breaching it; but the relationship is nevertheless incestuous.) He articulates what all children who are brought into arousing relationships with adults must obscurely feel: the sense of the relationship's crushing inequality and of their own powerlessness. “I admired and loved my beautiful and brave aunt with increasing passion,” Maciek says.
Her body could never be close enough to mine; she was the fortress against danger and the well of all comfort. … I waited impatiently for the nights when I knew she would come to bed wearing only a slip so that I could feel closer to her.
I had never seen Tania naked. Tania undressed was Tania in her slip or Tania in her long nightgown. Her bodily functions were private, even under the most constraining conditions. On the other hand, my nakedness and my bowel and bladder movements continued to be subject to question, inspection and comment.
In the mind of the boy (as recollected by the man), he himself is a poor, weak creature (there are echoes of the sickly and coddled young Marcel in the self-representation), while the aunt is a being of almost mythic powerfulness, an androgynous goddess embodying the paternal as well as maternal principles, both fortress and well. Her audacity and guile know no bounds; in a scene in the latter half of the novel her mission-impossible capacities reach a thrilling culmination. It is the summer of 1944 and the pair have escaped detection as Jews only to find themselves trapped in a roundup of Poles at the central railroad station in Warsaw following the premature, ill-fated uprising of the Polish resistance. Begley has rendered the scene like an immense narrative painting. As far as the eye can see, frightened men, women, and children, who have been marched to the station and assembled in columns, wait to board trains to Auschwitz; Ukrainian guards with whips and dogs savagely herd people onto the trains as Wehrmacht and SS officers look on impassively. We glimpse Tania and Maciek in the crowd. At the start of the march the previous day, Tania had smeared her face with soot and walked bent over like an old woman so as to escape notice by the Ukrainians, who were raping and sometimes, for good measure, bayoneting attractive young women. Now, as the column approaches the station, she undergoes another transformation:
Over my tearful protests she had used our remaining water to wash our faces and hands. She brushed the dust off her clothes and mine and straightened them. Then she combed my hair, and, with great concentration, peering into the pocket mirror, combed her own hair and put on lipstick, studied the result, and made little corrections. I was astonished to see how she had transformed herself. The stooped-over, soot-smeared old woman of the march from the Old Town had vanished. Instead, when we entered the station, I was holding the hand of a dignified and self-confident young matron. Unlike the day before, she was not hanging back, trying to lose us in the crowd; she pushed her way to the outside row and, holding my hand very tight, to my horror, led me away from the column so that we were standing, completely exposed, in the space on the platform between the rest of the people and the train. Despite my panic, I began to understand that Tania was putting on a very special show. Her clear blue eyes surveyed the scene before her; it was as if she could barely contain her impatience and indignation. I thought that if she had had an umbrella she would be tapping the platform with it.
Pulling the boy behind her, Tania strides over to a fat Wehrmacht captain standing on the platform and,
addressing him in her haughtiest tone, she asked if he would be kind enough to tell her where these awful trains were going. The answer made my legs tremble: Auschwitz. Completely wrong destination, replied Tania. To find herself with all these disreputable-looking people, being shouted at by drunk and disorderly soldiers, and all this in front of a train going to a place she had never heard of, was intolerable. She was a doctor's wife from R., about two hours from Warsaw; she had come to Warsaw to buy dresses and have her son's eyes examined; of course, everything she bought had been lost in this dreadful confusion. We had nothing to do with whatever was going on here. Would he, as an officer, impose some order and help us find a train to R.? We had spent almost all our money, but she thought she had enough for a second-class compartment. The captain burst out laughing. My dear lady, he said to Tania, not even my wife orders me about quite this way. Could Tania assure him her husband would be glad to have her return? And where had she learned such literary turns of expression? After he had an answer to these basic questions he would see about this wretched train business. Tania blushed. Should I tell you the truth, even though you won't like it? Naturally, replied the captain. I think my husband doesn't mind my being sometimes hot tempered. I learned German in school and probably I managed to improve it by reading, especially everything by Thomas Mann I can find in the original—not much in R., but quite a lot in Warsaw. It's a good way for a provincial housewife to keep occupied. I know Mann's work is forbidden in the Reich, but that is the truth. I am not a party member, merely a railroad specialist, announced the captain still laughing, I am glad you have chosen a great stylist. Shall I get someone to carry your suitcases while we look for transportation to R.?
In a review in the Times Literary Supplement of October 14, 1983, Gabriel Josipovici severely criticized a book called Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust for the simple-minded note of rejoicing it struck in recounting stories of successful survival through luck, quick-wittedness, or the intervention of the Almighty. Holding up for special disapprobation a tale in which a rabbi survives a mass shooting because he is wearing a garment with apparent magical properties, Josipovici icily asks, “What kind of God is this who saves those with magic cloaks and not others? What kind of faith is this that rejoices in personal safety and spares no thought for those who did not get up?”
Josipovici's question rings throughout Wartime Lies. The account of the aunt's brilliant charade of “identification with the aggressor” is told in full awareness of its moral ambiguity. The image of “those awful trains” haunts the book, as do the shades of “those who did not get up.” The foreground fairy story of survival is but a prism through which the horror story of the Holocaust is refracted. In the relationship of the boy and the aunt we see a kind of distorting mirror image of the relationship of the Jew and the Nazi. Although the aunt is “good,” her methods have a heart-freezing Teutonic efficiency, and the boy's abject dependence on her has a chilling pathos. Embedded in Begley's narrative of the boy's ambivalence toward his too powerful and too desirable protectress and of his, perforce, weak struggle to free himself from her iron hold—since his life depends on strict obedience and adherence to her program of survival—is a meditation on authoritarianism of great subtlety and originality.
The author is a fifty-seven-year-old New York lawyer who has not previously written fiction. He and I have been friends for years. I have known that he spent the war years in Poland, but until reading this book, I did not know anything about his wartime experiences; he never spoke of them. After reading it, I begin to know what he must have experienced, since a book like this could not have been written except out of first-hand knowledge of the history it chronicles. The Holocaust is permanently lodged in the unconscious memory of our time; we cannot free ourselves of our grief and anger. Wartime Lies, even as it brings these emotions to the surface, denies us the solace of catharsis. The crime was too great, the motive unfathomable.
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. Fateful, not just because of Hitler's acquisition of power, but because Maciek's mother died in childbirth. Wartime Lies is constructed as a kind of reverse Bildungsroman, charting the growing maturity of the young Maciek, but instead of gaining a sense of self-knowledge, Maciek is increasingly aware of the necessary loss of “self” which enables him to survive on “aryan papers”. He is a “scrawny and nervous” child. Maciek's Aunt Tania (his mother's sister) acts throughout as his surrogate mother and, along with his Polish nanny before the war, begins to nurse him back to health. The early chapters are written in fairy-tale mode as if to stress the wonderment and romance of his ‘normal” well-to-do Polish upbringing. Speaking of his grandfather “in that golden fall of 1937”, Maciek thinks of himself as “his hope, the little man to whom he was teaching all his secrets, the heir to his farms and forests and broken dreams”.
After this “season of enchantment”, the “fabric” of his youth begins to unravel and his aunt and grandfather are, eventually, forced to go into hiding with him and to travel precariously throughout Poland as “aryans”. The figure of Tania dominates the novel, as she both exerts an absolute control over Maciek, and also takes a perverse pleasure in the freedom of her newfound role as his saviour. According to Jewish tradition, Tania was expected to marry Maciek's father after the death of her sister. Her refusal to do this, and her sexual adventures as a single woman, made her a family outcast in peacetime but an indispensable asset during the Nazi occupation. After learning to type German by copying page after page of a German novel, she sleeps with a Nazi bureaucrat in her home town who, in turn, helps protect her. Later on, the haughty tone of her educated German persuades a guard at the railway station in Warsaw to let her and her family travel on a “civilian” train. The entrepreneurship which she demonstrates selling black-market Polish vodka during the war would have been gently quashed in less harrowing times.
Louis Begley makes an essential distinction between Tania's necessary public immorality and her private regimentation of Maciek in order that he can pass muster as a Polish Catholic. It is, precisely, Maciek's inability to distinguish between public and private deceit in this way that is the author's main concern. At a young age, “wartime lies” become ingrained in Maciek as part of his consciousness and, with this devastating loss of identity, he is unable to “recover” completely after the war. Only his circumcised penis prevents Maciek from a total surrender to Polish Catholicism. (Deborah Dwork, in her recent study of Jewish youth in Nazi Europe, points out that circumcised boys were often dressed as girls to evade this notably absolute form of identity check.) But even in post-war Poland, with the continuation of antisemitic pogroms, Maciek avoids “urinating in public places and otherwise displaying that telltale member”. This was, in the end, the much-reduced sum of his “identity”.
Wartime Lies is an extremely polished book, and this is both its strength and its undoubted weakness. Unlike a writer such as Aharon Appelfeld (also a child survivor of the Holocaust)—who imbues the very fabric of his fiction with a sense of the disjunction between his childhood memories and the words used to describe them—Begley assumes that the smooth, moralistic retelling of his story can, somehow, do justice to it. Those who wrote their memoirs soon after their experiences in the death camps, such as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, were painfully aware of the inadequacy of the words which they were using. I hope that Begley will now go on to tell his own wartime story directly and realize that there is no such thing as “wartime truths”, only different kinds of lying.
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 him to move easily among the bourgeoisie without upsetting the social balance. Posted to Paris in the late 1960s to deal with international co-financing contracts, he manages to play the World Bank off against the Japanese government, flatter the pride of both parties and secure funding for a key project in Brazil.
But professional success conceals personal failure. Even before he went to Paris, Ben was divorced from Rachel, who first gave the gawky immigrant student a “crash course in the good life”. His stepdaughters, now students themselves, have become “bad loans”, treating Ben as a mere careers adviser. In his flat by the Jardin du Luxembourg, he pursues regular assignations that scarcely deviate from the purely physical until he meets Véronique.
We see Véronique from two sides: Ben's own notes (the “Notabens”, a loose-leaf diary scribbled on hotel letterheads), and the observations of Jack, Véronique's transatlantic cousin and Ben's old college friend. It is Jack who has performed this “work of the imagination”, collating and editing Ben's chronology, which contrasts with his own contented marriage, family holidays and easy management of minor corporate life.
“A friend such as I sufficed,” Jack remarks, a steady point of reference with the kind of personal history Ben can feel comfortable with. The Notabens, though, reflect a despairing condescension at how little this oldest of friends knows him: “Poor Jack! … is it possible he doesn't understand what has happened to Me?”
What has happened to Ben is unremarkable. Unable to be a father himself, he has lost his stepchildren after the divorce from Rachel. But when Véronique offers to leave her husband (the red-blooded lawyer to whom Ben has been channelling work), it is the thought of her young son Laurent that makes Ben dither. He would not, he fears, be able to love the boy properly, and would lose his surrogate offspring a second time. After a season of liaisons dangereuses, Ben moves too late and is left unbearably alone: “I reek of loneliness and loss.”
The locations—Paris, Biarritz, Copacabana, New York—and the high-life characters promise another literary soap opera. But Begley forestalls sneers by cutting out the pop-psychology and concentrating instead on precise historical immersion. Just as he fixed every detail of occupied Lvov and Warsaw in Wartime Lies, here we have Paris in 1969: the streets, restaurants, tailors and parks in a city where Pompidou is the president, not an arts centre.
It is Begley's immense facility for the appropriate habits and places that create a time-bubble (with the odd newspaper headline: US in Vietnam, Brandt in Warsaw) and, because it is perfect, a sense of great distance. Only when Ben's stepdaughter tries to bully Ben back to reality and out of the “jetset rut” does it become clear what an elaborate and complete world her father—and Begley—have manufactured.
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 the point of telling him that for his own sake he should ‘cut it out’ but stopped myself—for how was this bit of self-improving ablation to be performed?” Jamesian discretion, though, is often absent: “This deficiency [Ben's infertility] has been, after all, at the time when it mattered, one of his prime qualities: explosion upon explosion within her, torrents of effluvia mixing, and no fear of conception!”
Jack is patrician, Ben a post-war refugee from Hungary, and Jewish. Jack, though normally prejudiced against “strivers and achievers”, makes a partial exception for Ben: “As his ascent to gentility proceeded, Ben neither checked at the door nor took trouble to emphasize the fact that he was a refugee Jew: probably, the worst that can be said is that he seemed to expect to be forgiven for it and did not appear vexed when he wasn't.” The suave disdain of this (why “worst”?) is presumably intended to show—and the novel's twin viewpoints, of protagonist and witness, more or less demand—some judicious refraction of values. But reader gets little help from author when it comes to detecting the real difference between Jack and Ben, once full gentility has been achieved.
The pathos of riches is not an unworthy subject for literature (The Great Gatsby comes to mind), but it calls for careful handling. Neutral worldliness can easily shade into snobbery, a poison which only the rarest metabolism, like Proust's, can handle. In The Man Who Was Late there is less sifting of true values from false than confounding of the two. When a person can be dismissed with equal finality for eating sauce with his fork and being an explicit racist, both things come to seem offences against manners.
The pathos of riches is fine in principle; the pathos of seeing someone wearing the most beautiful suit in the world, of being on the point of asking for the tailor's name, and then realizing that you won't be in Rio long enough to have even the first fitting; or of finding the odd lump in a chocolate soufflé (should we send it back?) is in practise easy to resist.
Some passages, without being actively funny, belong to a comedy struggling in vain to be born: “Was this his punishment? he wondered. Was he condemned to pore over restaurant guides and wine lists like Sisyphus rolling his rock uphill?” He may be Sisyphus, but Tantalus at least would envy him, since “Ben liked, even in the worst of times, to eat always, in each restaurant he frequented, the one dish in which he believed it excelled.”
There's no doubt that Louis Begley, whose first novel, Wartime Lies, won prizes, knows the peculiarities of, say, French telephones and French custody cases. There's a nice moment when a Frenchman, cuckolded by Ben, retaliates by speaking only English to him from then on. At times, Begley writes as if translating from French (“he composed the number” for dialled) by force of cosmopolitan habit. But too often the worldliness is acidulated by xenophobia and misogyny.
As Ben falls apart rather undramatically in Geneva, a certain self-disgusted wit creeps into the writing:
Each woman out at this hour might be for sale. He had no experience of Geneva's streetwalkers. Did they wait at street corners on heels like stilts, their skirts a mere loincloth, or was the password given by signs of a subtlety worthy of this city, so that the demeanour and garb of a young mother signaled for the connoisseur the nature of her corruption as surely as a colored tag stuck into Camembert told a good housewife that it was ripe to serve that evening?
By the end of The Man Who Was Late, Ben's privilege has come to taste only of ashes in his mouth. Unfortunately that acrid flavour has been very successfully communicated to the reader's palate much earlier in the book.
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.
But the grotesque shadows form even before the new story gets going. We are greeted, for example, by his narrator, Jack (last names are never given for any characters), who introduces himself as someone who has recently published a short novel. “My book was a success with critics and public,” he tells us. “Many heard in it echoes from Melville and Crane; a reviewer's concluding line, that I had ‘set down the postwar generation's theodicy’ … was quoted everywhere.” In short, Jack is a first writer utterly astonished at being “taken seriously,” “although nothing of the sort had crossed my mind. Until I decided that I must write this story, I did not undertake any other work of imagination. There was no subject that engaged me sufficiently.” Can this be a suggestion of the author's amazement over his own reception?
And, through this narrator—a confident American-born Harvard graduate with otherwise impeccable early credentials, an affluent family, a good upbringing and now a flourishing career as journalist and author—are we not really looking at Begley's view of his secret self, the man he might have been?
Certainly, Jack's deep involvement with Ben and his apparently flourishing American life is curious to start with. Though the two had been at Harvard together for a time, they had never encountered one another there. Culturally unrelated, and with no physical resemblance, this nimble, compact “Hungarian-looking … postwar refugee from Central Europe” appears to Jack, with his “oddness and the touch of the exotic about him,” as rather a contrast to his own American ease, his blond hair, his Germanic looks. Yet, Jack explains, that “didn't put me off”; on the contrary, “these qualities drew me to him like a magnet.”
Jack's intimacy with Ben, his identification with every nuance in his personal affairs, can only confirm our suspicion that he is an alter ego, a ghost of the man our hero might have become had history been kinder. And it is he who immediately observes the singular flaw in Ben—a man, Jack explains, inevitably doomed to be “late in the major matters of existence.”
Indeed, this is the metaphor for Ben's life. It becomes the haunting and haunted theme of the novel. In truth, the author shows us that such a ghost permeates the lives of all survivors of this century's most brutal crime.
The realization then becomes the darkest shadow of all to descend upon Begley's subject. Ben's high life, his adroitness in international business are meaningless after all. He is unable to engage the lives of others; he hates himself as one tainted, spoiled. Ben merely impersonates life in all his various worldly activity. As he tells us throughout the book, “I reek of loneliness and loss,” or “I have told you what I am like inside—barren, dark, and desperate.”
His first marriage to a rich socialite, his hesitant approaches to his stepchildren and their callous rejection of his love, his subsequent passion for, yet passivity with, his lover, Veronique—all are desperate attempts to clutch at life. Always, they are somehow inadequate, ineffectual, altogether too late.
Ben, in the voice of his narrator and in his own voice too (diary entries designated quaintly within the work as Notaben), is Begley's own meditation on the ineluctable guilt suffered by Hitler's victims, an unavoidable dilemma, no matter what their future achievements may be. This is a subject much discussed by his predecessors in Holocaust literature. Thus, the ghost of Primo Levi is particularly visible here, with his penetrating observation of the permanent scars, the effects of humiliation, brutalization, victimization. One remembers Levi's own solution, suicide.
Begley's survivor is no exception. He is unforgiving and unforgiven. Perhaps the only moment Ben is truly alive is when he takes a Brazilian whore away with him to a secret island. There he need make no pretense, he simply buys his way in, grabbing for his demeaned self whatever he desires.
If, in The Man Who Was Late, Begley explores territory much traveled the last half-century, he has nonetheless brought to that history a powerful and tender understanding, and renders it devastating all over again.
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 time they are in their teens, the marriage has gone sour and his stepchildren reject him. These dispiriting events coincide more or less with his posting to the Paris branch of his bank in the early Seventies. The present begins there, but the past erupts into the telling of it, not in one big flashback, but bit by bit.
The narrator is Ben's best friend, Jack. Jack is more a novelistic device than a character. His happy marriage functions as a foil to Ben's loneliness, and he keeps a benign, but watchful, eye trained upon the roots and motivation of Ben's every impulse and action—which are already under surveillance by Ben's own less merciful eye. Jack is able to turn on Ben's voice for the reader by quoting from his letters and from the notes he finds after his friend's death. Each note is headed “‘Notaben’—the sort of pun of which Ben was monotonously fond.” The undertow in all of them is the unhappy knowledge that
his younger years had been emptied of meaning by the New World. He would shut a gate of bronze upon them. The storehouse of all the shame and vulnerability in his life would be locked; a private museum of curios with but one visitor, himself, to stare at the degraded and rejected lares and penates. Only new acquisitions and artful forgeries would be on show. Clothes make a man, and with even greater power, so do lessons learned in the right sort of childhood. Within the limits of verisimilitude, he would have both [my italics].
In fact Ben's acquisitions and forgeries are psychological and intellectual only; he is too subtle—and perhaps too proud, though Begley is too subtle to allow him to say so—to go all the way to forging the actual circumstances of his past. Jack and, presumably, the rest of his circle know all about them if only because Ben “liked to joke that he was his own invention and therefore never could be certain how he really felt about anything or anybody.”
In Paris he throws himself into a varied and very sexy sex life, which fails to cure his chronic melancholy or his dread of being unattached and uncommitted; “Unfortunately, I can't bear freedom. Antidote for freedom: multiply Ben's obligations.” Quite soon he is introduced to Jack's cousin Véronique, half French, half impeccably New England, with a loving nature, highly strung and highly sexed. Véronique is married to Paul, who beats her. There is a suggestion that she quite likes that, but she doesn't like Paul, who is an unsympathetic and soulless man only interested in field sports. Ben begins a delirious affair with Véronique, erotic and tender as well: she wants to heal him, and he feels she might be able to. Soon she is ready to leave Paul. Ben hesitates: not because he does not truly love Véronique, but because he does not love himself enough to accept her love. There are minor impediments which he turns into serious scruples; he is sterile, and his experience with his stepchildren makes him worry about how things will go with Véronique's little boy.
During Ben's absence on an inter-continental business trip Véronique dramatically commits herself to him by declaring to her husband's assembled family that she is leaving him. Ben, meanwhile, half deliberately allows the obstacles of necessary caution, postal vagary, and global time to keep him out of touch with Véronique. Her revenge is to get pregnant by a disgusting stranger who gropes her on a journey back from skiing in Verbier. Afterward she forces Paul to sleep with her, declares the child to be his, and patches up the marriage. When Ben returns to Paris, she agrees to lunch, furiously makes love with him afterward, then walks out. Some weeks later he kills himself: not as he had planned, by taking an overdose, but by diving from the Pont de la Machine in Geneva, where the Rhone flows through a grid. He had recently expatiated to Jack on the concept of defilement—“a condition worse than dishonor or disgrace”—in Pierre Jean Jouve's novel Le Monde désert, whose hero dies in the same place in the same way.
The denouement is not as farfetched as it might seem in résumé because it is properly rooted in Véronique's rather hysterical nature and in Ben's existential predicament: “‘I myself am hell.’” What Milton's Lucifer actually says is “myself am Hell.” It is uncharacteristic of Ben to get a quotation wrong; perhaps he does it under the strain of misery. He must be the most literate hero in recent literature, “not always able to keep literary references or analogies in check, so that a book that held his attention had a way of infiltrating his daily life.” Besides Jouve, the references include Rilke, Proust, Thomas Mann, Keats, Aragon, Mallarmé, Shakespeare, Yeats, Montherlant and probably many more. Rimbaud does not seem to figure, although his famous lines:
par délicatesse j'ai perdu ma vie
would make a suitable epigraph for the novel. I don't know whether anyone has ever tried a character like Ben before, but Begley gets a lot of mileage out of the literary infiltration: it defines Ben, adds depth to the de luxe texture of the novel, and is fun for readers who enjoy hunting down hidden allusions and unattributed quotations.
Ben's suicide takes place under the sign of Pierre Jean Jouve, but his early days in Paris are “infiltrated” by Malte Laurids Brigge. Jack finds his friend's identification with Rilke's desolate hero a bit exaggerated, because while Malte lives in a squalid attic and knows no one, Ben has a chic apartment entre cour et jardin in the rue du Cherche-Midi, an office in the Place Vendôme, and frequents the society of well-heeled, well-connected bankers and lawyers, the Paris equivalent of his New York set. When Ben discovers he is suffering from a nervous disorder which affects his driving, he hesitates to consult a doctor because “the vision of Malte in his ‘tolerably decent suit’ among the doctors of the neurological ward of the Salpêtrière provided a literary, and therefore acceptable, reason for delay.” Still, even in his destitute condition, Malte has something for Ben to envy; the portraits and the ghosts in his ancestral home in Denmark. Jack misses that point.
If Rilke governs the opening and Jouve the end of Ben's story, the middle is overseen by Choderlos de Laclos and Proust. Laclos is in charge of the erotic passages, which are numerous and assured: there is even one in which Ben props his copy of Les Liaisons dangereuses against the bottom of the German-Brazilian call girl who accompanies him to a seaside resort near Rio after he has triumphantly directed a multinational petrochemical deal there.
Proust, on the other hand, is all-pervading but invisible—or else I have missed an overt invocation to him. Begley's novel is about the alienation of the displaced person and the impossibility, for the outsider, of ever “passing” completely, at any rate in his own eyes. But it deals also—and with enthusiasm—with the half-enamored, half-contemptuous engagement of its hero with society—society in Proust's sense of le monde. It takes seriously the business of being bien élevé, comme il faut, à la page, of going to the right tailor, the right gunsmith, the right New York restaurant (where the waiter remembers your parents), the right beach, the right ski resort, and of dining with the right people—Joe Alsop when in Washington, for instance. Begley's expertise on these matters matches his expertise on the international financial scene—the account of Ben's petrochemical deal worked out in Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, and Geneva is a triumph of exposition backed up by a feel for the excitement, exhaustion, exasperation, and exhilaration that go with deals.
The input of worldly savoir-faire makes enjoyable and instructive reading and provides cosmopolitan chic. It is not just glossy local color or showing off, though. The point of the novel seems to be the tension between, on the one hand, the world the hero has conquered and reluctantly values too highly, and, on the other, the secret, tragic knowledge in his heart that he had killed his past and thereby devalued his present. This is the classic predicament of the immigrant outsider, and usually presented as social and psychological. But taken to its logical conclusion it becomes a religious predicament. Of course, the all-knowing, all-seeing Ben recognizes this, and it only increases his misery. Just before his death he recalls an incident in the past when he couldn't bring himself to tell the legend of Saint Martin to Jack's loved and loving wife—“the story of the man who gave his coat to a beggar.” The reason, he sees, “is that I am without charity (therefore without love) and full of envy.”
Begley's first novel was beautifully paced and controlled, but structurally undemanding. In spite of its tragic basis, it was a straightforward thriller, beginning at the beginning and ending at the end. With The Man Who Was Late the organization is as sophisticated as the content. It is a very clever, elegant, and readable novel, and very serious as well.
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 T&C tone: La Rumorosa, for that was the name of the … villa on the promontory just below Bellagio, where Lake Como divides to form a pair of clown's pantaloons, blue and green, gold-speckled and shimmering, was one of those places where, sooner or later, everyone stayed.”
Even Max, our narrator, a Harvard law professor from solid, if not exactly moneyed, stock, admits he wouldn't have been invited on his own into this rarefied world. He's neither rich nor socially ambitious enough. He's arrived at La Rumorosa on the coattails of an old college pal with connections.
Begley's characters will soon find heartlessness, madness, cruelty and death ready to invade their privileged world. No barroom brawls here. People who know how to dress and use language well are less likely to resort to blows. But they are masters at destroying one another all the same.
Another guest at La Rumorosa is Charlie Swan, whom Max knew at college. Charlie, a world-famous architect, is a man of “extraordinary height and tightly curled hair very short, so that his head reminded one of a Roman bust.” Charlie proves quite the Roman.
He looks at human relationships in terms of pure politics—those who are loyal, those who betray. One night Charlie corners Max and verbally assaults him. Max “betrayed” him in the past when he “took so little time to know [him].” Charlie commands friendship as Caesar might have: “Henceforth, you are one of my intimates—they are very few! … Do not betray me again!”
Fate will have a way of forcing Max to take the trouble to know Charlie. He will also take the trouble to know a beautiful young man—“Eros himself”—called Toby, whom Max first spots by the pool at the villa. The young American, barely out of his teens, is Charlie's lover, protégé and ultimate source of destruction.
Max confesses that he is someone to whom “relationships don't stick.” What he doesn't recognize is that he hasn't taken much trouble to know people in general. He has lived both financially and emotionally close to the bone, the nice, vague guy moving cautiously through life. He couldn't be more different from arrogant, commanding, misogynistic Charlie—the man of grand passions, career, friendship, the seeker of love and pain.
Then mild Max inherits a fortune from a remote relative. The “right people” suddenly stick to him. He receives his very own invitation to La Rumorosa. “Vespasian was nuts to say that money has no smell,” Max observes, wryly. He sees through it all, but he's never had such a good time either.
Over the next decade Max continues to observe the relationship with Charlie and Toby from an intimate point of view. Toby proves only adequate as an architectural protégé. He doesn't share Charlie's friends or love of culture. He's bisexual and promiscuous.
What exactly is between Charlie and Toby? It's not always clear, but at one point Begley introduces a metaphor that, in a handful of words, sums it up. Describing the Saudi passion for birds of prey, Max says to Toby:
“‘Training hawks is a very cruel process. The eyelids of the young birds are stitched closed, to make them blind, and therefore dependent on their owner. Then when the bird's dependency is judged sufficient, they cut the stitches and real instruction begins.’
“‘Stop,’ [Toby] said. ‘I don't want to think of these things.’”
As Max Saw It, without ever mentioning the word, confronts AIDS and the bravery, sacrifice, commitment and horror it engenders. It's the early '80s by the end of the story, and it is clear that something is seriously wrong with Toby.
Toby, intellectually and morally weak, fights dying. Charlie, ever the Roman, encourages him to embrace his mortality. His own willingness to do this brings the novel to a shocking close.
Begley is not the clearest of writers. There are confusing passages, characters who appear and disappear without much explanation, strangely clinical digressions. But he continues to face the unanswerable, fundamental issues in fiction that is elegantly wrought.
“You have heard the music of the spheres?” Charlie, a little drunk, asks Max. “It is the upgathered howl of pain, rising from every corner of the earth.”
Pain there may be, but such sublime writing as this can make us cry as well.
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 the whitest of Manhattan's white-shoe law firms. He sets up high-stakes international deals of fiendish complexity, is made a partner. His first marriage ends in divorce, and he eventually marries a French intellectual, a published historian; he has five gifted children. He is at home in Paris; he is at home in New York. At age 55, he takes a brief sabbatical from law and starts to write a novel about a child who survives the Holocaust. Three months later, the book [Wartime Lies] is complete, and when it is published it wins literary prizes throughout the world.
His second novel [The Man Who Was Late,] written during weekends, appears the following year, and critics call his prose Jamesian and Whartonian (others invoke Balzac and Proust, while a few express reservations about the main character, an international financier who in childhood survived the Holocaust). That same year Vanity Fair certifies his mainstream appeal with a flattering profile, while the literary community decrees its approval by tapping him for the presidency of the PEN American Center.
Begley's success with his first two novels, Wartime Lies and The Man Who Was Late, entitle the reader to great expectations of As Max Saw It, just out from Knopf (Forecasts, Mar. 7).
And while the author is modest, his pleasure in his work—legal and literary—is evident in the very care he takes in choosing his words. He answers questions in what sound like polished paragraphs, thoughtful arguments reasoned in measured, deliberate phrasings. He apologizes that he mumbles, but his voice, while soft, is clear and his language elegantly articulated. Only his aristocratic, not quite definable European accent would indicate that English is not his native tongue.
There is “nothing mysterious,” he says, about his command of language. “You see, obviously, I like language. I like words. I dislike sloppiness in language. I love the English language, and I think I did from the very moment I began to learn it.
“In Central Europe, learning another language is not an unusual undertaking,” he continues, pausing to confirm that Polish is his first language. “For a brief period when I was a boy, I spoke Russian, which is a language I've completely forgotten; I can't speak it anymore but I still understand it when it's spoken distinctly and I have a notion of what the conversation is essentially about, so that I get my bearings. I spoke nearly perfect German, I learned French and I learned English. I began to learn English in Cracow when I was in my first year of high school, the gymnasium or lycée, whatever you want to call it. There was an interval [after the war] during which my parents and I lived in Paris, and I went, I think, to Berlitz, and that was it.”
By the late '40s, when Begley was a student at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, his English was sufficiently fluent that the school magazine was publishing his stories; he continued to write during his first years at Harvard, where his work appeared in the Harvard Advocate. He did not, however, entertain thoughts of a writing career: “I did not think that I had any talent, particularly. More important, I did not think I had anything to say. I did not think I understood this country at all. And I was tired of writing sad-little-boy stories.”
On the other hand, he thought he might like to earn a graduate degree and become “some kind of professor of literature.” But after graduating, he volunteered for the draft and served in Germany, and the urge to devote himself to literary theory “passed.”
He applied to Harvard Law School, although becoming a lawyer “was not something I had ever wanted to do,” he says. “I needed to do something that would put me in the way of making some money. It was done out of pure ignorance. I knew nothing about the law, and I knew nothing of what being a lawyer implied. It was as if someone had said, You know, there's a coffee plantation, do you want to run a coffee plantation? And I had said yes. It would be just as plausible.”
As Begley discusses his legal career, his enthusiasm—and his ironic wit—become even clearer. Describing his first years in practice, then as now with the firm Debevoise & Plimpton, he mentions unnamed but complicated-sounding projects: issue of debt in Scandinavian countries; a “rather ambitious” program of financings of installations in Holland and Belgium; “some obscure subventions” in English ship construction.
Begley went to Paris when Debevoise & Plimpton opened an office there in 1956. “That gave me—like a private detective's license—my international-lawyer license. I became a partner when I was in our Paris office, and when I came back,” he says gleefully, “I was a towering authority on international matters.”
International law, says Begley, “is the most amusing form of practice: there is the most variety, in terms of the problems and the people with whom one works, the cross-cultural—to use a pompous word—aspects and the reconciling of seemingly impossible-to-reconcile points of view.”
At this stage the lawyer and the writer converge: “I like the elegant solution to a difficult problem. I like bringing some sort of order out of chaos. I like the process of negotiation, because it's sort of a demonstration, usually, of the proposition that right reason prevails.”
This passion for order can be seen in his approach to his fiction, much of which has very visible autobiographical roots. But do not mistake his work for memoir. “As soon as you begin to tell a story you begin to organize reality in a way that life is not organized.
“Of course, everything in a serious novel comes out of a writer's life, inevitably. Where else would it come from? At least in my case, it comes out as a very changed production. If I wanted to, I could take particular scenes and say, This is something that happened, not here but in some other place, in the following, different ways.
“But I'm not sure that I would get it completely right,” he adds, “because there is a process of idealization, there is a process of parody at work, there is the desire to pull somebody's leg—I'm not quite sure whose—so all these things are there, and then there is the strange power of words. Words lead one on. A word will come into one's head, and one wants to do something with that word, and pretty soon there is a sentence. And all the things that are inside you go into that sentence.”
Begley can't say just what prompted him to write his first book at the age of 55. “People had always asked me, Why aren't you writing a novel? And I would say, I have no novel to write, and besides, I have no time—both of which were completely true. And then I had this short sabbatical, and I began to write—on the first day of it. I did not stop until I finished. Why then? I cannot tell you. There must be some things that one cannot explain.”
In fact, a few years before, Begley had written approximately 30 pages that would find their way into Wartime Lies. He had kept the pages and, after rereading them, took up where he'd left off. “Why did I not continue earlier? I do not know. Those 30 pages are the introduction, and they could have led in many directions.”
Three months later, he was finished. He showed his work to his friend Gregor von Rezzori, the author of Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. “I wanted to know Grisha's views,” he says. Meanwhile, von Rezzori was so impressed that he showed the manuscript to his own editor, Elisabeth Sifton, then at Knopf. (“I had an agent, Georges Borchardt,” Begley explains. “This was quite out of the normal or authorized course of events.”)
“I've always been in love with the little borzois, so I was just thrilled,” he continues. He remained with Knopf following Sifton's departure: “I am a very loyal type. I always buy my vegetables at the same grocer's stand, I always go to the same restaurants. I like Knopf, and I like George Andreou, with whom I principally deal now. I'm very happy.”
He wrote the second novel, he says, “just to make sure that I could.” As for Max, [As Max Saw It] “I think I also wrote it to be sure I could write Number Three.”
The source of As Max Saw It is less seemingly obvious than the sources for Wartime Lies and The Man Who Was Late. Begley, who, prior to completing Max, had told interviewers simply that it was about “death,” amends his description: “I suppose that it sounds pretentious, but it's a story about the ripening of the narrator's heart. That's one story, and the other story is a love story. And to me that's the most important. It's a book about human solidarity.”
Max, the narrator, has lovers and wives, but the principal love story in the book revolves around Max's Harvard classmate, Charlie, and the much younger Toby. Charlie, says Begley, is a kind of demiurge, a man of extraordinary vitality, while Toby, described in the book as “Eros himself,” is destroyed by AIDS. Charlie's response to Toby's illness “ripens” Max's heart.
Toby's disease is not named in the book. “AIDS as such is not the point of book,” explains Begley. “The point of the book is the sharing in the act of dying, the willingness to share, knowing that the action itself is absurd.
“A number of very, very close friends have died of AIDS. I was very deeply affected by their deaths and I was very deeply affected by the position of their lovers who survived.
“The sorrow of the dying, and the sorrow of surviving, meant a great deal to me. There is also a great question, in the case of AIDS, for the survivor. Is he going to survive, is it just a suspended death sentence? To me we're all in the process of dying, anyway, which is something I think about all the time—and so AIDS, on a certain level, for me, is just a more horrible way of dying than some. In the inventory of horrors that everyone has in store for her or for him, there is a lot to choose from,” he says with a grim laugh. “We don't have the choice. I have the health of a horse, but none of us know what is going on inside our little cells, just what nasty surprises are being prepared for us.
“So I was very much affected. I've always been obsessed—although I do not want to use that word—by dying. What is it like to die? What is it like to be with someone who is dying? How does one maintain the flow of love and sympathy in the face of suffering? How does one not yield to the very human—for me, anyway—instinct to turn one's face away, because, after all, it's a horrible spectacle. In relation to one such death, I happened to be taking a long walk, and I imagined an ending to such a process of dying exactly like the ending of that book. And so, having imagined that ending, I then constructed the rest of the book.
“Paradoxically, I claim that I hate sick people. I have a stock story that I did not become a doctor, which is what my father wanted me to do, because I hate sick people. That is not entirely true. I am very good with sick people myself. But I know that for me it is almost unnatural. Because I think I know the face of sickness very well. It is as though it is the face that I see in the mirror, although I have never been sick. I have a passion for life, and I also have complete certainty of my own death.
“You could say that I'm a person of some contradictions.”
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 marriage to one of Schmidt's former protégés, an attorney Schmidt increasingly cannot abide and stranger, still for Schmidt, a Jew. All of which brings to the fore the unconscious assumptions and prejudices Schmidt has lived by even as his family falls by the wayside in the modern world.
Popular fiction has long tended to ignore the intricacies of old-world corporate America. While the outsider and the corporate “bad guy” are staples in the stories we tell each other, those quietly at work behind the mergers and acquisitions that shape our world remain almost invisible. Yet for more than a decade now Begley has chronicled this world glimpsed only occasionally in the alcoves of Manhattan. While this has often evoked comparisons to James and Wharton, these are not mere novels of manners. Instead, 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.
And for Schmidt, that disarray is everywhere. The title of this novel can be taken in two ways because the story is really concerned with what has happened around Schmidt in the years since he last looked up from his desk. About Schmidt, the corridors of power and the “right” vacation towns have moved. About Schmidt, the manners and mores of the corporate classes have coarsened and changed, and the composed, well-rounded sophisticates in his firm have been replaced by drones devoted to billable hours.
Even Schmidt's own unwitting success has cut him off from the younger generations; as his real estate has appreciated by 50 times over the years, his own daughter cannot afford to accept the gift of Schmidt's house, and towns like Bridgehampton have become unaffordable to the young, leaving them strangely cut off from the world of the present.
All of which has rendered the world unknowable to Schmidt and strained even his tenuous links to other people. Thus, just as Schmidt cannot understand his daughter's decision to work as a public relations flack for the tobacco industry, a profession Schmidt finds both “mercenary and parasitic,” his daughter finds her father distant, narrow-minded and unapproachable. Similarly, although his prospective son-in-law is a young partner at Schmidt's own Manhattan law firm, Schmidt finds that the qualities now cherished at the firm—namely the ability to gauge each interaction as a cost/benefit transaction—are precisely the qualities Schmidt does not desire to see in a relative.
And even Schmidt's links to his own heart are tenuous. Having spent his entire life hiding his deepest desires beneath a veneer of politesse, Schmidt continues to hide behind logic and legal language, as when he defines away his doggedly-pursued affairs during his marriage by invoking the niceties of contract law, or when he defends his latent anti-Semitism with this simple explanation to himself: Why sit in judgment on emotions when his actions are impeachable? Yet, by the time the novel rockets toward its strange conclusion, even Schmidt begins to feel such answers are no longer workable and can no longer give him the measure of contentment that he needs.
Yet this is also a very funny elegiac. Perhaps Begley's most stunning achievement lies in making Schmidt vividly sympathetic, almost mesmerizing, even as his many sins are laid out before us in devastating detail. Some of the most vivid examples in the book create an air of almost unbearable isolation, as when Schmidt recalls making love with his (literally) unconscious wife or relates the simple, stunningly repressed manner in which Schmidt's affair with the family au pair is resolved. In relating such tales, Schmidt's odd mixture of well-mannered pronouncement and elegant black humor manages to communicate both a world of hurt and a surprising, sometimes shocking, resiliency.
In the end, Begley has created a terribly funny, touching, infuriating and complex character in Schmidt, whose self-deceptions and imprisonment by his own world-view stand not only as a devastating portrait of a disappearing world but also sound a strangely evocative cautionary tale. The world turns. The lies we tell each other are fragile. Our prejudices may be as unconscious and unseen as Schmidt's. And if Schmidt does manage a giddy self-liberation at the end of the novel by making the most unlikely of connections, it is to Begley's credit that we aren't quite sure how to take it, just chagrined that the telling detail, the crystalline and evocative prose has to end.
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 lived? Had he worked as hard?”
Poor Schmidt! No matter how many times he totals these impressive sums, his current existence falls painfully short of the comfortable and reassuring balance he might have predicted. His wife—whom he loved dearly despite their unsatisfying sexual relations and his own compensatory casual adulteries—has recently died a harrowing death, from cancer. His reliable milieu of money, tradition and privilege has begun to crumble and vanish, retirement and his subsequent retreat to his house in the Hamptons has made him feel like “an unwanted ghost,” and the prestigious law firm at which he has spent his career is trying to renegotiate and reduce the benefits they owe him.
His only daughter, Charlotte, has somehow grown up to be a chilly and heartless “iron-pumping yuppie,” with no inconvenient moral qualms about her “mercenary and parasitic” job as a public relations consultant for a tobacco company. And as if all this weren't troubling enough, Charlotte is about to be married to an abrasive young bankruptcy lawyer—a “vulgar” and ambitious employee of Schmidt's former firm, the son of two psychiatrists, and, worst of all, a member of Schmidt's least favorite ethnic group. (“His Charlotte, his brave, wondrous Charlotte, intended to forsake all others and cleave to a wonk, a turkey, a Jew!”)
If the sorrows of old “Schmidtie” strike us as somewhat short of fully tragic, less than deeply moving, it's clearly intentional; Begley means us to keep our distance—to withhold our sympathies—from his smug, officious hero. The self-regarding, fussy Schmidt is a virtual compendium of repellent and (one can only hope) outmoded opinions about propriety and social class, race and gender. Nor is there anything about him that we might call charismatic or endearing—no sudden flashes of wit, bravado or charm to make us briefly overlook his wide array of character flaws.
It's this that makes Begley's novel most interesting and nervy. In an era in which critics enjoin writers to make their characters appealing—innocent, lovable victims, more sinned against than sinning—it takes considerable bravery to ignore such critical admonitions, as well as the pressures of a reading public that has been taught that one need not “like” a book unless one “likes” and approves of its protagonist. (One shudders to think how Nabokov's Lolita or, for that matter, Paradise Lost might fare in the current climate.)
About Schmidt rather valiantly struggles against this current. And though the reader keeps waiting uneasily for some cataclysmic or revelatory event to clear the scales from Schmidtie's eyes and turn him into a sharing and caring human, Begley is too honest and conscientious a writer to call in the deus ex machina of easy and unearned redemption. For a while, it seems as if the surprisingly rapid intimacies of Schmidt's new friendship with Charlotte's future mother-in-law, Renata—a sympathetic, if somewhat aggressive, psychiatrist—will work some therapeutic magic on him and turn him into a man of wider and deeper passions. But Renata's first loyalty is to her son and the coldhearted Charlotte—a fact that quickly undermines the good effects of her attentions.
Nor is Schmidt entirely transformed by his love affair with Carrie, an earthy and hard-working young waitress at a local restaurant. Only at the very end of the novel—after a near-disaster—does Schmidt appear to make some slight moral progress.
About Schmidt offers us little in the way of coziness or consolation. We don't feel better about the human condition after having read it. We do, however, appreciate the elegant coolness and accuracy of Louis Begley's almost anthropological study of a dying breed. We admire his honesty, his refusal to equivocate or falsify, to prettify his portrait of a vanishing milieu. His novel is comical, tough, unsparing; it's as if Louis Auchincloss had exchanged the kid gloves for brass knuckles.
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 survives; but his lies become a terrible kind of truth, since he has “been changed inside forever” and has no memories of any “defiant gesture” or even “good deeds” to ennoble his survival.
Maciek tells his own story simply and circumstantially; but at times another voice intrudes, that of someone in his fifties, a cultivated, bookish man who teasingly suggests that he may be a publisher, a professor, or even an agent, but who certainly sounds like a writer. His name was never Maciek, he says, but their memories are similar. His own history is dreadfully illuminated by Dante's visions of a Hell where sufferers evidently deserve their torment, by the horror Virgil's Aeneas felt on seeing the slaughter he escaped from in Troy artfully pictured on Dido's palace walls, by the despairing conviction of Catullus that his love for a hopelessly corrupt woman is a sickness he can never be cured of.
Wartime Lies is not the kind of book that bears repeating, and Begley's next two novels deal with characters who might almost be Maciek grown up. In The Man Who Was Late (1992), Ben (no family name given) is the son of European Jews who came to America during the Second World War; in As Max Saw It (1994), Maximilian Hafter Strong is not Jewish, but his name suggests a wedding of New World Puritan rigor to something like the spirit of Alt Wien.
Like Maciek, Ben and Max were born in the 1930s, and they carried modest social credentials with them to Harvard. Ben, whose closest college friend remembers him as “a turkey: the Widmerpool of Harvard Yard,” was the son of a small-town Jersey City lawyer and insurance broker; Max's parents were an agriculture professor and a librarian at a minor state college. They were quick learners academically and stylistically, and their brains, ambition, and adaptiveness won them entry into the old-line ruling class, Ben as the “house Jew” in a white-shoe New York investment bank, Max as a professor at Harvard Law School. Lawyers and bankers are not favorites of the popular imagination, and some readers may be glad to hear that these men achieve private contentment less readily than professional success. After Ben's marriage to a well-to-do older widow fails, he takes charge of his bank's Paris office and devotes himself to discreet seductions of his friends' wives; but he always finds objects adequate to his desires too late to possess them fully. He also has read too many modern European writers, and in the end he kills himself, choosing the same method of suicide in Geneva as a character in a novel he has read by Pierre-Jean Jouve.
Max begins socially as a kind of presentable “extra man” at the gatherings of the cultivated rich. In time he inherits a tidy fortune of his own from a distant cousin who lost both her sons in the war; but his marriage to an unreliable young Englishwoman fails, and he expends most of his emotional energy in following the homosexual romance between an old college friend, now a famous architect, and a seemingly luminous young man who finally dies of AIDS. In the end, however, he drifts off into marriage and impending fatherhood.
These books cast an only fairly cold eye on the cosmopolitan life of Paris, Lake Como, the Riviera, the Berkshires, and Mount Desert. The characters are superior in intellect and taste to the grandees featured on supermarket book racks and prime-time TV, but they too seem overpleased by elegant clothes, pricey restaurants, and exclusive clubs and hotels, the thrill of doing big deals in Brazil or East Asia and having sex more or less on demand. The books, in short, seem dangerously attracted to the objects of their irony. The narrator in Wartime Lies reports the terrible price of his own survival:
Our man avoids Holocaust books and dinner conversations about Poland in the Second World War even if his neighbor is beautiful, her eyes promising perfumed consolation. Yet he pours over accounts of the torture of dissidents and political prisoners, imagining minutely each session. How long would it have been before he cried and groveled? Right away, or only after they had broken his fingers? … He has become a voyeur of evil, sometimes uncertain which role he plays in the vile pictures that pass before his eyes. Is that the inevitable evolution of the child he once was, the price to be paid for his sort of survival?
In The Man Who Was Late and As Max Saw It the “pictures” are, if not vile, then at least a little coarse, especially the sexual ones, but “evil” seems too big a word for what is being looked at, as if tragic ambivalence were repeating itself as a rather nasty kind of farce.
Both stories are told in the first person, by a respectable Nick Carraway—like friend of Ben's and by Max himself. But the narrator's conventional perspective becomes too narrow for Begley's needs, and other, riskier voices intrude—Ben's own, in the copious, rather pretentious and “literary” little notes (he calls them “Notabens”) that he substitutes for journal-keeping, and in the voice of Max's friend the gay architect, an intellectual bully and pontificator who turns Begley's normally subtle prose to lead. (He keeps saying things like “One has not seen the youth, if indeed in one's distracted contemplation of the surroundings one deigned to notice him, … since he was a child,” a faux-Jamesian clumsiness which, though meant to characterize him alone, keeps leaking out into the speech of Max and others too.) These books are trying, I think, to include more than their commendable brevity can hold, and they sound too much alike.
Begley's novels suggest a disconnected history of a certain kind of sensibility during the last half-century, beginning with the destruction of innocence pictured in Wartime Lies. The Faustian effect of that experience—by which Begley's characters want the consolations of wealth, personal grace, and power even while knowing that to get them may be ruinous—occupies both The Man Who Was Late, whose main events occur between 1969 and 1971, and As Max Saw It, which begins as Nixon is resigning in 1973 and ends with the debacle in Tiananmen Square and the downfall of the Evil Empire. Now, in About Schmidt, Begley brings the story into the 1990s, though with a new kind of central character and a less international scope.
Albert Schmidt, who likes to be called “Schmidtie” even though “bonhomie was not one of [his] characteristics,” is a recently retired and newly widowed partner in an old-line New York law firm. He is American-born, another Harvard man, the only child of a successful admiralty lawyer; far from being Jewish, he's in fact a kind of soft-core anti-Semite. When his only child, Charlotte, decides to marry Jon Riker, a promising young partner in his firm, Schmidt tries to blame his objections to the match on Riker's cultural narrowness and fixation on work, privately calling him a “nerd,” a “wonk,” a “turkey,” before the main animus surfaces: Riker is a Jew, one of those whom his liberal wife Mary taught him to tolerate in his co-op apartment building and the firm (where Riker is in fact his protégé) but whom he really doesn't want in the family.
Like Ben and Max before him, Schmidt lives well. He likes books, serious music, and fine wines, is professionally respected though not a star, and has strong sexual urges. Unlike them, he has married only once, quite happily, and his wife's death from cancer has left him desolate. He was never, to be sure, a faithful husband, enjoying hotel-bar pickups on his business travels and even having a brief liaison with Charlotte's au pair, which Mary discovered but ultimately forgave. But their marriage was affectionate, understanding, and physically passionate, and it had the advantage of social appropriateness—they looked good together, he remembers ruefully, “as though someone had entered us in a dog show.”
To outsiders like Ben and Max, the idea of a good marriage and fatherhood offered a human closeness that might include even them, if they could somehow manage it. Schmidt the insider has had his family, and About Schmidt shows him increasingly unsatisfied with domesticity as he's known it. His daughter, though intelligent and reasonably fond of him, is hardly the creature of his ambitions and culture. She works in public relations, a business he can't respect. She insists on living with Riker before they are married, and she's become, he remarks, “an iron-pumping yuppie,” who cooks, if at all, in a microwave. And she and her father are increasingly at odds about the disposition of the fine country house in the Hamptons bequeathed to Mary years before by a rich aunt and now, awkwardly, worth two million dollars.
Novels are supposed to tell something about the real world, but in most novels about the upper classes money figures only in the decor, the things that money can buy. Begley's books have the great virtue of knowing about money itself, how it's acquired and kept. Mary's house posed her a problem of financial planning. Leaving it to Charlotte would incur heavier inheritance taxes than her estate could pay, meaning that it would have to be sold. Her solution was to leave Schmidt a life estate in the property, with their child as ultimate beneficiary after his death; Charlotte could then pay the taxes with the money he leaves her.
But this arrangement, however neat legally, seems to Schmidt demeaning. It may be a posthumous rebuke for his infidelities, and he hates the idea of being “the dowager on [his] daughter's property” like some genteel widow in Jane Austen, “a slave to a house that would never be his own.” His counter-plan is to surrender his life interest to Charlotte as a wedding present and pay the taxes for her, making good use of the ＄600,000 gift-tax exemption and drawing on his own resources. If he then buys himself a smaller house, he can also (being over fifty-five) avoid paying ＄125,000 of the capital gains tax he owes after selling his hugely appreciated Fifth Avenue apartment.
Such breaks of course never come free. He will still owe a lot in taxes, seriously depleting his capital just when he most needs it. Since the firm is making ominous noises about cutting off his retirement pay well before its scheduled termination when he reaches seventy, he might in the end have to live on ＄150,000 a year (tax free), which seems to him unthinkable, given his accustomed style of living.
Such calculations of financial minutiae may not enthrall readers, but they solidly attach Schmidt to his place in a well-to-do world and they fit with his smaller habits of mind—he keeps his precious books, tools, and wines cool, dry, and orderly like himself, for example, and he enjoys cleaning up after meals. Some of his larger habits are no doubt deplorable—his infidelities and concealments, his condescension to other races and cultures and to “new women” like his daughter, the intellectual dishonesties that infect his professional rectitude. But he's not a monster, as Ben and Max come close to seeming.
A professional sense of equity is evident even in his worst moments. He scorns Charlotte for working on a campaign for the tobacco industry; but he himself smokes cigars and his firm defends asbestos cases, and he knows the weakness of his positions. When he can't avoid having Thanksgiving dinner with Riker's parents—both, to his horror, psychiatrists—he's surprised that they serve excellent wine, and he finds Jon's mother attractive even as she tries to coax him to accept the impending marriage and Judaism itself. He's shocked to learn from Charlotte that he was considered a Jew-baiter at the firm and that this reputation lost him his chance to be managing partner; he carefully reviews this “vile canard,” judges himself innocent on the evidence, but remains “not content.”
Being scrupulously wrong is not always worse than being mechanically and mindlessly right, and in Schmidt's judicious struggles with his and his class's worst habits of mind Begley for the first time in his fiction finds the tone of social comedy. Unlike Ben, Schmidt is not ruined by the failure of his ambitions; nor must he endure the lurid shocks and frustrations Max has to get past on his way to a tenuous and rather contrived-seeming contentment. Schmidt does in a sense lose his daughter—Charlotte even converts to Judaism to punish his reprehensible bias, but by then both Schmidt and the reader have wearied of her prim, self-righteous manner anyway.
The qualified, ambiguous compensations Schmidt gains for himself lead the book into social territory Begley has not previously explored. In a brief but ugly scene near the end of As Max Saw It, Max is obscenely reviled and threatened with an ax handle by a man in a pickup truck, for driving too slow on an icy rural road. This is really the only contact Ben or Max have with the underclasses that the educated and affluent so often lose sight of. Schmidt, however, begins to break out of his grief for Mary and his anger at Charlotte into a larger sense of social possibility, a turning that is prepared for by a delicate similarity of names. “Charlotte” sounds just a little like “Corinne,” the name of the French-Asian au pair girl with whom he went to bed, and quite a lot like “Carrie,” the young woman he gets deeply involved with as the book goes on.
Carrie is about twenty, a waitress at the restaurant Schmidt frequents in Bridgehampton whom he likes to chat with and to whom he feels increasingly drawn erotically. (The restaurant is called O'Henry's, evidently a little joke about what the author has up his sleeve.) She looks “ethnic” to Schmidt's cautious eye—Hispanic or even Negro. She turns out to be half Puerto Rican and half Russian (Russian Jew?, he wonders), but he likes her looks and spunky manner anyway. As they get better acquainted he learns that she has finished a year at Brooklyn College, plans a degree in social work but would rather be an actress, and finds him interesting too.
To avoid Christmas (or Hanukkah) with Charlotte and the Rikers, he vacations alone in Amazonia, reading Nostromo and deciding that “Nature is beautiful and good” even if its creatures are predatory and its workings unjust; on his return, he and Carrie begin a torrid but also fond affair. With some difficulty he manages to talk with her across the culture gap, learning in the process about Bryan, the somewhat feckless young carpenter she lives with in Sag Harbor and feels responsible for, and about the disheveled and smelly derelict who has been mysteriously stalking him. The latter is “Mr. Wilson,” her high-school chemistry teacher and first lover, who has had a breakdown, lost his job, and become one of the homeless. Through Carrie, and through his imagination of these rival males, Schmidt makes some gingerly, fearful contact with the rest of America, the unfavored, unrich majority that Pynchon called the “preterite.”
This achievement of more democratic vistas is healthy for Schmidt even though its first consequences are broken ribs and a collapsed lung sustained when he inadvertently runs over and kills Mr. Wilson in the Long Island fog. He begins to live for the moment, replacing Charlotte, and the ordered life, with Carrie and a life without set plans—he goes so far as not to check into the new law on palimony or the tax consequences of paying her college tuition. The problem of the house and its threat to his income vanishes when his stepmother, to whom his father left everything even though she was rich herself, dies and unexpectedly bequeaths everything to him, including her grand house in West Palm Beach. Even Bryan turns out to be an asset—he has unexpected talents for health care, and he nurses Schmidt tenderly and well after the auto accident; Schmidt resolves to make him the caretaker of the place in Florida and we are left to imagine a ménage à trois under the palm trees.
Begley's previous books gravitated rather anxiously toward Europe, which was seen as the source both of any satisfactory culture and of appalling historical and personal tragedy. About Schmidt turns toward America and the present, exchanging an interest in suffering and failure, with its dangerous possibilities of self-magnification, for comic romance, with its emphasis not on finality but on life going on anyway. If continuation is a less strikingly dramatic subject, it is no less probable and truthful than its converse, and certainly more fun to read about. Leaving apart Wartime Lies, which is sui generis, this is Begley's best book by far, one informed by a relaxed and genial wisdom that, after the social and intellectual flamboyance of its predecessors, seems all the more unexpected and impressive.
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 ladder. In fact, it was Begley's good fortune that led to his interest in one of the oldest themes in literature: the idea of divine capriciousness, which can reward the undeserving and punish the good.
As a writer, Begley also examines the implications of divine justice's secular analogue, poetic justice. And as Begley well understands, this is not a frivolous or merely aesthetic concern. He has a great appreciation for poetic justice, which is shown in his references to the classic literature that has defined our sense of what is poetically just. His skepticism, however, keeps him from writing novels that reflect a supernaturally designed and just universe. Begley's designs, though sometimes incredible, are strictly man-made.
When I met with Begley in 1994, he was already an established literary figure. His third novel, As Max Saw It, was just out and getting good reviews. He was confident the old theme could never be exhausted. Said Begley, “My books are all concerned with death and why we have such a rough time in this world, with the relationship between merit and punishment.” He was then writing About Schmidt, published in 1996. As promised, Begley continues to question the “symmetry in the Almighty's arrangements.”
Begley's preoccupation began during his childhood in Nazi-occupied Poland. The fact that he lived while so many others died has left him with survivor's guilt. The sense of that sting is most effectively realized in his second work, a melancholic masterpiece, The Man Who Was Late (1992). The hero, Ben, has a black sense of humor and an unflinching honesty that is not for the faint-hearted, yet many have found him immensely sympathetic. Begley admitted to me that he too cares “a great deal” about this particular character.
When the book opens Ben has already committed suicide. As executor of his friend's will, Jack has inherited the task of piecing together and shaping Ben's story, explaining his sadness, and explicating his fate, which is, according to Ben himself, to be cursed with cosmic bad timing. If Jack's explanation cannot change things, it can at least make the situation bearable by convincing him that Ben's death was inevitable, even poetically just; nothing anyone could have done, perhaps even would have wanted to do—Jack can say, guiltless in his hindsight—could have prevented his friend from taking his life.
Ben had long suspected that neither long life nor happiness was in the cards that were given him. True in fact? or do he and Jack make it so? It is true that Ben seems to have come bitterly close to happiness on several occasions without ever grasping it. Although Ben is wealthy and professionally successful, he has a knack for arriving too late to be loved.
Like his author, Ben, a Central European Jew who has somehow missed the train to Auschwitz, redefines himself, somewhat guiltily, among the leisured rich in America. Ben attends Harvard, leaving behind, with some regret but perhaps more relief, his uncouth hard-working parents in Jersey City. He marries a beautiful, but now jaded, rich older woman he later divorces, losing his stepdaughters because, he says, “he reeks of loneliness and loss.”
This rejection generates self-hate. Depressed and lonely, he proceeds to carry on several loveless affairs (referred to as “sexual hygiene”), the high point of which is Wednesday afternoons, when one mistress, aptly named Dolores for sadness, “opens her back door to him.” If unhappy, he is at least stable. Then he meets Véronique, the married cousin of the narrator. When the chance of being loved finally arrives, Ben hesitates and then acts too late. Véronique does not forgive him. Ben decides to end his life with an appropriately morbid poetic flourish.
To tell the story, Jack is provided with his own memories of conversations with Ben and a box jammed with Ben's notes, letters, and calendars. Like Conrad's Marlow, Jack relates information gathered from friends and garnered from letters, which Jack quotes in part. The evidence is clear: Ben is late and always has been. Nevertheless, Jack is self-conscious about his attempt to create a perfect explanation, one as artful as the conversations he had with Ben: “Speaking too well, seeking to impose order on casual noon-time chatter, were in fact among the defects and virtues that Ben and I shared.” We can see Jack's doubt as he presents the idea that Ben has always been late—was meant to be late—with rhetorical questions that pretend to be certain, but that in fact hang in suspension, in the high-pitch lilt of inquiry, waiting for our agreement: “To top it all there was the matter of Rachel. … Was it not there that he missed the chance of all chances, the prize sweeter than any other, the bliss of being loved by her? And was not that too a case of being late, arriving after others had raided the pantry of her affections and had left, in place of the sweet honey he craved, only the smudgy marks of their frequent passage?” The narrator's vivid familiarity with Ben's anguish is authoritative, but it is also out of place. What does he know about the state of Rachel's “pantry”? This description begins to make me feel slightly suspicious of Jack's knowledge of Ben's affairs. His narrative later exceeds what he could know, describing in detail as he does thoughts that Ben was not likely to have written down. We cannot be sure what is paraphrased or imagined. Jack may indeed have got carried away with his task and may be freely inventing when he lacks information.
The puppet's strings are to be noted too: that is, our narrator is probably unreliable. The first sign occurs even in the opening passage where Jack says that Ben “always somehow missed his train. … Having studied to death his own version of the universal timetable, he discovered that somehow everything had been timed wrong, had been botched.” As it turns out, Ben isn't actually in the habit of taking or missing trains. What we have here is Jack's vivid but badly chosen metaphor for the way Ben arrived too late for love, “panting on the platform” as it were. But a reader familiar with Begley's work or with his personal history may be distracted by the thought of a train to Auschwitz. It is not revealed in the novel exactly how Ben avoided death in the concentration camps, but the mention of trains in relationship to a Holocaust survivor might easily call to mind cattle cars and inescapable death. Jack's insensitivity is incredible.
I asked Begley why he chose Jack to narrate Ben's story. Jack is a WASP, healthy and sane. Happily married to a woman named Prudence, blessed with two well-adjusted children, is he in a position to understand the likes of Ben? Begley said he thought “the combination of the two [Ben and Jack] might be interesting and amusing. … It's amusing to have a kind of Marlow character.” Both Conrad's Marlow and Jack have a strong sense of propriety and are intensely interested in their subjects, who seem to them moody and, initially at least, impenetrable. They both comment on the unbelievable story-like quality of their friends' lives. To Marlow the poetic justice of Jim's death is
romantic beyond the wildest dreams of his boyhood, and yet there is to my mind a sort of profound and terrifying logic in it, as if it were our imagination alone that could set loose upon us the might of an overwhelming destiny. The imprudence of our thoughts recoils upon our heads; who toys with the sword shall perish by the sword. This astounding adventure, of which the most astounding part is that it is true, comes on as an unavoidable consequence. Something of this sort had to happen. You repeat this to yourself while you marvel that such a thing could happen in the year of grace before last. But it has happened—and there is no disputing its logic.
Equally fatalistic in his view, Jack begins to think that it is perhaps just as well that Ben died: Ben and Véronique would not have been happy anyway. As it turns out, the charming Véronique is a masochist. “I do everything,” she says. “I have always wondered about the things you did not ask me to do, why you never beat me. You know one can.” (Her “one,” a translation from the French, is particularly icy.) She relishes her own eventual ruin and she is not the healthy partner Ben needs. Perhaps it is not just lucky, then, that Ben isn't capable of loving her, that Ben will not join the club that will have him as a member. He says, “Véronique foolishly, blindly, miraculously wants me, gives me her body. … Aha, too late, says incubus Groucho Marx, mustachioed lips grotesquely moving mine,” implying that some outside force is controlling his actions.
I asked Begley to explain why Ben did not value his life, why he drove recklessly “even without a drop having taken.” Said Begley, “Ben is a man who suffers from a disjunction between his apparent life and his perception, his feeling for that life. He's lucky, successful. He has many things he should enjoy very much but he doesn't. Why he doesn't enjoy it is a mystery. Perhaps it has something to do with absence of humility … with his being different … with his being sterile.”
Ben writes in his diary, “I would fain be happy but do not know how.” And so if happiness is impossible, what better option is there for Ben—who shares his narrator's (and his author's) interest in shaping stories—than to change the meaning of his being late? The man who is late is not just not on time, he is dead. Ben relishes bad puns.
In his effort to conform to the conceit that Ben has prescribed for his story, Jack also shows how his deadness is represented in his preference for non-procreative anal sex, masturbation, or in his sterility. “The loneliness that always dogged him turned into shame at the sexual act, because sterility rendered the act futile and as sinful as Onan's.” Jack's train metaphor is also recalled. If Ben was late for the train to Auschwitz, the implication is that he “missed” his true destiny and therefore has been doomed to miss any chance of happiness in life. Reading Jack's long list in which Ben figures as a kind of dead man walking, one starts to get the awful sense that the narrator, too happy to agree with Ben, believes that Ben was meant to die in a concentration camp and has been operating on stolen time until the situation could finally be righted and Ben made to resume his true course, downward to a horrible death in a water turbine in a Genevan river that is “an opaque hell boiling … violently.” By this way of thinking, then, Ben's suicide seems at least to follow a supernatural design.
Ben's notes seem to mock Jack's anticipated willingness to go along with the conceit. As Jack tries to make sense of it all, as he, with misplaced loyalty perhaps, spins his web of sense around the dead man's corpus, he finds that Ben has left some inscrutable hints behind, some odd notations that look like signs and symbols to Jack. It may be that the whole collection of documents is faked, that Ben is playing a practical joke or “striking a pose.” Jack considers this possibility. Nevertheless, Ben's numbered notes make one feel strangely superstitious, as if some meaning has been missed.
When we read a novel we have the tendency (and probably the right) to suspect that every detail is significant, carefully placed by the author. This seems to be what Jack is doing as he reads meaning into the incidental details of Ben's life, but he is following Ben's lead. Ben himself admits that he “imposed order.” “Paradoxes and conceits invented by Ben lent a thematic continuity to [his] conversations” as well as to his life and death.
Jack claims that he had not taken Ben's “irremediable tardiness” seriously until after “the events that brought his life to a tragic close.” Then Jack decides to follow Ben's prescription and to ignore the fact that some of Ben's notes, “messages from the other world,” are “not fully reliable.”
I asked Begley to explain why Ben chose to die in Geneva. “It occurs to Ben that he is trapped,” explained Begley. “He is caught in Geneva, in Calvin's city. Of course, Calvinism has quite a lot to do with predestination. It all comes together.” Symbolically, Ben's death in Geneva does make sense. Ben's belief (if he does really believe) in predestination leads him to see in his life the kind of design that is found in novels. Jack notes that he and Ben have this in common. Ben “was not always able to keep literary references or analogies in check, so that a book that held his attention had a way of infiltrating his daily life.” In Geneva, Ben is invited to follow the same river path that a character in the novel he is reading takes, where that character commits suicide. This coincidence makes him imagine a parallel between his life and fiction. He then imitates that character as if the parallel had been suggested by his “Author.”
The fact that Begley himself was in Geneva while writing the book suggested the ending. I asked Begley if he, like Ben, imposed order on his own life. He said, “I do it all the time, don't you? Everybody who's alive does. It is the ordering function of intelligence.” I did not hesitate to agree with him.
The novel Ben reads in Geneva is Le monde desert. As in The Man Who Was Late the plot involves two men, Luc and Jacques. But whatever the accidental parallels, they certainly do not suggest that Ben is meant to imitate Jacques. When Ben decides his destiny in life is to be too “late” to enjoy it, he is the victim not of cosmic bad timing but of his own taste for making art out of life.
How comfortable are we with this idea of fate so artfully thrust upon us? Not very. Ben himself admits that he is “his own invention.” I think we are invited to resist the sense of Jack's cruel poetic justice, to reject Ben's assertion that his suicide was predestined, to imagine bitterly, wistfully, vainly that Ben might have led a very different life.
In Wartime Lies, the young hero, Maciek, like Ben, escapes the horrors of the Third Reich. Having had to pretend he is not Jewish and to lie to survive, Maciek develops survivor's guilt which later informs his self-perception as it does Ben's. He is especially ashamed when he compares himself to heroes in his favorite Latin classics:
He reveres the Aeneid. That is where he first found civil expression for his own shame at being alive, his skin intact and virgin of tattoo, when his kinsmen and almost all the others, so many surely more deserving than he, perished in the conflagration.
He takes care to keep the metaphor at a distance. His native town in eastern Poland was no Ilium, and even if some SS blackshirt, imperturbably beating an aged former human being with a riding crop, is a pretty good stand-in for Pyrrhus slaughtering Priam, where, in that senseless tableau, are the contending golden-haired gods and goddesses?
Because Maciek's author shares his interest in classic literature as well as several other aspects, many reviewers have pursued the underlying truth in this story. Like the novel's hero, Louis Begley, born Ludwik Begleiter, did survive World War II on Aryan papers, but Begley insists his recollections are vague. He had to invent much of what happens in Wartime Lies and so rightly called it a novel, not a memoir; still, critics tend to pigeonhole it as autobiography. One reviewer said, “The novel's real piquancy was that it did not seem to be a novel,” but a “memory,” a “story that told itself.” I asked Begley what he thought about this disregard for his novel as a consciously shaped work of art. “It's an idiotic statement,” Begley replied, not angrily. “I cannot comment beyond that.” But I could see that he was amused.
Where exactly Wartime Lies stands between life and art, truth and lies, no one, not even Begley, I'm sure, can say. If the novel had more obvious artistic designs than it has, extraordinary designs that could not be explained in terms of probable natural, social, or psychological factors, then these might be the parts of the novel that we could easily identify as its “lies.” If the boy had been saved by some freak accident while others were swept away, if he and his aunt had been on a remote road and had by chance met some helpful relative, if the ones who lied and murdered were justly punished and the innocents were returned home, then Wartime Lies probably would not have seemed like a memoir to our reviewer.
But life has its improbable coincidences and occasional happy endings. These are the times that we wonder if we are not under Providence's rule after all, if there isn't someone out there, up there, or infused throughout the universe who is controlling our lives. These are also the times most of us perceive as story-like.
In Wartime Lies, Maciek would like to believe that God has decreed that he and his aunt Tania should have food while others starve and that they can escape the camps while others do not. But it is Tania who secures the protection of a German soldier and it is Tania and Maciek who contrive to feed and shelter themselves. Maciek knows that they have escaped by their own designs, not God's. No one is up there for this sad small boy but Begley, who cannot, or will not, make a commedia out of his life. Because his life fails to be shaped or contrived it does seem less like fiction, more like a memoir. This is what makes Maciek's story a frustrating paradox: Maciek believes there is no poetic justice in his survival.
Begley has a bookish way of viewing life, forever comparing it to classical literature. This makes him a sad figure—hopeful, but doomed to continual disappointment. As inspiration for Wartime Lies, Begley's literary influences are probably as important as his “real life” experiences—if not more so—because the books he read as a child influenced the way he interpreted his life as he lived it. In a sense, Begley had been fictionalizing his experiences long before he ever thought about becoming a novelist. “Because I read a lot when I was a child, characters out of novels, poems and plays have often been as close to me or closer, perhaps more real, than those who are flesh and blood. So it's natural for me—when I write, when I see people—to refer to things out of books.” It's a habit, Begley reminded me, shared by Maciek and Maciek's father, and “a way of assimilating life with fiction.”
In Wartime Lies, Maciek's experiences are compared to those described by Dante, Virgil, and the ancient Roman lyric poet Catullus. According to Begley these references “provide certain moral landmarks in the story.” Aeneas, like Maciek, emerges from a wrecked existence and must construct a new one. Unfortunately the comparison soon fails because Aeneas, destined to found Rome, had gods and goddesses to guide him. Maciek believes he defied his destiny by failing to board the train to Auschwitz. Forced to forsake his Jewish religion, Maciek has no God. He tries to replace religion with literature, seizing on a poem by Catullus because, explained Begley, “Catullus thinks that he is entitled to be happy. The man with the sad eyes [the mature Maciek], not at all. … He isn't sure that he is entitled.”
Maciek wants life to have a teleological sense as it does in pre-Cartesian literature, but in these books the good are rewarded and the evil punished according to the design of the universe. Maciek fears he has done no good deeds because he has saved no one but himself. The nine-year-old boy reflects, “I was a liar and a hypocrite every day; I was mired in mortal sin on that account alone, even if all the other evil in me was disregarded.” Why should he wish for justice? How could such a life be resolved satisfactorily?
Begley decided to write Wartime Lies because of an issue of justice Catullus raised. “There was a question that I carried around with me for some time,” said Begley. “It was a question of good deeds. What is the reward for good deeds? What happens if you have no good deeds and no expectations?”
Begley has been rewarded with professional success, a happy marriage, and five children. When he considers his fortune he asks, “Why me? Why are some people rewarded and other punished without respect to their deeds?” Begley told me that he thought his own happiness was a “random reward.”
Begley is a quiet-mannered person whose modesty does not surprise me. But in this instance, he seems so like “the man with the sad eyes” that I find myself agreeing with that reviewer that Maciek of Wartime Lies is strongly grounded in biographical fact.
As Max Saw It, Begley's third novel, deals not with the Holocaust, but with a contemporary agent of death that is likewise as merciless toward the innocent as the guilty. AIDS, though it is never specifically named, lies beyond the frame of the narrative like an inscrutable, malevolent force.
Having been a friend to several homosexuals who died during the eighties, Begley was again “struck by the predicament of the survivor.” As Max Saw It relates the affair of two friends, Charlie and Toby. It eventually becomes apparent that Toby is terminally ill. He “hangs on,” trying various radical treatments, embittered that “he was dying while others weren't.” Toby cannot understand why Charlie has been “spared” and he wants him to feel guilty.
Is Toby's illness “retribution” for a sinful life? Of course, “the suggestion one might be ‘punished’ by an illness was barbaric.” But the idea of divine forgiveness is also unthinkable. Charlie has Verdi's Ingemisco from the Requiem sung at Toby's funeral, and Max later reflects:
“I groan like a criminal.” Yes, in a short life Toby had done his share of groaning—upon the discovery of his taste for men; … as the act was consummated, whether in Charlie's exquisite bed or in men's toilets in the subway and railroad stations, while he leaned against a urinal; and with the revelation of each new facet of the disease. “Guilt turns my face red.” What was the flush of pleasure, when it suffused Toby's face, but the guilty blush of shame, each of the gestures that brought the pleasure having been of old condemned as an abomination? “Adjudge me a place on the right.” Would that Judge set Toby among the righteous? No. Since the first coupling, He had turned the male seed into an instrument of contamination, so that sin and death conjoined are fatally borne by the seed. … And forgiveness? … [W]ould He take pity on a dead little faggot? On Toby the receptacle, Toby the penetrator, Toby the rag soaked with semen, Toby the goat? … Not bloody likely.
But the Almighty is even more cruel and merciless than this: suffering is “all quite random.” Max might possibly have contracted AIDS from his relations with his former wife, who had had a secret affair with Toby. Now Max's second wife is pregnant. “A lord of evil sends plagues to torment the living and infect even the unborn!”
Begley had told me in 1994 that As Max Saw It explores “why we are treated the way we are in this world.” Though the answer is still simply that the universe is irrational, irrationality, like Hamlet's madness, seems to have a method. How pregnant coincidences sometimes are. What looks something like divine symmetry is only an illusion.
One of Begley's friends mentioned to me that there was a “real Charlie” of As Max Saw It. Begley characteristically renders a true story literary, this time by fashioning his hero, Charlie Swan, after Proust's Charles Swann. Both characters have lovers who will not be chaste, to recall Catullus and to further conflate the various works that influence Begley's novels.
“Do you believe in the fatal irony of names?” asks Charlie of Max. Even though Charlie's parents were aware of Proust's hero, they named their son “Charles.” As it happens, Begley's Charlie Swan's life develops some similarities with Charles Swann's: “Just like Odette, Toby is a pissing tart and not even my [Charlie's] type.” If there is no such thing as divine justice in this novel, there is at least a kind of poetic justice. The presence of the latter without the former is eerie indeed and a hallmark of Begley's novels.
Begley's new mask in About Schmidt is already familiar to us. Albert Schmidt is extremely reminiscent of Ben, with his loneliness, his “crushing rectitude,” his coldness, his leisured life, and his failure as a father.
Schmidt, like Ben, has lived by “Groucho Marx's rule” for forming relationships: “If that club would have him as a member, he didn't want to join.” Ben and Schmidt never ask of their regular partners what they “did at once with those other women.” Schmidt keeps a diary like Ben's: his entries are “exercises in hypocrisy and style.” They both imagine the vivid details of what it would be like to drown. Both Ben and Schmidt run to a deserted island (connected in some way to a German war refugee) near Rio when personal responsibilities become too pressing. Many—too many—incidental details tempt one to compare the two characters. True, Ben is a Jew and Schmidt is a non-practicing Episcopalian of German descent with strong anti-Semitic feelings; but Ben is very uncomfortable with his own Judaism, and Begley may be again expressing the difficulties he has with that identity by making his new hero an anti-Semite.
Like all of his precursors, Schmidt wonders if there is a relationship between merit and punishment:
If it is retribution meted out ahead of time, it must be for Corinne [his former mistress], confirming that there is symmetry in the Almighty's arrangements. Of course, it was unthinkable that someone was actually bothering to balance separately billions of individual accounts. The job had become too big for the just gods who “of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us.” The final solution was global: endless torment, distributed randomly, but with no one left out. It was enough to remember that all lives end badly.
In this novel, the hero's fate will not be a custom fit as it is in The Man Who Was Late. Schmidt does not shape his life as Ben does. Schmidt's world, like King Lear's, is presided over by irrational gods. Schmidt is not passive in this predicament. He will not give up his last chance for happiness, however unlikely it may be, “for all the tea in China.” As Schmidt's old friend tells him, “It's never too late!” In many ways, then, About Schmidt is a revision of The Man Who Was Late.
Shortly after Schmidt's wife has died, his only daughter, Charlotte, announces that she is marrying Riker, a Jew. Imagining himself as a kind of Lear, Schmidt decides to make a great financial sacrifice and give the stately family home to Charlotte and Riker. They let him know that they know he is actually moving out because he would rather not live with a Jewish son-in-law.
Depressed and lonely, Schmidt begins an affair with a young Puerto Rican waitress, Carrie. Carrie's former lover, “Mr. Wilson,” a teacher to whom she lost her virginity when she was fourteen, has since become an insane “homeless bum” who prowls the grounds of Schmidt's estate. Schmidt sees Wilson, whom he calls “the man,” as a retributive figure out of Don Giovanni. Like the murdered Commendatore's statue, Wilson is “carved in stone,” and Schmidt is sure Wilson wants to kill him. But the poetic justice of Don Giovanni is tolerable to Schmidt. “When retribution is so neatly personalized, Schmidt thinks he can understand it, perhaps even, à la rigueur, for a moment believe in the system.” Such an end would make sense to him, unlike what he sees as the unfair punishment of his daughter's ingratitude. Resigned to suffer whatever punishment he does deserve for enjoying what might be judged as a forbidden affair, Schmidt, like Don Giovanni, is unwilling to repent, and so tempts his fate, which begins to look worse and worse.
Carrie also introduces another boyfriend into the equation, a handyman named Bryan, and it seems as if something like the plot of Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark is about to unfold. Schmidt himself worries that “the trap of the man and Bryan condemns him to live in desire without hope”—senza speme vivemo in disio—which Begley has observed in Wartime Lies is Dante's special punishment for the intellectual elite. But this is not Schmidt's fate. This novel ends “happily.”
Haply, Wilson steps in front of Schmidt's Saab on a foggy night and is instantly killed. Schmidt's young widowed stepmother dies and leaves Schmidt a large house in West Palm Beach to which he can send Bryan to get him out of the way.
Neither probability nor merit can explain Schmidt's good fortune. In fairy tales improbable endings often reflect the belief in a supernatural force ready to override probabilities to achieve poetic justice. I am therefore compelled to wonder if Begley could conceive of Schmidt as a hero and Charlotte as a villain. Charlotte's “unnatural dislike” does figure her as a Goneril or Regan, not a Cordelia. She has chosen a career in public relations, which Schmidt feels is “both mercenary and parasitic,” which “had hardened her, given her a tolerance for vulgarity and meanness.” Charlotte herself reveals her own racial prejudices when she discovers Carrie in her father's bedroom: that “Hispanic woman looks like someone out of a movie about gangs.”
Charlotte believes, with provocation, that Schmidt is a racist, but he does make a salient comment about the Los Angeles riot: “No one was asking the crucial question: How does a man not get sick when he hears his stick go thwack on the head, the shoulders, the back of another man? Why doesn't he feel the blows on his own squirming body and stop?” Schmidt is capable of making an appeal to a common humanity, disregarding the issues of religion, color, and ethnicity. Schmidt may be guilty of anti-Semitism, but what Schmidt really hates about his future son-in-law is the fact that he works too much, is too concerned with money, and doesn't like to read literature: he has no sense of humanity.
Despite what good can be said of Schmidt (or bad of his enemies) he is still the least deserving of happiness of all of Begley's characters. The fact that his story ends most happily of all is intriguing, especially since what happens to Schmidt is so improbable. If this were “real life” we might suspect the workings of a special Providence. But this is fiction so we can only charge the author with capriciousness.
Poetic justice usually involves the conscious violation of natural probabilities in order to illustrate an idea. Dickens is known for his contrived endings that mimetically postulate supernatural intervention; his novels were microcosms of an ordered universe. Begley's refusal to accommodate our sense of what a character deserves is a reflection of his irrational universe.
The conceptions of both divine justice and poetic justice were doubtless based on the observation of extraordinary occurrences in nature. In this age when apparent improbabilities can be explained away in terms of natural, social, or psychological causes, miracles no longer seem to exist. These days, improbable events most likely suggest neither Dickensian authors in fiction nor supernatural intervention outside it.
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 Sigmund Freud points out in his analysis of the “latency” period that sometimes follows an accident or an act of violence; the shock of the episode registers on the trauma victim, but the effects of trauma manifest themselves over time, as “severe psychical and motor symptoms”: nightmares, repetition compulsions, or silence. Freud views the compulsion to repeat and the constant return to fresh experience of the traumatic episode as “an attempt at cure” (23: 67, 77). Repetition itself does not cure, but transmission of traumatic experience and the listener's obligation to hear can establish human connections which have otherwise been disintegrated by violence and forgetting. Trauma, as represented in The Man Who Was Late, requires a witness who can validate the story of violent occurrence by listening. Construed sometimes as the “enigmatic figure of the survivor” who develops a narrative for catastrophe (Berger 571), and sometimes as a therapeutic listener who assembles “trauma fragments” into coherence for the haunted trauma victim (Felman and Laub 85), the witness may experience trauma firsthand or at a remove. The Man Who Was Late enacts a circumstance of witnessing that is flawed, but the inadequacies of the designated witness may permit the working through of a trauma that would otherwise remain unarticulated.
Begley's novels exemplify delay. Wartime Lies, a novel unusual in its recording of an experience of the Holocaust as avoidance of the concentration camps, is narrated by an older man named Maciek who looks back as a survivor at his younger self and thus breaks the silence of his traumatized youth. A resourceful aunt narrowly avoids being sent to the concentration camps in wartime Poland by obtaining “Aryan papers” for herself and her nephew (58). Feeling “shame at being alive” and incapable of entirely calculating “the price to be paid for his sort of survival,” Maciek nevertheless becomes a witness to his own past as a repetition and acknowledgment of a trauma survived and told (1, 3).3 Although painful silences figure ominously in Wartime Lies, it is Begley's second novel that addresses belatedness as an aspect of character and contemporary culture without specific reference to the Holocaust. In The Man Who Was Late, belatedness is the postponed apprehension of the spiritual and personal dimensions of history, and not the material predicament of catching a train on time or being in the right place at the right hour. As a post-Holocaust novel that defies being one, The Man Who Was Late preserves silence about historical catastrophe. That silence is a symptom of trauma. Ben, the protagonist, tardily grasps the dilemma of fabricating an identity in which fine manners, deception, and erudition turn into pathologies that repress everything that has disappeared. Whereas Maciek in Wartime Lies suffers shame, Ben in The Man Who Was Late suffers defilement. Lacking connection to the world, Ben creates relationships that humiliate him and his partners. This defilement of human attachments—with his wife Rachel, with his Wednesday afternoon mistress Dolores, with his long-term mistress Véronique, and, to a small degree, with his friend Prudence, wife of his best friend, to whom he casually lies—results from Ben's sense of unworthiness. No one sees the remarkable transformations of Ben's character from refugee to international financier, because he wishes to disavow his Jewishness. Lacking witnesses who can verify his success, he has no sense of worth and certainly cannot conceive of himself as successful on any front, despite ostensible success on all fronts. Without witnesses, he cannot see himself and, imagining himself unworthy, devalues those who associate with him. Witnessing in The Man Who Was Late is therefore necessary to narrative, and to survival, as a possible reversal of trauma.
Delay is built into the first sentence of The Man Who Was Late, as if the syntax will never reach its final period where the meaning of lateness will be fully disclosed: “It was a paradox, of which Ben over the years became fond, that he, ostensibly the most punctual and reliable of men, should have been late in the major matters of existence, that he always somehow missed his train” (3). The sentence twists through three relative clauses before it concludes on a point of denial. Punctuality and reliability in matters of schedule are here refuted as having any consequences; Ben's lateness is existential. The syntax—the concatenation of ideas in a logical, comprehensible order—is segmented, rationalized, delayed, and almost overturned before the problem of lateness is disclosed as a problem of Ben's miscomprehension of his identity, which is a self-generated illusion. He does not understand himself. He does not understand the major matters of existence because they remain beyond his ken as transparent illusions, or because they are encoded as too traumatic to be assimilated.
If any doubt about the meaning of lateness remains ambiguous in this sentence, the narrator, Jack, clarifies throughout the initial chapter of The Man Who Was Late that Ben rigorously abides by his schedules. Keeping up the sterling American tradition established by Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography, and perpetuated by Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby as well as Wilbur in Charlotte's Web, Ben orders his life with meticulous attention to the division of hours and duties. The authentic American balances the demands of labor to earn money against the demands of study to enrich the mind. The schedule measures progress, or seems to, since the schedule can be held up as an indication that certain tasks have been accomplished, that the scheduler has fulfilled all self-assigned obligations. Whereas Jack's desk calendar sits accusingly “blank” from one week to the next, Ben's has so many entries that he can find time to meet for conversation and lunch only once a month (3). “When each segment of time has been taken up and accounted for, where do you find time for friendship?” Begley asks in an essay on demands imposed on his time (“Time” [“Time Is Everything”] 158). The oversegmentation of Ben's hours justifies itself as work done. The schedule asserts itself as an American imperative to pencil in commitments pending further notice, which, for Ben, means booking appointments in order to avoid self-examination.
Paradoxically, The Man Who Was Late suspends strict adherence to a set schedule toward the end of the narrative to prove that Ben's lateness has nothing to do with the rationalization of time but everything to do with the cultural catching up that he feels he must accomplish. In negotiations, Ben prefers “to have no schedule at all” (226) in order to win concessions from clients, because the pretense of time without deadlines makes opponents believe that every point will be dully argued and time will be squandered to no purpose. It is a tactical deception. In his personal and professional life, Ben temporizes because he requires the sensation of freedom without the obligations that freedom imposes; inversely, he gives the appearance of freedom in order to deceive others about his commitments, yet multiplies his obligations for the sole reason of feeling human attachments. He “can't bear freedom,” he confesses (34). Beyond the realm of contractual and scheduled necessities, the realm of freedom, like the Kantian domain that exists beyond the domain of stringent necessity, would permit self-examination and the disclosure in Ben of spiritual barrenness and loneliness.4 He acknowledges that he is “barren, dark, and desperate” and compares himself to Milton's Satan (154, 193). Cut adrift from parents, from marriage, from business contacts, Ben has no identity beyond the assertion of obligations. Freedom seems, to him, a void. Freedom threatens him because it intimates that a world without any connection whatsoever and without any exigent responsibility exists just beyond contractual obligations. Complete liberty would require that he face his intolerable, empty past. Despite his abhorrence of freedom, after he sees a picture of Willy Brandt “kneeling at the monument to the dead of the Warsaw ghetto,” he scans the telephone directory for his own and other Jewish names that, in their transliteration out of Polish or other languages, become signs of Ben's connection to an identity that he has otherwise renounced (150). Ben's lists and obsession with directories confirm his place in the world when he has no other assurance of belonging.
Like Max, a professor of contract law with a confirmed curiosity about “obligations” (9) in As Max Saw It, Ben expresses his attachments to people reluctantly, as if his touch blights them. Free to choose, he may choose badly and devastate all around him. As the novel closes, however, Ben, having ended a set of business negotiations in Geneva, “for once, really had no program,” which leaves him precariously abandoned to freedom without a schedule (226). Left to this freedom, with its implied threat of traumatic return, Ben telephones acquaintances, friends, his former stepdaughter, everyone, anyone. Failing to contact anyone with whom he can candidly talk, he commits suicide. His last gesture of freedom precludes freedom, just as earlier in the novel he abandons his mistress Véronique after she announces her affair to her husband and her husband's family while Ben is away on business in Rio de Janeiro. When she most needs him, he tenders the excuse in a letter that she is “free to choose” to love him or to remain with her husband (154). Ben meanwhile makes plans for a holiday and avoids returning to Véronique in Paris. After she defiles herself with her public declaration that she is Ben's mistress, he refuses to help her. Gone on vacation—the ritual release from a round of scheduled meetings and obligations—Ben's freedom is purchased at the cost of Véronique's integrity. Their relationship, founded on sexual subterfuge and mutual humiliation, culminates in Véronique's utter abjection. By withdrawing his love for Véronique, Ben repeats the conditions of a trauma that he has never been able to confront, let alone convey.
As a novel that omits history, except in brief personal recollections, The Man Who Was Late poses a problem of how individuals live out the epic trauma of events that exceed their imaginative or rational grasp. Inflected by the Holocaust, the problem is particularly freighted for postmodern representations of the past. Fredric Jameson claims that postmodernity entails a commitment to hunting nostalgically in the modern period for missed and unrepresented moments.5 This conception of the postmodern needs to be extended to encompass the erasure of the modern by the devastation of World War II and the Holocaust. The modern cannot be known because the conditions that made it possible have disappeared. Traumatic experience in modernity is, in this paradigm, an event or sequence of events beyond the control of the individual. History collapses into events without witnesses or survivors (Felman and Laub 80). Historical catastrophe that replicates itself as innumerable individual catastrophes requires the re-creation of worlds from the rubble of devastation. Recovery from trauma therefore requires more than psychological healing.
Psychological models of trauma suggest that individuals can deal with catastrophe only when the trauma victim finds some accommodation within a compassionate structure: “The restorative efforts of survivors to rebuild a valid and comfortable assumptive world are always embedded within the larger context of social relationships” (Janoff-Bulman 143). Such restorative efforts are counteracted by a general failure to listen appropriately. The postmodern concern about history and repetition of the past may be a symptom of trauma that is not cured by repetition. As Freud points out, not all repetition effects cure. In some cases, an unheeding audience turns a deaf ear to the trauma victim. Not nostalgia for the past, but a desensitization to “[t]errible things, shown repeatedly” that begin, through media repetition, “to appear matter-of-fact,” as Geoffrey Hartman claims (75), may be the more appropriate way to think about the relation of belatedness to postmodernity. Media repetition compounds trauma and delays recovery. To use Eric Santner's phrase, meaningless repetition makes a “narrative fetishism” of trauma (144). An excuse, such a narrative is “designed to expunge the traces of the trauma or loss that called that narrative into being in the first place” (144). The predicament of lateness is not merely one of letters that cross in the mail, or even of postmodernity as a cultural notion—an anxiety of coming after the modern—but of suffering traumatic belatedness as a historical phenomenon with psychological consequences.
In The Man Who Was Late, little is known about Ben's past because he reinvents it so thoroughly as he passes through Harvard en route to Park Avenue and a career as an international financier. Arriving late in America from Central Europe with his parents after the war, Ben brings with him next to no stories of his childhood. His infancy exists as a gap that he rarely narrates or that he abridges to amuse his audience. He hides his parents in the suburbs of New Jersey so that they do not embarrass him, and he takes on complex obligations and social contacts that separate him from them. In collaboration with Jack, he makes up his parents to be casual, bourgeois, tennis-playing folks. When he becomes a Wall Street investment banker, “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, and in part because they had come to assume that Ben would always get what he wanted and that he would naturally want whatever put the greatest distance between them and him” (7). He neglects to mention, or at least downplays, his Jewishness, to the point that his stepdaughter calls him “a bad Jew” (66). Everything about Ben is disguised reality, the creation of myth, much as Jay Gatsby's life is a myth that he lives out for his own satisfaction.6 As a refugee and a Jew, Ben, unlike Gatsby, redoubles his efforts to conform to the paradigm of the American capitalist. Lateness manifests itself as the need to acquire the right clothes, know the right addresses in Paris, sip the right wines, connect with the right people. This creation of an identity occurs at the expense of authenticity; Ben's “mythmaking” (25) sacrifices original personality to a set of intricate and closely guarded lies.
“What did it matter if all his younger years had been emptied of meaning by the New World?” Jack asks (17). It matters a great deal insofar as the traumatic erasure of his prior personality causes post-traumatic desperation in Ben. Moreover, Jack misinterprets Ben's reticence. Ben's life is not emptied of meaning; it has a surplus of meaning that cannot be communicated. The one story that Ben tells about his youth in the Old World concerns a brutal beating during the Second World War, an example of violence that is briefly mentioned but that has far-reaching implications for the questions of trauma and witnessing in The Man Who Was Late. During the war, “a large, blond woman” is led away by the Germans “to the Gestapo or SS house. She was kept there one night, perhaps two. He no longer remembered why they took her or whether he ever knew the reason. Then they released her; she was led to her home by two regular policemen, one on each side, supporting her at the elbows. The point was that she couldn't see. They had beaten her on the face, on the breasts—everywhere” (106-7). Ben does not witness this directly. His mother describes it to him after the fact. Everything after this he has forgotten. Indeed, the story is full of forgetting—he cannot remember why the woman was led away or what became of her later. The detail of her blindness may answer a corresponding blindness in Ben's own narration; he did not see the woman and he consequently does not understand the significance of random violence. Nevertheless, he has been designated the recipient of a story—the witness—of a testimony that he reenacts even if he does not recall the reasons for violence. The beating becomes a foundation of Ben's knowledge of the world, a knowledge based on trauma. The story has these lessons: violence is motiveless; violence happens to women; violence is perpetrated on the body; violence exists without witnesses, in what appears as a zone of freedom from constraints, where the Gestapo metes out punishments without being subject to laws; violence exists beyond reason.
The story of the beating returns to Ben at the moment when Véronique describes physical abuse that her mother inflicted on her. Véronique's mother routinely beat her with a riding crop, a clothes hanger, an umbrella, “whatever was near,” prior to Véronique's marriage (105). One story of brutal beating (Véronique's) recalls another (the blond woman's) and consolidates the love affair, founded on sadism and defilement, that undoes both Véronique and Ben. The tales of the beatings, therefore, act as an uncanny repetition or doubling of each other even if the origin of the trauma is never fully acknowledged. Neither story ends happily. Neither ends: the conclusion, in the case of Véronique, remains to be written (though it is predictable based on Ben's previous actions), and, in the case of the blond woman beaten by the Germans, the outcome of the story has been forgotten. The one concrete detail summoned up from Ben's past concerns violence that gets repeated narratively as an unresolved trauma.
Freud describes trauma in Beyond the Pleasure Principle as a violent event that returns in fragments in the unconscious even if it is not consciously remembered by the person who experiences the episode. For Freud, trauma occurs—as with soldiers in World War I or passengers who experience a train collision—when the victims are unprepared for an accident and retrospectively, through dream work and repetitive phenomena, attempt to assimilate the unexpected event that was “missed” in it implications and horror when first witnessed. Not knowing, or missing the major matters of existence, is constitutive of trauma. Cathy Caruth explains that trauma “is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual's past, but rather in the way that its very unassimilated nature—the way it was precisely not known in the first instance—returns to haunt the survivor later on” (4). Latency may precede haunting. Understanding, insofar as it occurs at all, happens belatedly and as an inexplicable or uncanny “haunting,” in the sense that Kierkegaard also refers to repetition as a haunting of one experience that differs from but resembles a prior, related one. Since the traumatic event is not grasped in its entirety as it occurs, the unconscious attempts to absorb that violent event, or series of events, through nightmares, flashbacks, and repetition (Caruth 91). Freud theorizes that the compulsion to repeat in this instance brings the unconscious mind back into immediate contact with the original, traumatic event.
Trauma induces repetition of aspects of the originary violence that, according to Freud, coincide with the death drive. Jacques Lacan maintains that trauma is the unassimilable encounter with the real, which is unknowable except through its representations, as in a dream. The real is intuited through rents in its representations: “The trauma reappears, in effect, frequently unveiled. How can the dream, the bearer of the subject's desire, produce that which makes the trauma emerge repeatedly—if not its very face, at least the screen that shows us that it is still there behind?” (Lacan 55). In this sense, the imperative to tell a story may spring from primary, inexplicable trauma. Repetition and narration compensate for what was missed and act as an attempt to cure trauma through organization of events into sequence. Although readers of novels tend to imbue repetition with significance, since a repeated motif or phrase suggests that it has more importance than a detail that appears only once (Miller 1-21), both Freud and Lacan characterize such repetition as negative within a psychoanalytic framework. Repetition occurs as a means of coping with loss, as in the fort-da game that Freud describes in children attempting to cope with the absence of a mother who may not return. Repetition defines the traumatic experience because what has been lost, or missed, in the initial traumatic encounter (the Gestapo beating the blond woman, Véronique's mother beating her) returns belatedly to inform subsequent behavior of the victim. In the case of The Man Who Was Late, this belated understanding centers on a crisis of witnessing—who saw the beating?—and a crisis of defilement in the survivor.
Psychoanalytic discussions of trauma have concentrated on Freud's “dream of the burning child,” recounted in The Interpretation of Dreams. In this dream, a dead child approaches the bed of his sleeping father, touches his arm, and whispers reproachfully, “Father, don't you see I'm burning?” The father awakens, notices a bright light in the neighboring room where the dead child lies, and sees that a lighted candle has singed the wrappings and one arm of the beloved child's corpse (Freud 5:509). Freud, Jacques Lacan, Cathy Caruth, Ellie Ragland, and Shoshana Felman have developed several interpretive models for this dream, emphasizing the volition to wake up to a reality that cannot be grasped, to confront death, to hear but not to respond to the call of death, or to impose paternal desire on the child.7 The dream of the burning child offers also a moment of contact between the dead and the dreamer, in the child's gesture of touching the arm of the sleeping father. This gesture links the parent and child through a physical act in a way that designates a successor and a savior who cannot return the child to life but who can tell the story of the dream as an allegory of survival. If the dream is read as an allegory of witnessing and returning to life after contact with the dead in the dream, then the father, through the physical touch of his dead child, becomes the nominated inheritor of the child's death. Whereas Lacan and his explicators focus on the linguistic aspect of this dream—the call to awaken, the verbal reproach—the child's touch of the father's arm appoints and links the dead and the undead through physical gesture. We cannot fail to notice within the story of the dream and the awakening a structural parallel based on repetition: the child touches the father's arm; the child's arm is burned. Although we presume that the burning of the child's arm is prior to the dream of being touched, the touch delivered by the child to the father singes in such a way as to make the father the recipient of death. The contamination of death through touching spreads from offspring to parent as an ethical charge, an appointment to bear witness to death itself about which the child can only speak through the witnessing father. The gesture avoids the complications of metaphoric language. A physical contact that unites child and parent, the gesture cannot designate anyone else but the parent.
The dream is narrated in language, but this does not obviate the fact that a nonverbal gesture is represented within the story. The parallel of the touched arm and the burned arm indicates a double wounding or repetition of catastrophe within the story. The child's burned arm doubles for and is doubled by the father's touched arm; the child's arm is wounded, and the father is metaphorically wounded with his terrible knowledge of death. The gesture of designating inescapable ethical responsibility, communicated through physical touch, binds the dead to the living. “A gesture,” writes theater director Peter Brook, “is statement, expression, communication and a private manifestation of loneliness—it is always what Artaud calls a signal through the flames—yet this implies a sharing of experience” (57). Like Dante being guided through the inferno by Virgil, the living must speak for the dead as if they have shared the experience of death. The bed of the burned child is, for the father, the traumatic spectacle of death that he must report back in the realm of language. Once elected by the child's gesture, the father must see and then tell what death means.
Private but communal, lonely but shared, this aspect of trauma as gestural rather than verbal applies to The Man Who Was Late in the delivery of Ben's extensive notes to Jack, bequeathed as a legacy. Unable to communicate through speech, Ben bestows all his random writings on Jack in one fell motion. “As Ben's executor and devisee of all his papers,” Jack writes, “I retrieved, with the help of Ben's distraught secretaries, file folders of papers from his offices in New York and Paris and, from warehouses, serially numbered, sealed cartons” (24). The cartons contain notebooks, diaries, addresses, lists, women's names, musings, jottings, and drafts of letters. Ben punningly refers to these as “Notabens.” Delivered as the total and unassimilable ruins of his life, these papers serve as the fragmentary emblems of Ben's mind: never whole, never known. The gesture of bestowing them on Jack appoints him as the witness and organizer to events that he does not experience directly, but that he must make sense of nevertheless. Jack inherits Ben's life. At the least, he inherits the dead letters that are the residue of experience.
In a reading of Lacan's notion of the death drive, Ellie Ragland writes that “parceled-out, broken-up, separated pieces of body, language, thought comprise the subject in the real” (82). Built around loss—lost moments, lost friends, lost relationships, lost deals—traumata are the fragments of a perished totality of meaning: “An inability or refusal to understand certain events for what they mean, for the personal devaluation implicit in them, make of traumata knotted, unassimilated meanings” (82). What Ben never assimilated of his own life he transmits as an intact collection of “traumata” to Jack, who rearranges, dates, collates, and translates Ben's legacy into legibility even though some notes are undated and others are written in French. Jack's French is limited (37), yet he translates several letters from and to Véronique written in that language (131, 153). The bequest is therefore not made to the perfect friend or the candidate who most resembles Ben. Instead, this bequest is a call to and an appointment of a witness who survives beyond Ben's death and who can tell his story, much as the father outlives and must narrate the story of his child's reproach and second death in the “dream of the burning child,” as interpreted by Freud and Lacan. The entirety of Ben's bequest—its sheer volume—is Jack's burden and a renewed trauma. In effect, Ben gives away his damaged, barren life by bequeathing it to his friend. The gesture of bestowal bespeaks his need to communicate what for him remains beyond words: not the knowledge of complicated financial deals, but the knowledge of death, violence, and absence that Ben alone cannot assimilate. In this sense the trauma of Ben's suicide becomes a shared trauma because it is destined to be repeated and misconstrued by Jack.
The narrative technique of The Man Who Was Late recalls modernist experiments of doubled narrators and impressionistic retellings of events after the fact. Although fractured perspective allows for sudden insights by abrupt shifts in narrative voices, doubled or multiple perspectives also permit the diffusion of trauma through several voices. The letters and Notabens in The Man Who Was Late collide in a hysterical, traumatic narrative that cannot wholly cohere because it has so many gaps. The presiding genius of Begley's novels, in this regard, is Joseph Conrad, who is mentioned by name in The Man Who Was Late and About Schmidt. Ben tells stories obliquely, like Conrad's Marlow, in “concentric circles of a metaphor” (6). The Conradian technique of delivering a tale into the hands of one who renarrates it—from Kurtz to Marlow in Heart of Darkness, or from Razumov to the Professor in Under Western Eyes—is transformed in The Man Who Was Late into a narrative of testimony that is double-sided. In the first place, the protagonist cannot assemble all the scattered traumata of his life into a legible structure and must deliver them into the hands of one who has the patience and time to construct a tellable tale. Second, the impetus for the telling requires a witness who does not see the trauma firsthand but who must be made “to see” by dint of narrative perseverance. In this regard, certain reviewers have picked up on the duplicities of Ben's incomplete narrative and his relation to Jack from beyond the grave. Adam Mars-Jones speaks of “the novel's twin viewpoints, of protagonist and witness” (19). Jane Mendelsohn states that Begley “writes the scariest kind of books: ghost stories narrated by the ghost” (109). Like Kurtz, who dies in order for Marlow to narrate a tale about his progressive derangement and megalomania in the Belgian Congo, Ben is conjured into existence by Jack like a ghost who must speak before it will be laid to rest. Doubled narrators, then, as in Conrad's fiction, stand as testimonials of unnamable horrors such as Kurtz experiences in the jungle.8
The belated narration of The Man Who Was Late forestalls full disclosure of Jack's relation to Ben and, moreover, Jack's complete comprehension of Ben's personality. Teasing references to deceits perpetrated by Ben and Jack on each other suggest that their friendship contains elements of mistrust and rivalry. Jack does not immediately reveal that he had an affair with Véronique years before she becomes involved with Ben. Ben tells Jack lunch-time tales of his sexual forays because he understands, and wishes to manipulate, Jack's prurience. Already piqued by Ben's stories, Jack presses his curiosity by gathering specific information about Ben's affair with Véronique. Yet this information is not always reliable. Ben lies compulsively and socially; Jack is privy merely to misrepresentations of truth. Meanly, Jack mocks Ben's stylish clothes (55). Just as meanly, Ben says Jack “shouldn't drink very great wine so fast” because he can't taste it (200). Jack suspects Ben of “striking a pose” and “inventing various experimental versions of his feelings” (35). Their friendship is modeled around mutual mockery and deceptions, as if friendship were only ever confirmed when tested.
Among these nefarious deceptions, however, genuine clues to Ben's anguish glint forth, such as slips in conversation or recommendations to read novels that parallel Ben's life, which Jack generally does not understand. More damning than his judgment of Jack's palate or his literary competence, Ben wonders if Jack recognizes the extent to which Ben's affair with Véronique and his sense of impending death have affected him: “Is it possible he doesn't understand what has happened to me? If so, I can't and won't help him. Hardly understand it myself” (191). Social nicety in this very Proustian novel masks insincerity and mutual deception, and, more profoundly, an unspeakable past that has been abridged and reinvented so thoroughly that it lies beyond recovery.
The question remains why Ben chooses Jack as the recipient of his notes. That Ben leaves Jack the “rather whimsical bequest” (199-200) of his Notabens suggests that Ben doesn't trust Jack's ability to understand his fugitive, cryptic jottings, nor does he have confidence that Jack can execute the proper legal and taxation arrangements. Ben has taken care of those details himself so that Jack will collect a compensation, an executor's fee, with minimum exertion. The choice of Jack as heir flies in the face of reason: why yield up a life's cache of autobiographical information unless Ben intends to toy with Jack's credulousness as well as his editorial skill? “I can't tell how useful it will be to you by the time you receive it,” Ben tells Jack, on the assumption that Jack can only live through events after the fact (200). Indeed, the notes are “Notabens,” as if their true destination were not Jack at all, but a future version of Ben, a Ben of greater, riper wisdom, a Ben capable himself of assembling these fragments into meaning if he lives, that he should “note well” if he has the leisure to look them over again. Ronald Granofsky argues that the postmodern “trauma novel,” dealing with the scars that collective disasters leave on individuals' psyches, relies on a “symbolic technique” that points beyond itself to an intelligible future, or position of safety remote from catastrophe (5-6). The Man Who Was Late posits such a future in the form of Ben's implied, later identity. The Notabens thus serve two audiences: Jack, who is the necessary witness of Ben's trauma, and Ben himself, as the writer who hopes to survive beyond his own traumatic experience. The appointment of Jack as recipient of the Notabens puts him in the position of creating a therapeutic story out of fragments. He holds Ben's story in trust; he is not its proprietor. The traumatic experience can be lived through by another, a survivor, who will hear and understand the significance within the silence of Ben's disrupted notes. As Caruth says, “the treatment of trauma requires the incorporation of trauma into a meaningful (and thus sensible) story” (117n8), even if therapeutic success is thwarted by dependence on language and its capacity to disguise truth and deceive listeners.
The designation of a WASP as legatee, whatever Jack's other qualities as listener, long-time chum, and Harvard alumnus, places him in the position of survivor. The bequest is “whimsical” insofar as the traumata in the “Pandora's Boxes” (26) unleash mischief when opened. Knowing that gentile Jack will survive, Jewish Ben selects him as beneficiary because he does not want his story to go unheard, and because he can find no listener who will truly understand the testimony of loss and lateness that Ben has hoarded up. Selecting Jack as a listener, in short, is a compromise. Jack may bear witness to Ben's life, but as a witness, he can never grasp the full extent of Ben's trauma and the unspoken motives for his broken narrative. That the boxes, which Jack calls “the lode of trivia, mischief, and lyric self-expression” (26), do not match Jack's knowledge of Ben is signaled by a quotation from Pierre Jean Jouve's Le Monde Désert: “that entire notebook, if only because it is so jam-packed, cannot correspond to experience” (26). Ben deliberately creates a trail of misinformation, of notes that defy experience, since the truth of his devastation cannot be got down except as traumata.
Jack is, however, a suitable witness insofar as death unites him with Ben. As a writer, Jack established a precociously early reputation when he published a novelized account of his elder brother's death. Jack's celebrated novel “was based loosely on a shipwreck off Point Judith in which my older brother, the war hero, had drowned” (4). He has expertise as a novelizer of human grief. He excels at belated understanding of death to the degree that he, Jack, may be “the man who was late,” not Ben. To narrate a personal experience of loss, such as Jack's bereavement of his drowned brother which animates his novelistic bestseller, is to distance oneself from the traumatic event. “Real-life” events stimulate Jack's imagination but only so that he can convert them into fiction. Fiction masks and publicizes his grief; fiction belies event. Death touches him, in a manner akin to the burning boy who touches his dreaming father's arm. Jack, brushed by these mortal gestures, only understands grief that has left its trace on him directly. By contrast, Jack labors for years on a manuscript about land use among early aboriginal people in Maine (63), who have left no written record of how they perceived their existence. Although imaginatively stimulated by the idea of an extinct people, in truth Jack is fully inspired only by the death of someone he admires, someone he knows personally: Ben or his brother. Ben nearly drowns when a strong current sweeps him out to sea off the coast of Brazil, and he dies after diving into the turbulent waters of the Rhône in Geneva and being sucked by rushing currents into the teeth of a portcullis, where he drowns. By narrating Ben's story, Jack reenacts the trauma of his brother's death by water. Jack undertakes the narration of two deaths by water in order to rescue the drowned from eternal muteness and also to confer survivor status on himself. “[T]he corpse may have … ‘authority’” (Bronfen and Goodwin 9), yet Jack channels that authority through his language and narrative. The dead speak through him.
A careful listener and Ben's closest “next of kin” (242), Jack qualifies as a suitable witness to Ben's trauma because he relives a familiar version of his own brother's death in Ben's suicide. Ben intuits sympathetic listening in Jack and therefore indulges in elaborate table talk to pique Jack's interest. Ben acts out roles before Jack. In doing so, he makes Jack a committed, if prurient, witness, suitable because of his recognition, and misrecognition, of Ben's trauma. Dori Laub, in clinical encounters with Holocaust survivors, identifies a “secret password” that permits mutual identification of teller and listener. The telling of the traumatic story becomes possible only when the listener hears the password, grasps its import, and “identifies” the teller. Only when the password has been uttered can “the door be opened and the hidden voice emerge and be released” (Felman and Laub 63-64). Once the password that lies within narrative has been heard and recognized in a therapeutic context, the listener becomes a witness. The trauma victim surrenders his or her story only to the right audience. The fit listener may “hear” the password, which is not a particular word but a moment of insight, based on shared experience or sympathy. Yet sympathy may also be a distortion and may render the tale unhearable: overidentification causes the story to be constructed according to the paradigm of similar Holocaust tales. The narrative of trauma proceeds therefore by indirection, and the listener, as one who survives and preserves the tale of death or disruption, cannot identify totally with the traumatized teller, since that would imply a communication or “infection” of the listener with a tale that is too powerful and too disabling to know directly. The witness therefore perceives horror secondhand. Such indirection saves the witness from the perils of hearing. The fit audience must live to repeat the tale but cannot repeat it identically lest it traumatize him in turn. Laub's model of listening is therefore right, up to a point. The most suitable audience may be a flawed one, since perfect identification between teller and listener might jeopardize the survival of the tale. Ben's selection of Jack as a flawed witness paradoxically ensures that his story will be disclosed in a way that was never available to Ben himself.
Speaking about Wartime Lies, Louis Begley says that his first novel is, of necessity, not a memoir, since that form would not allow exposure of the story: “there are some doors one cannot open just by turning the doorknob; their opening must be conjured” (“Who” 22). The fit witness to the past may be an older self who hears and understands only by writing obliquely, by indirection finding direction out. However, that other self, or future self, can never be sure of his authenticity as an audience; the only sure witness is one outside the self who is destined, by virtue of mistranslations and the pitfalls of language, to misunderstand aspects of the trauma. In contradistinction to Freud and Laub, the belatedness of trauma may require not repetition and return to the originary moment of trauma, but the creation of the right systems of understanding, narrative, and signification within which the traumatic tale can be told. Where no prior narrative construction exists to accommodate the experience of trauma, whether it be the shock of a single moment (a car accident) or incremental horror (the Holocaust), forms slowly come into being to contain that too ample measure of suffering. In other words, the secret password that Laub conjectures becomes audible only when time has passed, since narrative forms disallow the representation of trauma until ways of telling unite into a “plot” that is narratable.
Begley's concern with witnessing is manifest in the narrative technique of his first three novels.9 Maciek witnesses his own past in Wartime Lies; Jack witnesses Ben's despair in The Man Who Was Late. In As Max Saw It, Charlie Swan tells Max Strong, “I elected you in secret to be my secret friend. That was a gift of myself” (19). The election of a secret friend, so secret that the friend himself does not know he has been thus elected, defies death. Like a man who unwittingly carries a briefcase loaded with a timebomb, the “secret” friend is commissioned with, but not consciously burdened by, fatal or traumatic knowledge. In the case of Ben and Jack, they meet most completely at the point of Ben's death, but it is a point of communication inaccessible to Jack, since he does not understand the reasons for Ben's abject despair. Jack's narrative ends with Ben's gracefully executed dive, because the narrative cannot move beyond the absolute fact of death. At the moment when death invades the novel most powerfully, representation ends. As if stifled, Jack narrates nothing more. His authority, derived from death, exhausts itself in the gesture of death. In “the search for a purposeful death, in an environment increasingly barren of meaning” (Langer 15), the contemporary mourner makes meaning out of annihilation. Retrospectively we can read The Man Who Was Late as a novel of grief. Jack performs the work of mourning in the guise of a story. By identifying with the dead—both his brother and Ben—Jack speaks with and for them. Shoshana Felman writes, “the literature of testimony is at once a performance of its obligation and a statement of its falling short of canceling its referential debt” (Felman and Laub 116). The Man Who Was Late attests to lives fallen silent in a manner that goes some way to cancel the debt that survivors owe the dead. No narrative sufficiently captures the trauma of death, yet not to bear witness is a worse failure than to make an attempt that falls short of being a complete account of trauma. Jack may not get the story right, as Ben foresees, but he nevertheless undertakes the ethical responsibility of commemorating the dead.
The falling short of obligation in witnessing may have, in part, something to do with the possibilities of memory and narrative. That Jack is imaginatively inspired only by people who have disappeared, and that he reconstructs their lives as fictions full of suppressions and absences, implies that the representation of death and trauma occurs within the forms of elegiac narrative. As Laurence J. Kirmayer points out, “[t]elling a story of trauma or reliving it occurs in a larger matrix of narrative and social praxis. … The form of narrative may also influence what can and cannot be recalled” (181). The models of mourning for The Man Who Was Late are written into the text and define the parameters of Jack's and Ben's dual understanding of their friendship. The novel, rife with literary references, names several predecessors as examples of how, or how not, to refine one's understanding of the nexus of love, death, and friendship. Proust's Remembrance of Things Past is invoked, in an allusion to Swann's father, who can think about his beloved late wife “only a little bit at a time” (149). Hans Castorp, from Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, is briefly mentioned as one who falls in love with a tubercular woman's x-ray (164). Tellingly, Ben's life story reminds people of Jerzy Kosinski's Painted Bird (93). But the most specific model for Ben's relation to Jack, and vice versa, is Jouve's Le Monde Désert, which Ben recommends to Jack. The novel is a clue to Ben's emotional disarray, but Jack, not having read the book, does not understand the clue until after Ben's suicide.
Jack reads the novel belatedly and wonders “whether there too was a sign Ben had intended me to decipher” (26). It is an unmistakable sign, in part, of Ben's sense of lateness with regard to prior examples of self-destruction. Ben summarizes the entire plot for Jack (218-20) and quotes Jouve's novel in his notes: “Je suis dans le désert. Le monde se sépare de moi. A cause de mon péché” (222).10 The fascination for Ben of Jouve's forgotten book resides in its representation of defilement. In the novel the homosexual painter Jacques Todi lives platonically with a Russian woman named Baladine. His friend Luc, who loves women, seduces Baladine incrementally, but does not sleep with her until she no longer resists him. The seduction is intended as an act of treason against Jacques, and a defilement of all three people in this ménage. Jacques leaps to his death in the waters of the Rhône when he realizes that Baladine and Luc have, jointly, betrayed him, and he, in turn, has used Baladine's money to entice and pay young tricks. Begley has professed, in an essay on Jouve, his admiration for Jouve's “modernity—the extraordinary wit, speed, purposeful freedom and hard edge, bordering on cruelty, of his fiction.” Moreover, he admires Jouve the man as “un homme implaçable,” a man who cannot be placed anywhere, socially or literarily (“Man without Luck” 24, 27). This admiration extends to exact verbal repetitions between Jouve's and Begley's novels: Ben's corpse is pulled “from the teeth of the great herse” that collects detritus in the Rhône (243); Jacques's body is pulled from “la herse” in front of the very same turbine (Jouve 161). Belated Ben even models his death on a literary precedent.
In The Man Who Was Late, Jouve's novel, as an intertext, couches the friendship between Jack and Ben as one of misunderstanding, along the lines of the “cycle of punishment” (“Man without Luck” 27), even hostility, that exists between Luc and Jacques. Bourgeois Jack fails to see that Ben has manipulated Véronique into a state of abjection, because Jack cannot understand the psychological waste, the extent of degradation that Ben experiences. Le Monde Désert is “the last word on what may happen when one has been soiled” and causes Ben to cast his affair with Véronique in the mold of defilement (218). His erotic attraction to her builds on mutual punishment, befoulment, and repudiation, as when he writes her evasive letters that cruelly exaggerate his commitments elsewhere and simultaneously profess his affection for her. Although Véronique claims she has been defiled, Ben counters that “it is I who have reason to feel defiled: by the role she has cast me in” (221). He rationalizes that Véronique's taste for punishment promotes him to the role of sadistic punisher. In a meditation on the end of this affair, Ben falsely conceives of himself as foiled innocent and fooled Othello. Whether Véronique promotes him as her punisher is immaterial, since Ben is already disposed to play the role of the defiled and to spread abjection. “You have broken me. Your soul is impure,” Ben tells Véronique (185).
Although Ben quotes Le Monde Désert to substantiate his claim that the world separates from him because of his sin, Jouve also makes clear that abjection exists in the person who feels sin in the first place; humility in a religious sinner marks a psychological predisposition to abasement. In Le Monde Désert, the painter Jacques lives with this sense of abasement and therefore attempts to escape into art: “Jacques ne pouvait pas vivre, et pour cela voulait se transporter dans l'art, mais là il était frappé d'une faiblesse, d'un manque, et il ne lui restait plus qu'à retomber dans une fausse vie” (106).11 The lack, the weakness that Jacques experiences as an artist redoubles the falseness of his life outside of art. His return to that false life is forced upon him: “il ne lui restait plus qu'à retomber,” nothing remained for him but to fall back into a false life with increased humiliation and a more damaging sense of falseness. The gaps and the weaknesses he feels have no name. They are the shapes of abjection. In this he resembles Ben, who conjures complex business arrangements not as the expression of his strength but as an evasion of his weakness, of his failure to fulfill commitments elsewhere in his life, indeed, to defile those commitments.
Julia Kristeva calls defilement “the negative side of consciousness—that is, lack of communication and speech. … It is a border of discourse—a silence” (30). In Freudian psychoanalysis, as Kristeva acknowledges, the father “is the mainstay of the law” and the mother “the prototype of the object” (32). Freud's theory of trauma as loss of an object, or the unassimilability of catastrophic reality based on loss, is more complicated in The Man Who Was Late because Ben banishes, then utterly eradicates, his parents from his psyche. Neither law-giving father nor consoling mother remains. The abject silence that envelops him results from this failure to have objects of law and love. Indeed, he knows no objects at all. He reinvents both parents after an image that seems more American, more suburban, more comic, more “normal.” They do not live to applaud his success. Except for the recollection of violence in the Mitteleuropaisch country of his birth, his adult life continues and repeats the erasure of obligations. The desire to defile women in particular, to make them abject, is, in Kristeva's sense of abjection, to make them replicate the horror, the exclusion, the uncleanness that permeates Ben's sense of himself. The unspeakable vastness and hollowness of his trauma cause Ben's sense of disconnected abjection. Not a desire to possess or a desire for objects of love, abjection is loathing of attachments, a fear of nonexistence that permeates relationships, what might be called “a burden [of language] both repellent and repelled, a deep will of memory that is both unapproachable and intimate” (Kristeva 6).
Abjection in Ben assumes the form of silence. He tells abridged and ironic versions of his life that conceal anguish (93). Trauma—what Ben cannot narrate or witness himself—is represented indirectly, spoken either through other narratives, like Jouve's, or through complicated schedules and negotiations that only give the appearance of connection to people or the world. He talks only “to prevent silence” (207). A void of silent abjection yawns outside his idle stories and chitchat. In the literary “tradition of silence” (Hassan 140), The Man Who Was Late is truly silent about experiences so traumatic that they can never be recovered, a postmodern failure to speak about the unspeakable because words alone are not large enough to contain such suffering. Ben's childhood remains conspicuously unaccounted for. The Holocaust is never mentioned. Only symptoms of trauma, such as Ben's abjection and acts of repeated failure, as well as the fugitive notes he leaves behind, can be witnessed without being understood. Lost time cannot be made up in The Man Who Was Late, in the sense of being sufficiently recovered, but must be made up, in the sense that the traumas of history and the traumas of individual experience are remembered, pieced together, distorted, imagined, and witnessed. Such tales of death and horror invoke, and appease, history's ghosts.
For biographical information about Begley, including his childhood in Poland, his arrival in the United States, and his skill as a negotiator, see Espen.
In “Who the Novelist Really Is,” Begley acknowledges similarities between himself and Maciek, the narrator of Wartime Lies, but denies that the novel is autobiographical: “I have said that I did not want to write, and could not have written, a memoir of those years because my recollection is vague except with regard to very important events—and even with regard to those, I am not sure that what I remember is right. For instance, my memory of certain events differs from my mother's. I can only trust my recollection of feelings I had, and of the general tone of those years” (22). Moreover, Begley repudiates easy identification with his European origins and thinks of himself as an American writer. In a personal interview that I conducted with him, Begley stated: “I am an American novelist who writes like someone who has read a great deal of European literature and has a great affinity for Europe. But I cannot think of myself as a European novelist. My experience as a grownup is American.”
Wartime Lies is not autobiographical, yet Janet Malcolm makes the astonishing observation that Begley himself preserved silence on the subject of his past for most of his life. “He and I have been friends for years,” Malcolm writes. “I have known that he spent the war years in Poland, but until reading this book, I did not know anything about his wartime experiences; he never spoke of them. After reading it, I begin to know what he must have experienced, since a book like this could not have been written except out of first-hand knowledge of the history it chronicles” (17).
Claudia Brodsky extrapolates a theory of narrative based on Kant's idea of necessity, namely the hypothesis that “the possibility of knowledge must necessarily and simultaneously be the limitation of knowledge to the apprehension,” that all objects appear to the senses already determined by prior perceptions and formal ideas (25).
According to Jameson, postmodernity expresses itself “by way of a sense of loss” (156). E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, for instance, turns to the modern period for its setting and historical determinants. Jameson calls this return to modernity “[a] crisis in historicity” (22).
Hal Espen notes Begley's admiration of Fitzgerald (45). The narrative technique of The Great Gatsby, of Nick's telling the story of Gatsby, the self-invented man, is reflected in the narrative doublings in Begley's novels. Specifically, Ben's fascination with “connections” resembles Wolfsheim's “gonnections” in Gatsby. And, as a literary joke, a character named Wilson haunts Schmidt through the Hamptons in About Schmidt (132-33); of course the name of the mechanic who pursues and murders Gatsby is Wilson.
The discussions of the dream are too various to replicate in detail. See Lacan 56-60; Caruth 91-112; and Ragland. See also Felman's and Laub's related discussion of witnessing in literature and history (1-74). In particular, Felman discusses Freud's dream interpretations in terms of “unconscious testimony” (12-17).
Not coincidentally, Under Western Eyes, set mostly in Geneva, serves as a significant intertext for The Man Who Was Late. Ben resembles Razumov, the Russian spy, who peers into the turbulent waters of the Rhône also, and who stalks about Geneva attempting to explain his political culpability and rights of freedom to an uncomprehending audience.
About Schmidt, narrated in the third person, configures a Jewish-WASP male friendship between Gil Blackman and Schmidt not as an act of witnessing but as an ironic representation of treacherous Schmidt's anti-Semitism.
“I am in the desert. The world separates from me. Because of my sin” (my translation). Quite apart from Jouve, Begley possesses a sweeping knowledge of French writers. Proust, Choderlos de Laclos, and Henri de Montherlant are mentioned familiarly in The Man Who Was Late (173, 12, 72). Although Georges Bataille, Marguerite Duras, and Albert Cohen are not mentioned, their novels also provide fictional precedents for the depiction of abjection in Ben and Véronique's affair.
“Jacques was incapable of living, and for that reason wanted to transport himself into art, but there he was afflicted by a weakness, a lack, and nothing remained for him but to fall back into a false life” (my translation).
Begley, Louis. About Schmidt. New York: Knopf, 1996.
———. As Max Saw It. New York: Knopf, 1994.
———. The Man Who Was Late. New York: Knopf, 1993.
———. “A Man without Luck.” New York Times Book Review 26 Nov. 1995: 24-27.
———. Personal interview. 26 Oct. 1996.
———. “Time Is Everything.” New Yorker 16 Oct. 1995: 156-58.
———. Wartime Lies. 1991. New York: Ballantine, 1992.
———. “Who the Novelist Really Is.” New York Times Book Review 16 Aug. 1992: 1, 22-23.
Berger, James. “Trauma and Literary Theory.” Rev. of Unclaimed Experience, by Cathy Caruth; Representing the Holocaust, by Dominick LaCapra; and Worlds of Hurt, by Kali Tal. Contemporary Literature 38 (1997): 569-82.
Brodsky, Claudia. The Imposition of Form: Studies in Narrative Representation and Knowledge. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1987.
Bronfen, Elisabeth, and Sarah Webster Goodwin. “Introduction.” Goodwin and Bronfen 3-25.
Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. 1968. London: Penguin, 1972.
Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.
Espen, Hal. “The Lives of Louis Begley.” New Yorker 30 May 1994: 38-46.
Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. 1900. Standard Edition vols. 4-5.
———. Moses and Monotheism. 1939. Standard Edition vol. 23. 3-137.
———. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth, 1953-74.
Goodwin, Sarah Webster, and Elisabeth Bronfen, eds. Death and Representation. Parallax: Re-visions of Culture and Society. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.
———. “Introduction.” Goodwin and Bronfen 3-25.
Granofsky, Ronald. The Trauma Novel: Contemporary Symbolic Depictions of Collective Disaster. New York: Lang, 1995.
Hartman, Geoffrey H. “Public Memory and Its Discontents.” The Uses of Literary History. Ed. Marshall Brown. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1995. 73-91.
Hassan, Ihab. The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1971.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Post-Contemporary Interventions. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991.
Janoff-Bulman, Ronnie. Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma. New York: Free-Macmillan, 1992.
Jouve, Pierre Jean. Le Monde Désert. 1960. Paris: Mercure de France, 1993.
Kirmayer, Laurence J. “Landscapes of Memory: Trauma, Narrative, and Dissociation.” Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory. Ed. Paul Antze and Michael Lambek. New York: Routledge, 1996. 173-98.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. 1980. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.
Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan. 1973. New York: Norton, 1981.
Langer, Lawrence L. The Age of Atrocity: Death in Modern Literature. Boston: Beacon, 1978.
Malcolm, Janet. “A Matter of Life and Death.” Rev. of Wartime Lies.New York Review of Books 13 June 1991: 16-17.
Mars-Jones, Adam. “Ascending to Gentility.” Rev. of The Man Who Was Late.Times Literary Supplement 22 Jan. 1993: 19.
Mendelsohn, Jane. “Fiction in Review.” Rev. of Wartime Lies,The Man Who Was Late, and As Max Saw It.Yale Review 83. 1 (1995): 108-20.
Miller, J. Hillis. Fiction and Repetition: Seven English Novels. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1982.
Ragland, Ellie. “Lacan, the Death Drive, and the Dream of the Burning Child.” Goodwin and Bronfen 80-102.
Santner, Eric L. “History Beyond the Pleasure Principle: Some Thoughts on the Representation of Trauma.” Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution.” Ed. Saul Friedlander. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992. 143-54.
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 in Begley's prize-winning first novel, Wartime Lies.
Begley's achievement is to render the vacuum at the heart of these powerful men in deft prose that is as mannered and intelligent as his characters. His literary influences—Edith Wharton, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov—are strong. He has carved as his particular niche the urbane world of the New York-based ruling class of international business and finance. It is a world he knows from his career as a senior partner at the blue chip law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton.
What is most intriguing about Mistler is that he greets the news of his grave illness not with rage or regret or even fear, but with “gaiety” and relief—despite his purported contentment with his general lot. He decides “while he was still at the edge of the no-man's-land, before departing on cancer patrol”—and before telling his wife and son the news—“to give himself a special treat.” He sneaks off to Venice, “the one place on Earth where nothing irritated him,” for “a paltry 10 days of serene emptiness.”
But while serious self-examination reveals far too many examples of emptiness at the core of Mistler's existence, serenity eludes him. In Venice, he stumbles into two bizarre flings featuring the slightly warped, degrading sex that are typical Begley fare. Mistler roams the city and his memory, evoking inevitable twisted associations with the dying dandy in Mann's Death in Venice. Begley wields his polished, well-groomed prose to make complex connections between Mistler's current adventures and his past.
“Can there be greater pain than remembrance of past sorrow in present misery?” Mistler wonders at one bad moment.
Not all of the sequences work, but the final effect is a stunningly sobering portrait of a profound loneliness that seems more frightening than death.
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 italics. Mistler uses the Italian subjunctive “with gusto,” and in Europa the climactic sentence is in Greek—demotiki, not classical; the many quotations from Thucydides, Plutarch, and other ancient authors are in English, though. Jerry is a classical scholar by training. Both men are sensitive to the language around them, and often pained by its ugliness (Mistler) or idiocy (Jerry). They are also discriminating in many other overlapping but fundamentally divergent ways; and both have sexual fantasies, memories, and even experiences in explicit and exciting detail. But there the similarity ends, and it's significant that Begley preserves his distance by calling his hero by his surname, while Jerry's surname hardly ever crops up at all. Mistler might consider Jerry a little loutish. But then, Mistler is in his sixties, while Jerry is forty-five and unhappy about it.
Mistler is not particularly unhappy, even though he is dying of liver cancer. Begley's novel opens with the doctor giving him the diagnosis. “Bill Hurley had become Mistler's family doctor fifteen years earlier, succeeding to the practice of an uncle, who died on the tennis court of a ruptured aneurism upon double-faulting in the fourth game of the fourth set of his club's senior doubles championship, when the score was forty-love.” (A few pages later Mistler's senior partner dies “of a heart attack in his box at the Metropolitan Opera, during the second act of Die Walküre.”) The scene is neatly set: not just the impending death, but the social milieu reflected in the slightly pompous tempo that leaves plenty of space for irony to seep through.
Mistler's c.v. unfolds in his memory as the story goes along. After Harvard and an unsuccessful first novel, he decides to go into advertising, to the politely contained dismay of his Wall Street family, who look down on Madison Avenue. (Like some of Begley's previous novels, this one is a guide to the hierarchical structure of New York society and business, with a useful paragraph on which cultural institutions to support if you want to make it into the top drawers.) Mistler is barely thirty when he sets up his own agency, which soon develops into a worldwide organization. The sensitive young man turns into a power and control freak. He marries for suitability, not money—or love. The marriage is chilly but stable, and the only child grows up to be remote from his parents, though stopping short of hostility or embarrassing rebellion. At the time of his father's cancer diagnosis he has settled down with an academic job at Stanford and has a steady relationship with the mother of a small girl (not his).
Mistler is keen for them to marry and produce a grandchild for him, “a new, fresh, sweet baby,” even if he survives its arrival by only a few months. Otherwise, he feels, there is nothing much left to look forward to. So having been reassured that painkillers will be forthcoming when needed (though not guaranteed to be totally effective at the end), he refuses radio- and chemotherapy and postpones telling his family that he is dying until he has had a few days alone in Venice.
The reader just has time to think of Thomas Mann before Mistler mentions him. He might mention Henry James as well, as he makes his stately, knowledgeable way from the Fondamente Nuove to the Giudecca, from the Zattere to San Michele and Torcello, and from grand palazzo to grand hotel, all of them old friends. But his planned privacy is invaded by a youngish photographer who elicited his travel plans at the last party he attended in New York. Lina would like to work for Mistler, Berry and Lovett, and so she tempts him into an affair that might be described as steamy. Her sexual inventiveness is ingenious and persistent; she even manages fellatio on him “in the green lacquer room of Ca' Rezzonico, which happened to be empty of other tourists.”
But he never loses his nil admirare cool; nor, naturally, does he lose his preoccupation with death (though he doesn't tell her about his illness). He takes her to expensive restaurants and cafés, and introduces her to the cultural splendors of Venice, with particular attention to Titian's altarpiece The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence in the church of the Gesuiti. As he looks at the painting he feels the torturer's fork in his own liver, even though he realizes that it's going in on the wrong side of the body. “Never mind. I seem to have liver on my brain.”
Standing before the altarpiece, he embarks on a denunciation of God for not just condoning, but actively encouraging and demanding cruelty—not least the crucifixion of His own Son. God makes us do these horrible things, he argues, just as in King Lear it is Shakespeare, not Cornwall, who decides to put out Gloucester's eyes. Cornwall has no say in the matter, and neither do we in our decisions. Mistler's outburst is too much for the Irish cradle Catholic Lina. They return to the hotel where he falls asleep after an attack of nausea and awakes to find her gone. Her farewell letter complains “that cool and polite is all you are willing to give, and you aren't all that polite. Not when the bully takes over and you start putting someone down.” She does not realize that she is echoing two of his oldest friends, both of whom tell him—one on page 88 and the other on page 140: “You've always been a prick.”
She also echoes Begley's earlier novel The Man Who Was Late, where the hero's old friend remembers him as “a turkey: the Widmerpool of Harvard Yard.” Pricks and turkeys are not that different. The turkey was singled out by Thomas R. Edwards in his perceptive and sympathetic review of Begley's previous novel About Schmidt in these pages. Edwards's line seems to be that all Begley's works are, in a sense, atonements for his own life, i.e., that he grew up masquerading as a Catholic child in wartime Poland, when in fact he was a Jew and most of his family died in the camps. This is the subject of his stunning autobiographical first novel Wartime Lies. Edwards argues that after such a childhood a sensitive, analytical person must worry about his real identity, and also perhaps feel that there is something Widmerpoolish about becoming a partner of one of New York's oldest, grandest law firms, which is what Begley has done. Wartime Lies is unforgettable, and turned its author into a kind of American Primo Levi, making it difficult not to muddle up his life and his private ethical preoccupations with his fiction; and, after Wartime Lies, it was difficult, too, not to expect more masterpieces from him.
Making the hero a prick—as opposed to some other not entirely admirable kind of character like a couch potato (Oblomov) or an out-and-out shit (too many to mention)—is a brave novelistic decision. It can work very well. It did with Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice. But after Lina's exit, Mistler's Exit loses momentum. There is one more love interest to come: a surprise encounter with an old flame who rejected Mistler when he was at Harvard and she at Radcliffe. Bella still has amazing breasts and is now the widow of a gay marches who was taken seriously as a composer, and that enables Begley to do a quick tour d'horizon (as Mistler might have called it) of gay American-Venetian upper bohemia; and also to make room for another elaborately erotic episode. Bella condescends to Mistler's advances, but afterward rejects him all over again, leaving him to conclude that the only woman he ever really loved was his father's French mistress, a lady of the greatest perception, kindness, and wisdom, not to speak of impeccable birth, breeding, and manners. These are the qualities Mistler thinks would turn him on if only he could find them; whereas with Jerry it's youth and intelligence.
So Mistler finds a boatman and negotiates the purchase of a wherry painted black like a coffin. As he writes out his check for it, “everything was in perfect order. Mistler's obol had changed hands. This time he would not cheat.” Those are the last words of the novel. We all know what boatman took obols from his passengers. But the trouble with Mistler is that he is neither afraid of death nor (unlike Aschenbach) obsessed with any love object; and if he doesn't care much, it's not easy for the reader to care either. Elegiac can shade into soporific, though there is much pleasure to be got from the elegance, irony, and discrimination of Begley's prose, punctuated as it is by the widely spaced shock effect of lurid sex.
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 deeper into life, with its memories, guilts, exhilarations. A review of About Schmidt noted that Begley sounds like Louis Auchincloss with kid gloves exchanged for brass knuckles, an inelegant observation, but one that brings out the toughness of Begley's own sensibility as well as that of his male protagonists. The new novel is especially strong in its treatment of sex, as experienced and remembered through a man in his seventh decade. The narrative tone is cool, unsparing, with very little rhetorical variation page by page, and this cool detachment is increased by Begley's principled abandoning of quotation marks to signal narrative speech (Joyce's Ulysses is the precursor here). As one who has always thought Death in Venice a greatly overrated “masterpiece,” I found Begley's take on the situation wholly refreshing and original. In no way is it a reassuring book to read, and it adds strongly to the surprising achievement of this young/old writer who has come so late upon the fictional scene.
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 English prose. Though F. Scott Fitzgerald quipped that American lives have no second act, Begley, who moved to the United States in 1947, has managed to master a series of one-act roles. After eluding the Nazis through a variety of impersonations, Begley created a fresh, successful life for himself as head of the international practice section of a prestigious New York law firm. In the consummate English sentences of the books he has thus far published late in middle age, Begley reinvents himself again, as a master of translingual fiction. The eloquence of Mistler's Exit (1998), his fifth and latest volume, further disarms readers who might challenge an outsider's presumption. He has effectively forged identity papers as an important American author.
Wartime Lies begins with allusions to Virgil and Catullus and concludes with a melancholic Latin reminder of the mutability of names and ashes: “Nomen et cineres una cum vanitate sepulta.” The book, which quotes Dante—Perché nostra colpa sì ne scipa?—in Italian and an essential Jewish prayer—Shema Yisrael—in Hebrew, links language to lying, and lying to survival during the perilous time of war. Through elaborate deceits, Maciek, who calls himself Janek, passes for Catholic and thereby saves his own life. In the church he attends as cover, Maciek/Janek is taught that lying is a mortal sin, but his sacramental confessions disguise rather than disclose the truth. Narrated by the self-avowed false confessor himself, Wartime Lies is a book-length variation on the ancient Cretan paradox. When a liar concedes his mendacity, the reader is left with no standard of truth. Though the title Wartime Lies suggests a counterpoint to Peacetime Truths, we never discover what those are. After the Germans are routed, Poland remains a precarious place, and the narrator, who never does reveal his last name and remains “chained to the habit of lying,” continues to take Communion and to lie about himself even to his closest buddy, Koscielny. The implication is that every time is wartime and that control of language is always essential to survival.
If Begley the émigré storyteller is a tempered version of Maciek, so, too, is Ben, the titular character in Begley's second novel, The Man Who Was Late (1993), a work of exquisite craft all the more impressive for the fact that its fastidious English is not the author's native tongue. The Man Who Was Late reenacts the prodigious rise and pathetic fall of Jay Gatsby (né James Gatz). Like The Great Gatsby, in which Nick Carraway tries to explain a deceased marvel of American social mobility, The Man Who Was Late is told to us by a friend of the eponymously tardy man. Jack is at home in America in a way that Ben, an immigrant Jew who came of age in plebeian Jersey City, could never have been. Whereas Ben fancies himself “his own invention,” Jack and his wife Prudence are the products of meticulous breeding through several generations of American gentry. Ben is a bounder, but, despite Jack's “well-bred prejudice against strivers and achievers,” Jack is fascinated by Ben's facility in making himself over, in assimilating the details of dressing and dining precisely comme il faut. A science writer for a magazine with generous deadlines, Jack is a connoisseur of long lunches and estimably nebulous subjects—like precolonial Indians of Maine. But, as his heir and executor, Jack is almost vulgarly zealous in trying to piece together an understanding of his late friend Ben.
After Harvard and a finishing stint in the marines, Ben is hired as the “house Jew” for “a Wall Street investment bank that was both powerful and impeccably elegant.” He constructs a splendid career built on deft deceptions. Ben is as resourceful as the urchin Maciek, except that his theater is no longer the mean streets of Warsaw or the potato fields of rural Poland but the globe. And he, too, appropriates languages—English, French, Portuguese, Japanese—to ingratiate himself with the financial rulers of the world. Wartime has been succeeded by an era of international business, yet another occasion for self-sustaining lies.
When his marriage to Rachel, a wealthy widow with twin daughters, disintegrates, Ben moves to Paris to head his firm's continental operations and continue to refine himself into a paragon of epicurean grace. Ben meets Jack's married Gallic cousin Véronique, and the two are smitten. Ben and Véronique conduct a torrid love affair until her feckless husband Paul finds out. Véronique publicly casts her lot with Ben, but he flees the camp of commitment, to Brazil and Japan, where a marathon of business meetings and costly dissipations almost diverts Ben from thoughts of Véronique.
“Always when he found himself in a strange city, Ben skimmed the pages of the telephone directory, looking for his own name and other surprises.” In a lucid Rio de Janeiro dawn, after reading an account in O Globo of ceremonies to commemorate the Warsaw ghetto, Ben stalks the local directory for traces of his abandoned past: “The Rio book listed many Jewish names, extravagantly spelled. Feinbaum from Galicia had become Vainboim. Others retained special, Polish transliterations: Bernsztajn instead of the banal Bernstein; Grynszpan, Lakman, Szpigel, others.” However, for all his stops in strange cities, for all the telephone directories he must have scanned, we never learn whether Ben encounters “his own name and other surprises,” for the simple reason that we never learn his family name—just as Maciek never reveals his. Ben is simply, defiantly Ben. Ben the international banking maven has begotten himself with a cosmopolitan identity purged of ethnic encumbrances. Jack and his fellow patricians are impressed: “They agreed that Ben's was a virtuoso performance.”
And yet Ben is keenly aware of the flaw in his performance, of how, despite all his studied nonchalance, “He was late and would never catch up” with people like Jack and Rachel who seem to a Polish refugee to have been born with a patina of natural polish. “I have thrown away a pearl richer than all my tribe,” Ben laments, echoing Othello and faulting himself for squandering the love of Véronique. And he never quite succeeds in purging himself of traces of his tribe, a slaughtered people never more assertive than in their annihilation. Swimming far from shore at Copacabana, Ben feels a recurrence of his ancient “tropism toward death,” and he embraces the powerful currents that are pulling him away from safety. Later, Ben is drawn to a Nazi named Dr. Willi, a Teutonic dentist who doubles as a Rio pimp and helps the lonely Jew abandon himself to sensual distraction.
Ben is a magnificent survivor, a man who remakes himself in accordance with his own idea of poise. But he is as hopelessly extinct as Jack's precolonial Indians. The Man Who Was Late recounts the life-and-death struggle of an extraordinary figure who sought to court both life and death as methodically as he conquered Véronique. If, ultimately, Ben's tropism toward death overcomes his command of life it is because he is a man who was late even before his own demise. He adopted extinction as a tactic of endurance. The only work of imagination that Jack has ever published is a short novel loosely based on the drowning of his older brother Sam, a war hero. Left to ponder Ben's notes and letters, Jack determines to undertake a second short book, the story of another drowned brother, a further, belated casualty of unresolved conflict. It will be the second Begley novel, another account of wartime lies, in which forging an identity is desperate combat and fraught with fraud.
Unlike Maciek and Ben, Maximilian “Max” Hafter Strong, the narrator of Begley's third novel, As Max Saw It (1994), is a native of the United States and not much of a picaro, not nearly as alert as the others to the main or even minor chance. As Max Saw It is a powerful novel about AIDS, made all the more powerful by the fact that its obtuse narrator never mentions the dreaded disease. Mortifying the emotions, refusing to allow themselves to be overwhelmed by loss, fortifies both Maciek and Ben. And emotional insulation protects and mocks Max Strong's strength.
“I am curious about obligations,” declares Max, by way of explaining why he teaches contract law at Harvard University. A curiosity about obligations is obligatory for any reader who would profit from As Max Saw It, his fictional memoir of an unlikely friendship. However, Max, who writes an acclaimed treatise on contracts, demonstrates his curiosity through distance, through strategies of evasion. Though Max admits that: “Relationships did not stick to me,” As Max Saw It is a meditation on relationships and obligations that the law professor has, willy-nilly, accumulated over the course of sixteen years and more. They continue to cling, whether or not Max acknowledges their claims on his memory and imagination. It is unlikely that readers will view the experience that his narrator recounts quite as Max saw it.
As Max Saw It begins on the day that the narrator and Arthur, an old college chum, arrive at La Rumorosa, a sumptuous villa on the shores of Lake Como owned by Edna Joyce, another acquaintance from their days as Harvard undergraduates. Arthur is an opportunistic businessman who has cultivated the art of sponging off the rich, and Max, an obscure professor accustomed to living as and with a graduate student, is touring Europe by tagging along. The novel concentrates closely on the private lives of privileged characters, men and women with enough assets to indulge sumptuous tastes in dining, housing, and travel. Like The Man Who Was Late, it shows a fine eye for the ranks and perquisites of wealth, an outsider's avidity for and arrogation of the totems of entitlement. However, brief allusions to public events—Richard Nixon's resignation, the Tiananmen Square massacre, John Hinckley's assault on Ronald Reagan, the death of Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti, the fall of the Berlin Wall—calibrate the time frame and remind us that no one—neither Nixon nor Max—can extricate himself entirely from history. Withdrawal into the merely personal is as futile as expecting immunity from a plague, especially during the age of AIDS.
At La Rumorosa, Max is immediately implicated in the life of Charlie Swan, another Harvard classmate though four years Max's senior. In Cambridge, tall, brash Charlie was “noted for his prowess in a single scull and with a martini shaker,” but he has since become an internationally renowned architect. Though they have not seen each other for more than ten years, Charlie greets Max bluntly, favoring him with intimate confidences, as though recognizing in the reserved professor some mystic link to his own effusive self. While Charlie and all the other house guests spend the morning touring the region around La Rumorosa, Max stays behind and encounters by the poolside an extraordinarily attractive sixteen-year-old youth whom he describes as “Eros himself, longhaired and dimpled, his skin the color of pale amber.” He is Toby, Charlie's protégé and an apprentice in his Geneva office. A few years later, while in Beijing to advise the Chinese government on legal matters, Max runs into Charlie and Toby again and discovers that they are lovers.
In passing, Max, who comes of undistinguished Rhode Island stock, reveals a few details about his own life. He inherits great wealth from a cousin in Pennsylvania, and he marries an Englishwoman, Camilla, who works at Harvard's Fogg Museum. But the narrator's own fortunes are made to seem incidental to the story of Charlie and Toby and how it intersects with Max. The professor's newly acquired riches enable him to purchase a rural retreat in the Berkshires, near one built by Charlie. Max and Camilla spend long weekends and vacations away from Cambridge in the company of Charlie and Toby as well as other unusual figures. Those include Edwina and Ricky Howe, dotty English aristocrats who rotate residences to avoid taxes, and Roland Cartwright, a raffish English documentarian whom Max suspects of sleeping with Camilla. When Camilla announces that she is returning alone to London to accept a position at the National Gallery, Max is too detached from his own relationships to react in any way except fall asleep.
More notable to Max than the disintegration of his marriage is the relationship between Charlie and Toby that, despite disparities of age and social status, endures to Charlie's sixtieth birthday. On the evening of the celebration, it becomes indubitably clear that Toby, who has developed sores on his face, hands, and forearms, is gravely ill. A few months later, he dies in severe pain and in Charlie's bed.
Out of what he characterizes as “a mixture of respect for Toby's dignity, squeamishness about illness, and fear of reaching that point where pity intersects with contempt,” Max restrains his curiosity about his friend's dire condition. The death itself occurs as if off-stage; we jump abruptly from a sickbed conversation between Toby and Max to Toby's snowy funeral. It is only later, indirectly, that we learn something of Toby's final moments, when Max recounts a memory that Charlie shared. It is apparent from his symptoms that Toby dies of AIDS, the lethal, epidemic disorder that has disproportionately afflicted homosexual men. However, As Max Saw It is an AIDS novel that never once mentions the awful acronym. At least two of its three chief characters are gay, yet, though Charlie in conversation with Max delights in flouting prim conventions, the narrator is remarkably reticent about men's love for other men. At one point, Charlie teases Max with the suggestion that he himself might not mind being seduced by Toby. Though later admitting that “I was moved by his beauty,” Max never responds explicitly to Charlie's suggestion. Is he merely repressing his homosexual inclinations? If so, is such repression a manifestation of anxiety and obsession? Max professes all-consuming love for Laura, the Italian art dealer whom he marries after lawyerly, long-distance correspondence, yet his text is much more attentive to Toby than to Laura. In its final pages, his joy in Laura's pregnancy is overshadowed by shock at Toby's death. While Max does not explicitly subscribe to Charlie's blatantly misogynous definition of woman—“a hole filled with juice that starts to smell like fish upon contact with air”—his memoir is partial to its male characters.
After divorcing Camilla, Max learns that his first wife had been unfaithful to him—though not with Roland but, rather, with Toby. The implications of that fact are astounding, but, aside from a temporary pique over betrayed friendship, Max, ever the judicious, prudent scholar and scholar of jurisprudence, never acknowledges astonishment or even any awareness of the implications. As the AIDS virus is most commonly transmitted through sexual contact, it is quite possible that Toby infected Camilla, who in turn infected Max. Readers are left to ponder the possibility that their narrator is dying of the same harrowing disease that killed Toby; Max does no such pondering himself.
He does inform us that he donated blood for a transfusion during Toby's final days. “I am glad that they are going to fill me up with your blood,” says Toby. “Charlie also has the same type, so our three bloods are getting all mixed up together.” Max merely records the proclamation of fraternity without any commentary other than an eavesdropping nurse's observation: “We're all related like that … only people don't take time to think about it.” Preoccupied with abstract concepts of contract law, Max either does not take the time to think about his fellowship with Charlie and Toby or else refuses to concede it to the reader, or himself.
Max's most dramatic act of denial occurs in the concluding paragraphs of the novel, which record Charlie's account of the architect's final moments with Toby. Charlie recalls how, distraught over the agony and impending death of his lover, he rushed into the bathroom and cut up his own cheeks and gums until the blood flowed freely. He then returned to Toby in bed and brought him to orgasm. Since the most efficient way of transmitting the AIDS virus is sexually and through an open, bloody wound, Charlie's action cannot but be seen as a kind of desperate Liebestod, a romantic suicide. Max gives no indication that that is the way he sees it, or that he realizes that, infected through Camilla with Toby's AIDS, his blood flows with the same fatal virus that inhabits both Charlie and Toby.
Max visits China, as a coddled official guest, twice during the sixteen years covered by the novel. He is more comfortable as an outsider in Beijing, behaving according to a formal code of manners, than as an intimate in Massachusetts, where the etiquette seems more confused. He revels in his role as benefactor to Wang Jun Jun, an attractive Chinese guide, but, after she comes to study at Harvard, he detaches himself from her when their relationship threatens to undermine his defensive routines. Max is appointed Elijah Wooden Professor of Jurisprudence at Harvard, a title that, Camilla teases, “fits him to a T.” Charlie Swan, whose parents christened him in sly tribute to the Proustian character who wastes his life in quest of an unattainable and unworthy love, asks Max: “Do you believe in the fatal irony of names?” Maximilian Hafter Strong lacks the strength of character to confront the multiple ironies that are so evident to a reader. A wooden, prudent scholar, he is an incongruous choice to narrate a tale of fatal passion that defies convention.
Immaculately spare and controlled, outlander Begley's hard-won English style recalls the delicate finesse of Henry James. But a more obvious precedent for As Max Saw It might be The Good Soldier, the 1915 novel that Ford Madox Ford subtitled A Tale of Passion, though Dowell, its narrator, an emotional eunuch oblivious to the lurid events he is reporting, is ill-equipped to talk of passion. Read obliquely, across what Max concedes having seen, Begley's text admits a rich range of emotions and experiences. Beyond Max's measured cadences, in the cosmic wartime that the professor's lies deny, we can hear a wilder strain, that macabre music of the spheres that Charlie identifies as “the upgathered howl of pain, rising from every corner of the earth. Like a toilet bowl that has overflowed and yet some idiot keeps flushing.” Charlie's sanitational simile renders As Max Saw It veritably Shakespearean in its intimations of a universal void. For all Max's bonhomie, his is a tale told by an idiot.
In contrast to the denials, effacements, and replacements of self that shape Begley's first three books, his fourth novel tells us quite a bit about Schmidt: That he is a prosperous, sixty-year-old lawyer recently widowed and recently retired. That, after selling the Fifth Avenue apartment that he and Mary, a book editor, kept as their New York base, he occupies the splendid Bridgehampton house at which they spent weekends and summers. That, for all his worldly success, he confesses to a friend: “I am lonely and lost.” That he considers his only child Charlotte, who handles public relations for a tobacco company, “a smug, overworked yuppie.” That, though Schmidt sponsored her fiancé in his own illustrious law firm and even introduced him to Charlotte, he resents Jon Riker as “a wonk, a turkey, a Jew!” That, though Jon and Charlotte have lived together for four years, Schmidt resists their plans to marry. About Schmidt (1996) is another Begley take on bounding, this time from inside the boundary looking out.
Interrogating himself, Albert Schmidt, aka Schmidtie, ponders whether decent behavior is adequate to demonstrate virtue, and whether self-scrutiny is sufficient for self-awareness. To be sure, Schmidtie's best friend, successful movie director Gil Blackman, is Jewish, but the prospect of his own daughter's joining the tribe, through marriage and conversion, irks. So do senescence, solitude, and a reduction in his pension. Schmidt is a specialist in bankruptcy litigation, and his own spiritual divestiture is a comic turn on King Lear.
If you want to learn about Schmidt, you can start with genteel bigotry, but About Schmidt is the stinging account of a venomless WASP who counts himself a lion in winter. In the arms of Carrie, a Puerto Rican waitress less than half his age who might herself be half-Jewish, and the clutches of her boorish boyfriend Bryan, Schmidtie is both a lion and a pigeon. “Could he not sail alone beyond the pillars of Hercules and taste the apples of the western garden before the waves closed over his head?” asks Schmidtie, echoing Tennyson's Ulysses. Like the aging Greek hero, the protagonist of Begley's fourth novel is not yet ready to renounce adventure. Exquisitely droll sentences navigate a subtle passage between the Scylla of pluck and the Charybdis of pathos. Parsing out the tax consequences of bestowing the house in Bridgehampton on the newlyweds, Schmidtie is a hybrid of largesse and finesse—like Shakespeare's Jewish Shylock, equally attentive to his daughter and his ducats.
Schmidt regards Renata Riker, a psychiatrist and the mother of his prospective son-in-law, as “the Sphinx in the Sahara of my affections.” Encounters between the two are a wry duel of fine minds honed on Blackstone and Freud, respectively. Begley the international corporate lawyer manages to make hassles over codicils compelling. A Holocaust survivor, he makes illuminating light of the gloom of anti-Semitism.
As though it were a truth universally acknowledged, that a 60-year-old widower in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a 20-year-old mistress, Schmidtie succumbs to the charms of the cunning pauper Carrie, as thoroughly as Maciek manages to beguile his lethal foes. The epigraph, from Don Giovanni, with which About Schmidt begins—“Già che spendo i miei danari, / Io mi voglio divertir”—is rendered in the original Italian, but Schmidt, whose emotional armor is almost as rigid as Max's, lacks the resiliency to be as polyglot as Maciek or Ben. Instead, it is the upstarts who are linguistic nomads—the Hispanic Carrie and the Francophonic Vietnamese servant with whom Schmidtie endangered his marriage. Though he can intone a few operatic arias, Schmidtie, who even finds speaking honest English as difficult as “using the one foreign language he had learned and forgotten, his high school French,” is obdurately monolingual. Begley, by contrast, repeats the translingual triumph of Joseph Conrad (né Josef Korzeniowski), offering homage to the earlier Polish master by having Schmidtie read Nostromo on a beach in Manaus. He spends a brief, solitary vacation there distracted and mute.
The fact that Schmidt dines regularly at a local Bridgehampton restaurant named O'Henry's should alert the reader to a reversal of fortune on the final page. But it is the richer legacy of Austen, James, and Wharton to which Begley—who emerged from cultural margins to the presidency of PEN American Center in 1994—lays claim, again, in superbly nuanced English prose. However much those analysts of refined sensibilities might have resented the upstart immigrant Jew, he has become a partner in the firm.
As senior partner in a prosperous advertising firm, Thomas Hooker Mistler III, the eponymous protagonist of Begley's latest novel, revels in economic power and wallows in regret. At the outset of Mistler's Exit, he is diagnosed with terminal cancer of the liver but decides to forgo futile treatment. Pretending it is a business trip, Mistler travels, alone, to Venice, intent on spending “a paltry ten days of serene emptiness.” But memory and desire intrude. So do a younger woman, Lina Verano, who shows up in his hotel bedroom, and a woman of his own advanced middle age, Bunny Cutler, who might have been the love of his life, if he had lived it differently. Mistler's Exit, which makes sly allusion to Pound, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and Aschenbach, rewrites Mann's Death in Venice, in English, as the valediction of an accomplished American executive haunted by what has and might have been.
The novel begins in French, with a cynical epigraph from Jacques Chardonne's 1964 book Demi-jour: Death means no great loss because we never know what we lose, and all's well that merely ends—“Ce que les hommes vont perdre, tant pis; ils ne s'en apercevront pas. Tout finit bien puisque tout finit.” But despite several French and Italian phrases scattered throughout the text, Begley tells his tale in spare, immaculate English, with an eye for precisely the right phrase and an ear for the apposite rhythms of Anglophonic prose. “You look and sound like an Englishman,” says a stranger to Mistler, an American in Venice whose author has mastered his acquired language as if he were to the grammar born. His son Sam even teaches at Stanford University, in the Department of English.
It is hard to imagine a character more remote from Maciek, the little Jewish magpie who borrows the ambient language in order to survive in wartime Poland. Born “with a silver spoon stuck firmly in his mouth,” Mistler has always been a member of the American plutocracy, at ease in standard English and in a limousine. He does admit to one Jewish great-grandmother, but that arcane information only serves to emphasize how thoroughly Protestant, English, and patrician his Yankee bloodlines otherwise are. Yet in imagining Mistler's exit, Begley is merely reconfiguring the terms of Maciek's entrance. What Mistler shares with Maciek—as well as Begley's other protagonists, Ben, Max, and Schmidt—is a genius for self-invention, and self-deception. Despite being heir to a prosperous family business—a venerable Wall Street investment bank—and a sumptuous legacy, Mistler privately regards himself as a self-made man, if only because he braved his father's disdain to found his own advertising agency. Making of himself a legend in the field, he overcame fierce competition by devising wartime lies, dissembling to his associates, his rivals, his wife, his son, and himself.
While still at Harvard, Mistler, we are told, harbored longings to write the great American novel, and he later convinced himself that his advertising work was just a daytime job, designed to endow him with respectability while he scribbled away at night. At 29, Mistler published his first novel, a book that made little impact and that he himself conceded “lacked both ambition and vigor.” There was no second novel, and the advertising business, which he thought of as a mere avocation, monopolized Mistler's creative energies. Despite his pretensions to being a self-made man, Mistler resists responsibility for the course of his career even as the prospect of his death concentrates his mind. “Fate had not condemned him to eat his heart out writing” is the way he rationalizes his abandonment of literary aspirations. Yet fate had put a fortune at his disposal, and he need not have starved in a garret while courting the Muse. If Mistler did not become a novelist, it was, like the fact that he did not become Bunny Cutler's lover at Harvard, because of choices that he made but refused to acknowledge.
Mistler notes that his image is missing from his family photographs, “for the very good reason that normally he took them.” In an important sense, the real Mistler—another version of the man who was late—is also missing from his own life, for the reason that he is the one who has fabricated that life, in a way that conceals the identity of its author, from the other characters, from the reader, and from himself. Dying in Venice, Mistler, astute about furniture, clothing, and wine, still lacks self-awareness. As Mistler—as well as Max, Maciek, Ben, and Schmidt—saw it is not the way that the reader does.
The five family photographs—Wartime Lies,As Max Saw It,The Man Who Was Late,About Schmidt, and Mistler's Exit—that Begley has thus far offered up for view all focus on characters who construct and falsify themselves. In and through each, an extraordinary author makes himself invisible and ubiquitous.
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 waitress more than 40 years his junior. This turn of events has further levered him out of the Northeastern upper class, that “mean and gray” society in which he was raised and has spent his adult life.
He's marooned in the Hamptons now with his little slum girl. He structures his days by driving out in the mornings for fresh croissants, squeezing orange juice for his waitress, having lunch with a few old buddies, listening to operas until his CDs wear out, making jokes that aren't very funny, trying to act cool when he's way too old for it, and fending off any number of youthful louts who want Carrie for their own and can show her the sort of good time that is utterly foreign to Schmidt. (Run a triathlon? Go out dancing? Why? Why should Schmidt bother, even if he could?)
Louis Begley has done the most amazing thing here. He's given us a character who is heroic, villainous, intelligent and extremely small-scale. His world is in smithereens, but the more it blows up around him—the less control he has—the more dignified he gets, the more correct, the more censorious, the more exasperating. It's not so much that his life has blown up but that—to change metaphors—his chickens have come home to roost. He's dealing with the consequences of how he's lived his life so far, and that's distressing, overwhelming, ironic to a fault.
Schmidt's girlfriend, Carrie, for instance, doesn't care about money, or at least she says she doesn't. The only other way to keep her might be with considerate, spectacular love-making, but we learn—in one of the devastating throwaway lines that turn this book into a mini-masterpiece—that Schmidt has been having sex with Carrie just the way he likes and not much more. So when the chips are down, why should Carrie stay with him? For his sterling character or winning personality? He doesn't really have either of those.
Schmidt also pines for the love of his grown daughter, who's had his number for years, ever since she caught him sleeping with her Vietnamese babysitter. His daughter is just one big self-righteous wound; Schmidt could win her over in an instant with a heartfelt declaration of affection, but he can't help himself; he'd rather make fun of her hemline and her clunky shoes. It's fun to tease her, to push her further over into her self-righteousness and woundedness. He knows he shouldn't be doing it, but he keeps on doing it. (And then gets together for a typical drunken lunch with a friend to deplore the way that their “kids, nowadays” behave.)
In the hands of a lesser writer, Schmidt would be just another “Men Are from Mars, Women Are From Venus” cliché. He's been raised to conceal his emotions so consistently and adroitly that by now it's not at all certain that he has any. Then when he's hit by hideous bouts of doubt, guilt, panic and loss, he hardly knows what to make of the fact that he's trembling with pain. The reader wants to step into the pages of the book and give him a sermon of some kind: “What were you expecting, you big bozo? You can't treat people in that high-handed way all your life and expect them to like it and come back for more!”
Schmidt must learn to be decent (at least to give a good imitation of it), or he'll lose even more than what he's already lost. He has his wit to work with, his resilience, and plenty of money. People around him keep saying the money isn't worth anything, but maybe it is. He's an appalling guy, Schmidt, unregenerate, selfish to the max; you want to punch him in the mouth or hug him until he cries—or both. He's human, masterfully drawn, a literary triumph. I loved this book.
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 redemptive act of fiction was to be his saving grace. Though Wartime Lies introduced readers to a serious writer able to tackle grueling themes through controlled understatement, the five novels Begley has produced since then have proved him to be a gifted observer and ironist, possessed of an impeccable sense of style. He is one of the few artists around capable of advancing a serious moral plan without collapsing into homilies or psychobabble. Though Maciek may have survived the grim childhood of Wartime Lies only to suffer the narrator's “own shame at being alive,” Begley the writer has remained at a further remove, able to shift from the insufferable reality of the Holocaust to explore the pain and pettiness of everyday life.
How he chose to conduct this exploration is in itself remarkable. Rather than a gradual transformation from Maciek's wartime suffering to a postwar normality, Begley chose to leap from one extreme to another, taking his readers from the confines of the Polish ghetto to the jet-set world of international finance in his second novel, The Man Who Was Late, which appeared in 1993. The story of Ben, a Jewish refugee who suppresses his past, it depicts a powerful, yet wretched man who doesn't even realize the self-deception involved in his endless urge to conquer the world through an accumulation of wealth and sexual conquests. Unable to face his own emotions, he takes his life, remaining an enigma to himself and his closest friend, Jack, the book's narrator, who can neither comprehend nor assuage Ben's demons.
Begley's 1995 novel, As Max Saw It, gave us another man suffering emotional lockdown in the narrator, Max, a middle-aged Harvard law professor. After many years he meets up with his college buddy Charlie Swan, a successful architect who inhabits “a magical realm of cashless bounty and comfort.” Eventually Max becomes privy to Charlie's homosexual love life. When Charlie's boyish companion dies of AIDS, Max's own tepid marriages and struggles to love contrast with his friend's raw emotions. Yet Max undergoes a cathartic transformation as he watches Charlie impale himself on his own helpless sense of loss. The result is that Max is finally able to feel, discovering that “when a powerful emotion seizes a man's faculties it displaces all others.”
THE PRICE OF DECEPTION
In these three novels Begley succeeds at something few writers have done, namely to create an interpretive bridge between the extremity of suffering caused by the Holocaust and the human failings found in the everyday world. By focusing on the central theme of deception and the price to be paid by those infected with its poison, he explores a moral colloquy as pertinent to Warsaw as it is Wall Street. At its heart rests the question of what happens to human beings who do not know themselves and, therefore, do not know others. Maciek's tragedy is that his disavowal is an enforced one. Though Ben and Max's lack of self-awareness may result from their own failings, here too Begley is careful to knit together such self-deceit out of the circumstances that surround them. Nonetheless, how are they to love? And failing that, how do they live? Sadly enough, all three novels would argue there's little hope for each. Similarly, Begley's fifth novel, Mistler's Exit, published in 1998, went on to take such bleakness to its utter limit in sketching the last days of Thomas Mistler, an advertising executive dying of liver cancer who travels to Venice for a final journey through his own dark passages of money, greed, and self-hatred.
ENTER ALBERT SCHMIDT
Begley's vision and career, however, had already taken a dramatic turn in 1996 with the publication of his fourth novel, About Schmidt. A lawyer with the New York firm of Wood & King, Albert Schmidt filled the high-society profile Begley had carved out for all his post-Maciek protagonists, but this time there were key changes. For one, Schmidt was not in the prime of his life but rather retired after the death of his wife, Mary. In addition, though at last wealthy and well off in Bridgehampton, Long Island, Schmidt is not a globe-trotter like Ben and Max, but rather a citified suburbanite mired in the flaws and failings of raising a family in contemporary America. Though his wife is dead, he is not freed from the chains of fatherhood, for from the novel's start he finds himself in a knockdown battle with his daughter Charlotte over how to properly convey her mother's inheritance to her while still sheltering enough from taxes to allow him to live on in comfort. What ratchets up the ante in this bickering is Charlotte's impending wedding with Jon Riker, an attorney in Schmidt's old firm who has just been named partner despite Schmidt's own reservations about his being “a wonk, a turkey, a Jew!”
For despite all similarity of class and occupation to Begley's earlier protagonists, the key difference about Schmidt is that he is and remains a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semite. If it's not enough that Schmidt slept with his daughter's nanny, or that he can't keep from mentally undressing a 25-year-old Puerto Rican waitress named Carrie whom he eventually beds, or that he despises a homeless man he eventually runs over by accident, or that he can only concern himself with tax breaks in passing on his daughter's inheritance, Schmidt's perverse queasiness at the prospect of his daughter marrying a Jew is enough to qualify him as a thoroughly despicable character.
Begley, however, is a writer who avoids stereotypes. Our response to “Schmidtie” is complicated by the fact that despite his lechery, greed, and deep-seated prejudice, he is also endlessly fascinating, if not immensely entertaining as a character. Schmidt's appetites may know no bounds, but Begley refuses to provide us with the opportunity for an armchair condemnation. Instead, we are implicated in each of his flaws by a thorough understanding of the consciousness that gives rise to them. Though the reader may not approve of Schmidt's coarseness, Begley's clear-eyed prose draws us into his character's nimble mind as it mixes perversion and polemics with a flair that marks it as distinctly human.
Such holds true as well for Schmidt's reappearance in Begley's new novel, Schmidt Delivered. Having survived several calamities afoot in the first novel, Schmidt manages to win the girl, keep the daughter's love, and retain his tax shelter. Hence, at the start of the new novel, we find him still ensconced in his Bridgehampton home, Carrie beside him in bed. Trouble, however, is not far off as Schmidt is awakened by a phone call from Mike Mansour, a billionaire investor who backs the films of Schmidt's longtime friend Gil Blackman. The call brings only an invitation to lunch, but this leads to a complicated friendship with Mansour, “some sort of Egyptian Jew,” who later tries to steal Carrie, advises her to break free, and eventually provides the means for her to do so, thus leaving Schmidtie to face old age alone.
Schmidt looks on as all this happens, unable to do anything until it is much too late, despite his own wariness of the world and “what desolation awaited him down the road.” For things happen “about” Schmidt, and only invisibly inside him, and in this he shares the icy passivity of Begley's other characters. The key difference, though, is his ability to observe and reflect with acute insight about people and events, just as it is Begley's ability to plug the reader into the unfolding consciousness that redeems him as a character. Here, for instance, is a moment of Schmidt in thought as he swims laps while mulling over his social life:
Were there former colleagues, active and retired partners of Wood & King, who liked him, with whom he could reestablish some sort of ties? He thought that, on the whole, their feelings toward him were pleasantly benevolent. The exception, of course, would be Charlotte's husband, Jon Riker. If by some miracle that fellow could push a button and electrocute his father-in-law in his own swimming pool, there wasn't a force great enough, Schmidt thought, not even Wood & King's presiding partner, that could keep his big fat finger off the button. As a practical matter, none of this mattered. His old legal pals didn't happen to pass their summers or weekends anywhere nearby, and, to Schmidt's surprise, until he divined that she didn't especially care to live nearer to Brooklyn and her parents, Carrie showed no interest in the suggestion he had floated that they get an apartment in New York. And suppose they did, how would he go about launching them as a couple? Would he arrange a round of cocktails, little dinners, and theater outings? He had been used to seeing his partners mostly over lunch. The wives he saw twice a year, at firm dinners for partners and their spouses—since they had begun to take women into the partnership, spouses were no longer necessarily wives—and the firm outings for all lawyers and concubines of any sexual orientation designed to promote good fellowship through a day of tennis, golf, and drinking. It had suited Mary to keep her distance from his firm, and Schmidt wasn't sure that left to himself he would have preferred to be more clearly in the thick of it. Even if Carrie were not in the picture, it would have been awkward, and perhaps not possible, to live down his past aloofness, to become one of the boys. But imagine Jack and Dorothy DeForrestor even the W & K man-of-the-world Lew Brenner and his wife, Tina—invited to a small dinner at Schmidtie's brand-new penthouse to meet Miss Carrie Gorchuck. They would get through the meal and the coffee and brandy all right, though the men might be too unsettled to cluster as usual in the corner of the living room to talk about the firm's finances, but afterward, what a fuss! Schmidt with a girl younger than his own daughter, yes, younger than Jon Riker's wife! No, she's not a lawyer. I asked what she did and she came right out with it; she was a waitress until the old goat came along and made it worth her while to give up working. Beautiful as the day is long, absolutely—and then, depending on the speaker, a further graphic detail might follow—but, you know, with just a touch of the tarbrush. Some sort of Hispanic. Yes, Puerto Rican. It was just as well that the issue didn't need to be faced. The very young partners—and certainly the associates—would think the new Mrs. Schmidt was a ten. But what was Schmidt to them or they to him?
What such a passage grants us is the shape and feel of conscious thought itself, as well as how that thought traces an entire social stratum and its central failings. Troubled and troubling though it may be, it nonetheless remains as fascinating as it is supple in its rendering. To deny, suppress, or censor it through easy condemnation not only misses the point but fails the moral test that Begley's fiction proffers us. Ironically, to write off Schmidtie the lech and passive racist is to employ a scaled-down version of the denial of identity that forced Maciek into hiding. In addition, to condemn him outright is also to refuse the fact that we recognize and understand him, and thus to succumb to self-deception ourselves. Instead, his last question—“what was Schmidt to them or they to him?”—should also be the one we ask seriously of him as a character, and no less of ourselves.
THE ANTI HERO REDEEMED
What saves Schmidt in the end is his ability to analyze his relationship to the people around him. When his daughter's marriage breaks up, he is eager to support her emotionally, though at first reluctant to loan her money to start a new business. He recognizes, however, that she needs his help, no matter how grudging it may be. Eventually her plans fall through and she returns to Jon, who has been kicked out of the firm after causing a scandal. Schmidt is again unsupportive, though troubled by how upset Charlotte is at him. Reflecting on his own failings in life, he discovers that “once he understood the mess he had made and its likely consequences, the more powerful sensation that made him go on took over, one of fatality, of being carried he didn't know where by a force he couldn't and didn't want to control.”
This is a first for Schmidt, for he has always lived a life of supreme control. Part of the reason he is able to arrive at such an insight lies in his acceptance of his own aging and death. Another part, however, lies in his friendship with Mike Mansour, for it is he who tells Schmidt to “make a life for yourself.” In fact, Mansour seems determined to do this for him. Attempting at one time to seduce Carrie, at another offering Schmidt the directorship of his massive foundation, Mansour strikes Schmidt as “the only man he had ever met who wanted everyone around him to feel manipulated.” Eventually, Schmidt gives in to Mansour's “eerily brutal and bright” sense of power simply because he is “forced to accept the peculiar fact that he had become attached to him and that, within limits that were as yet ill defined, had come to trust him.” Just why escapes Schmidt at first, but most likely it is because Mansour's central question is his own, namely “how I should use my power and wealth.”
On behalf of others and not simply to control them is the answer that Schmidt eventually arrives at, but it takes a while to come to a man who believes that “generosity begins and ends with gratifying the giver.” In freeing Carrie to her own life and love, in accepting his daughter's need to return to her husband and his failure of her, Schmidt suddenly finds himself entering “an expanded state of personal freedom.” The result is that he and Carrie achieve a denouement in which he is able to make her his “contented beneficiary” without violating the love they still share. Schmidt recognizes in the process that “he too had been delivered,” for what he finds is that, indeed, love does conquer all, if only momentarily, for this time he loses the girl and finds himself alone and hoofing it around Europe as director of Mansour's foundation.
That Schmidt is delivered, for the moment, is a matter of both luck through redemption and redemption through luck. Striking a truce with his daughter in the final pages, he can at best say that he has come to terms with his life and those most dear to him. However, time still chases Schmidt in a race he knows he will lose. He also knows that he is “set in his mold,” though he has at least won the knowledge that “he could not break it alone.” In more ways than one, Schmidt remains an unfinished man, and that in the end is his greatest charm. And for our benefit as readers, let's hope that Louis Begley is not yet finished with this anti-hero who miraculously does some good in a world so full of harm.
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 Maciek, the protagonist of Wartime Lies. Separated from his father, a physician, the blue-eyed, fair-skinned Begley and his mother managed to survive the war by passing as Aryan. Reunited after the war, the Begleys immigrated to New York, where they adopted a new name and a new language. Louis Begley spent two years at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, the alma mater of Bernard Malamud and many other Jewish children who achieved fame in later life. At Harvard, from which he graduated in 1954, he was a member of The Harvard Advocate, the nation's oldest college literary magazine.
It was in his capacity as president—and, for a time, as treasurer—of The Advocate's board of trustees that I got to know Begley; I joined the magazine's board in 1990, a year before his literary debut. When we first met, he was a lawyer known among friends and associates for his discerning literary taste—but not himself a writer. Urbane, soft-spoken, impeccably attired in dark suits, he radiated a lawyerly calm; only the barest trace of some indistinguishable accent (or was it simply a refined elocution?) suggested that he hadn't sprung from the pages of a Louis Auchincloss novel.
Yet there is nothing Auchinclossian about Begley's work. Its outwardly civilized milieu is often a stage for corruption, betrayal, the exercise of unruly appetites—even, in his first book, barbarity. Proustian in their attachment to the past, his novels demonstrate a robust knowledge of the world as it is. Their absorption in the mechanics of high-level finance—stock options, trusts, sharing-of-proceeds agreements—reminds me of Balzac. Begley's long experience as a working lawyer has served him well in his new career; among other things, About Schmidt is an engaging treatise on how to avoid estate taxes.
Like all great fiction, Begley's work follows the contours of its time; it would be possible to reconstruct from his shelf of work, in archaeological fashion, the cultural and political events and currents of the last four decades—the prissy simplicity of the Eisenhower era; Vietnam, the anti-war protests and the cultural revolution of the sixties (“1965! The year of the vaginal orgasm!”); the disgrace of Nixon; the decline of old forms and the rise of new men and new fortunes in the eighties and nineties. He chronicles the places where certain social types lived, the clothes they wore, the food they ate and the wines they drank. And yet—again like all great fiction—his work operates against the dominant intellectual tendencies of its own age.
In person, Begley is a reserved but quietly authoritative presence. He prefers not to talk about himself, expressing the hidden complexities of his character in his work. Though he is now an established writer as well as a prominent and busy lawyer, little has changed outwardly in his life; he still maintains a strenuous schedule, putting in long hours at his firm's office on Third Avenue. He writes on weekends, during a month's summer vacation at his home in Sagaponack, and during his annual spring visit to Venice.
Our first interview took place in Begley's office on a day when the corridors of Debevoise & Plimpton were especially hushed; the lawyers were off at a company picnic. A few months later, we met in the living room of his elegant Park Avenue duplex on a sun-warmed Sunday morning, surrounded by beautiful objects: a chinoiserie cabinet, a Louis XVI desk, a comical oil portrait of Proust. Scattered on end tables were photographs of his family in silver frames. Begley is married to the biographer Anka Muhlstein, and has three grown children from a previous marriage: Adam, the books editor of The New York Observer; Peter, a painter and sculptor living in Rome; and Amey, an art historian and novelist. Begley was in casual mode that day: dressed in slacks and a flannel shirt, he puffed on a thin cigar as we talked. He was concerned that we had devoted too much attention to his life and not enough to his work, so we concentrated on the craft of fiction—how he composes his novels.
Over the following year, we sent versions of the interview back and forth. Toward the end of our labors, I provoked Begley into a passionate outburst by proposing that Schmidt was a “bounder,” eliciting thereby his longest and most eloquent answer. I wasn't sorry.
[Atlas]: You published your first book, Wartime Lies, when you were fifty-seven. How do you account for such a late beginning?
[Begley]: I'm not sure I can, and I'm not sure that it was, in fact, such a late beginning. Penelope Fitzgerald, for instance, whose work I admire intensely, especially The Blue Flower, was even more ancient than I when she wrote her first novel. It may be simply the case that some novelists need a longer period of development than other, more precocious, writers. I think it's also likely that if one hasn't written a novel in a burst of enthusiasm when one is very young, for instance in one's twenties, one becomes cautious, perhaps excessively so. Caution and self-criticism then act as a brake.
There must have been some moment when you grabbed a pen and decided to do it.
I didn't grab a pen. I typed Wartime Lies on my laptop. I remember exactly how it happened. In 1989, I decided to take a four-month sabbatical leave from my law firm, and I started the book on August 1, which was the first day of the sabbatical. I did not announce to my wife, Anka, or even to myself that this was what I was going to do. But, just a week before the sabbatical began, in a torrential downpour, I went to a computer store and bought a laptop. Now why would I have bought a laptop if I wasn't going to use it? So I must have had the book in my mind. I sat down that first day and wrote, and then wrote every day that followed. We stayed in Long Island until mid-September; afterward, we went to Venice, and then to Grenada and Seville. We spent November in Paris. I finished the first draft on the last day of our stay in Seville, and finished the revisions during the month in Paris.
Did you know that it was good enough to be published?
I knew that some of it was very good. Anka reads everything I write. She said it was very good. My older son, Peter, who was with us during some of the time when we were in Europe, read it and said it was good. I didn't have much of a question about it being a good book; I had a terrible moral problem. A dilemma, because if, as I feared, writing an accurate memoir about Poland in the war was the only permissible way to write about that time and the events that took place, then clearly I was not going to write about them. I didn't think I could write a memoir, and I didn't want to. I am not an historian. So I thought that I might have done a bad thing by fictionalizing that war material, making a novel out of it. I considered putting Wartime Lies away in some box or drawer. Anka thought I was completely nuts. Michael Arlen read the manuscript and told me I was nuts. I have enormous respect for Michael (and for my wife, too!), so I said so be it, and sent the manuscript to Georges Borchardt, who was already Anka's agent and Adam's. Adam is my younger son. Georges is now our family agent.
Why is it called Wartime Lies?
Because the protagonist, the little boy Maciek, and his aunt and grandfather survive by lying, by denying and falsifying their identity. Little by little, the quantity of lies grows; the authenticity and validity of practically everything becomes suspect. At least for Maciek. I do not mean to suggest for one second that the family were wrong to lie, that the lies were not completely justified, but living within an invented identity is not without consequences. Maciek is not only deprived of a childhood—the sort of childhood one may imagine he might have had if Hitler hadn't come to power, if Germans hadn't invaded Poland, and so forth—but also of his self. Its place is taken by something fabricated. A lifesaving invention. Of course, Tania, the beautiful, outrageous, and heroic aunt, is also deprived of the sort of life she would have had as a young woman, the one to which she certainly felt she was entitled. But for a grown-up, particularly a grown-up with a strong, fully formed character, the lies and distortions are less corrosive. In any event, that is my theory.
Tania is based on your own mother.
She has many things in common with my own mother. And she has some traits that I wished my mother had had, but didn't have. Perhaps no real woman could have had them.
Is the scene in the Warsaw railroad station where she persuades the official to take her and Maciek off the train to Auschwitz, is that something that was imagined or is true?
I won't answer that question.
Or what you saw the German officer do—take a baby out of the line of march and drop it into a sewer.
That is something I saw.
I know this is a very fraught question, but how did you deal with the autobiographical element in your book? Of course, it's now the fashion for everyone to read all books as pure autobiography, and some are more pure than others. But just how autobiographical is your work?
Wartime Lies? I would have never written that novel if I hadn't had the wartime experiences I had, but, as I keep on insisting, Wartime Lies is a novel, not a memoir. Putting aside the barrier created by my modesty—in the sense of pudeur—I didn't have enough memories to write a story of my own life. Invention was necessary to fill out the story, and to carry the story along. Had there been no invention, had I written down only what I remembered, I would have had a boring text of perhaps forty-five pages. Possibly even shorter. I will try once more to make myself clear. I have no interest in writing confessions, in deliberately baring myself to my readers. I prefer to remain behind a screen. The novel as a form is a very convenient screen, and it is one that I need. I intend to stay behind it.
Why won't you answer the other question?
Because I do not believe in unscrambling scrambled eggs. It is contrary to the best interest of one's novel to tell the reader, Look, I imagined this, I really experienced that. I am willing to do it to a very limited extent, as in the case of the incident with the baby, because it involved facts that were simple although particularly gruesome. The railroad station scene you have asked about is much more complex, and I would need to take it apart piece by piece. I don't want to do that. I don't want to do that with regard to any scene or incident that is important and in which I used both real experiences, however altered, and material I invented. I will give you instead a general answer: There is not a single thing in Wartime Lies, including inventions, that is not supported by my personal experiences, but my personal experiences have been altered, by additions and subtractions, in a way that made me able to use them in my novel.
To back up fifty years … You came to this country with your parents after the war. You studied English literature at Harvard?
My major was English literature. But I took courses like John Singleton's “Dante,” Harry Levin's “Proust, Joyce, and Mann,” and Renato Poggioli's “Symbolist Poets.” I took every course in French literature I could squeeze in. If a comparative-literature major had existed at Harvard College for undergraduates I would have surely gone in that direction.
And you were on The Advocate, Harvard's undergraduate literary magazine, so you had a literary bent. You wanted to write.
I did. But in the spring of my junior year, while I was taking Albert Guerard's creative-writing course, I came to the belief that I should stop trying to write fiction. The reason was very simple. I thought that there was nothing of significance I had to say or, even more important, that I wanted to say. That belief stayed with me almost forty years.
Why was that?
When I went to Harvard College, in 1950, I was only sixteen. My parents and I arrived in the United States in March 1947, when I was thirteen. We had left Poland some months earlier, in 1946. My decision, when I was eighteen, that I shouldn't try to write came, therefore, at a time when it was reasonable for me to believe that the only material I possessed, and more or less understood, and could draw on for use in fiction, came out of my experiences in Poland during World War II. But I was busy trying to become an American and I was very determined to live in the present. Concentrating on Polish material, and writing about it, seemed to interfere with these ambitions. Right or wrong, that was the feeling I had. And I didn't think I could write about my American present. I believed I didn't understand it. What I did understand, I was ambivalent about. Of course if I had been cleverer or bolder, or if someone had made the suggestion convincingly, I suppose I might have tried to write about not understanding my identity or my new surroundings or my place in these surroundings. That idea didn't occur to me.
Perhaps there was something else at work, too—my belief that the wartime material would be opaque and indigestible for an American audience. That no one cared. Don't forget that Holocaust studies had not yet been invented. In fact, the word holocaust had not acquired its present meeting. The word genocide did not exist. Nothing in my surroundings encouraged me to go on writing stories about a Jewish boy in German-occupied Poland, which was what I was doing in the Guerard course, and what I had done before I took that course.
What made you able finally to deal with this subject?
It certainly wasn't the emergence of Holocaust literature as a genre. In fact, I have read very little of it: Primo Levi, but only in the 1980s; and Jerzy Kosinki's Painted Bird, and a novel by a French writer, André Schwartz-Bart, Le dernier des justes (The Last of the Just), a marvelous work that seems to have been forgotten. Nothing else by way of belles lettres. I think it was the passage of time that made writing Wartime Lies possible. I had matured emotionally and intellectually. I had become infinitely more sure of myself. I was finally able to make a story I thought was worth telling out of experiences I had sometimes talked about but, in the most profound sense, had kept under lock and key, to find a voice for Wartime Lies with which I could be comfortable, and to put myself at a sufficient distance from the story. I don't like self-pity or sentimentality. I don't think I would have known how to avoid it if I had tried to write something like Wartime Lies too early.
One of the most startling things about Wartime Lies is that it's not lachrymose. In fact, given the tragic nature of the material, it's rather dry-eyed. And yet, as I read it, I kept thinking: Doesn't the knowledge of this experience, the terror and human brutality of what you saw, what you witnessed, what's described in this book, set you apart in some unbridgeable way from the world that you've since come to inhabit?
It does. Certainly I have felt, ever since the war ended, ever since I could stop pretending to be someone I wasn't—a Polish Catholic instead of a Polish Jew—which had been necessary in order to survive the war—that in spite of all my efforts to become normal, to be like everybody else (these efforts, I should add, stopped some time ago), I remained irremediably different. I have always been aware of an uncomfortable distance separating me from other people. Perhaps also a distance separating the real me from the other visible me that you, for instance, are talking to right now. I have worried that this distance manifests itself as a lack of spontaneity, a tendency to be aloof and stand aside. Sometimes, half in jest, I call it being a zombie.
I am speaking now of what I call my personal life. Oddly enough, I have had no such worries in my life as a lawyer. I have been practicing law for more than forty years. In legal practice, in the representation of clients, I have always felt deeply engaged, serene, and not all inclined to stand aside. I have always done whatever needed to be done, and have usually gotten my way. Perhaps that is because when I am a lawyer I am able to stop thinking about myself. One reason for my fondness for the practice of law may be just that—I don't need to take it personally.
And your emotional life?
I thought that we had been talking about my emotional life. But even in my personal life, I am not always a zombie. Somehow I have managed to be deeply and happily in love with Anka, who is my second wife—we have been married for almost twenty-eight years—and to have very close and loving relationships with my three children from my first marriage as well as with my two stepsons.
So much for the crippling effect of the war.
Perhaps it doesn't sound like much of an effect. It certainly hasn't been “crippling” so far as my getting along in life is concerned, but I can assure you that the feeling that I am different, that I can't get close to people, has weighed heavily on me. You might also ask yourself why I should be crippled to any greater extent. If you compare me with other Jewish boys who survived the war in Poland, nothing very bad happened to me. I was never in a ghetto or a concentration camp. I wasn't beaten. I was never separated from my mother. When I was sick I suffered from nothing worse than the normal childhood diseases, perhaps somewhat aggravated by the confined life I led and lack of first-class medical care.
But you were shot at …
You are referring to the adventures of little Maciek, in Wartime Lies. As I have said over and over, Wartime Lies is not my autobiography. What I am trying to put across is that my wartime hurts were psychological: fearing for my life, imagining what it would be like to be tortured, denying my identity, lying, and being ashamed of the lies. Much worse things could have happened to me.
But it isn't as though nothing had happened to you because, leaving aside the autobiographical versus fictional elements of the book, certainly one has to make the assumption that one truth, one narrative truth, one biographical truth that resonates throughout this book is the necessity of hiding your identity. This is something that happened to you. You were hunted because of who you were and so you had to create a false identity. We can say that much, right?
Yes, and that ties in with what we were discussing before, my decision at Harvard College to stop writing. I had a strong reluctance to expose the fear and shame I had felt during the war any more than I had already exposed it, in the sort of short stories I had been writing and sometimes to girls I courted. I didn't want to be different. I wanted very much to have a normal life and a normal understandable persona.
Your father was reunited with you after the war?
Yes. A bewildering and joyous reunion: those are the two adjectives that come to mind in connection with my father's return.
You see, there was no particular reason to believe that he would come back. My mother had heard rumors, which I now remember only dimly, that in fact he was dead—perhaps he had been killed during the Russian retreat, perhaps he had just died. We thought he might have been sent to a camp in Siberia. But he turned up, very much alive, in fact looking quite well and fit. He hadn't been in Siberia, and certainly not in any sort of camp. Nor had he been in a front-line hospital. He spent those Russian years in Samarkand, practicing medicine. I don't remember whether it was in a military of civilian hospital.
At the time, it was impossible for me not to envy him. He had been so lucky. In addition, there was the romantic aspect of his having lived in Asia Minor, which was enhanced by his mustache and his Soviet army uniform. I had never known him to have a mustache. How he managed to return to Poland so quickly—it was barely two or three months after the end of the war in Europe, and perhaps even earlier—I don't recall, and I am not sure that he ever told me. I suppose that, when he realized that the German front was collapsing, and the Soviet army was going to push the Germans out of Poland, he just got going and followed the advancing Red Army. I find it amazing that he managed it, because ordinarily he was not adventurous. You wouldn't say that he had street smarts. He must have been propelled by some irresistible instinct: like a salmon swimming upstream.
Adding to the initial bewilderment and joy was the difference between his experience of the war and my mother's and mine. However much he loved us, however much he tried, it seemed to me that he couldn't really understand what had happened to us. Now I know that there was no reason why he should have understood. It was not something that a sane and moral man could imagine. At the time, there wasn't available the sort of abundant testimony of survivors and witnesses that has, so to say, popularized life under German occupation: concentration camps, the ghetto, having to pass as Aryans, and so forth.
Amazing. And then you decided to go to Paris?
No, my mother and father decided. I was just the lucky suitcase they took along. We left Paris at the end of February 1947 to go to America. My mother had a rich uncle in New York. She managed to get in touch with him. He sent us money and helped us get entry visas. I am not sure that the uncle was ultimately thrilled by our arrival. But he did do the necessary, decent thing.
You share with Conrad, another great Polish-born writer, the fact that English is your second language. When did you first learn it?
I began to study English in Kraków, right after the war ended, with a tutor. He and his successors must have taught me well, because by the time I got to Erasmus Hall, which is the high school I ultimately attended in Brooklyn, I spoke and wrote English correctly. In fact, during my senior year at Erasmus Hall, in 1950, I won a citywide short-story contest administered by New York University.
How does that history affect your style? What is it like to have come to a language that late and developed a style of your own?
I think I am less self-assured when I write English than I would be if I were writing in my first language. I have to test each sentence over and over to be sure that it's right, that I haven't introduced some element that isn't English.
Maybe that's what makes it so lapidary?
Yes, or it could be the lack of spontaneity that marks me in all regards.
Why did you make Dante your guide in Wartime Lies?
At times I thought I would suffocate while I was writing that book. I needed relief, some way to suffer less. I love The Divine Comedy so my thoughts turned to Dante, as though to a friend. Also, paradoxically, the penitentiary system that Dante created, explained, and justified furnished analogies that I could contend with. I thought that my digressions about the Inferno enabled me to move my story to a different, perhaps higher moral level.
Did writing Wartime Lies come to you easily?
Easily? I don't know. I doubt it. I often cried as I wrote it.
Who are your literary models, your sources of inspiration?
I have no models. I do not believe that my work is inspired by any of the writers I admire.
But surely there is a genre or a period of style you admire, that has somehow seeped into your work.
That's a very different question. There are many novelists I admire. Some of them I admire passionately. The list, if I were to make one, would not be particularly original. Proust, Flaubert, Stendhal, and Balzac would be at the top among French writers; among novelists writing in English, surely Conrad, Henry James, Trollope, Dickens, Melville, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anthony Powell, and, yes, Hemingway and Waugh; both Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy; Kafka, and Thomas Mann, and Thomas Bernhard, when I think of authors writing in German; Witold Gombrowicz, the Polish writer of genius. Then there are novels—as opposed to an entire oeuvre—that mean very much to me. Madame de La Fayette's Princesse de Cléves; Le Monde désert (The Desert World) and Hécate by Pierre-Jean Jouve. It is impossible to have read and reread these authors without learning from them. Perhaps you mean learning from another writer when you speak about what may have “seeped” into my work. But the fact that I think A la recherche du temps perdu is the greatest novel ever written does not translate into my trying to write like Proust, to give an obvious example.
Rather, Proust, just as James, has taught me about the gap between what ostensibly goes on in a novel—and in life—and the more important action that takes place unseen, and about the mysteries of memory. To take other examples, I have no doubt benefited from the way Powell manages dialogue. Kafka, Gombrowicz, and Bernhard are particularly instructive when it comes to making use of a novelist's intoxicating freedom: the ability to order what happens in a novel exactly as you wish, to impose your point of view.
I suppose I should mention that when I wrote Wartime Lies, and was trying very hard to keep my voice in the key in which I thought it belonged, Princesse de Clèves was constantly in my mind alongside The Divine Comedy. Obviously not because the adventures of Tania and Maciek had anything to do with the goings-on at the court of Henri II, but because I was seduced by the chasteness of Madame de La Fayette's narration, and thought I should attempt something analogous in the wildly different circumstances of my characters. Similarly, Jouve's speed of narration, his daring—he simply leaves out of the story anything that doesn't interest him in Le Monde désert—and the remarkable mixture of cruelty and tenderness with which he considers his three principal characters, Jacques de Todi, Pascal, and Baladine, encouraged me when I was writing The Man Who Was Late. I acknowledge that debt in my novel, by the references I make to Jouve's work.
After Wartime Lies, your novels seem very different, what might be called novels of domestic life, in that they deal with marriages and love affairs, children and parents, friends and business associates. What prompted this radical shift in perspective?
The thing that really surprised me after Wartime Lies was certain people's expectation that I would continue to write the same kind of book. How could that be? If Wartime Lies had been an autobiography, which it wasn't, could I have written another autobiography covering the same period in my life? I was six years old when the war broke out, and eleven when it ended. Writers like me write novels out of their experiences. It's their only capital. How much experience can a child of the age I was accumulate? Surely not enough to create a whole novelistic universe, and draw upon it in novel after novel. I have such a universe now. It consists of the experiences I have accumulated in my much longer and richer American life.
How do you account for the fact that, although you didn't become a writer until relatively late in life, you now write books with such regularity?
I think it was necessary for me to write Wartime Lies first. I have been asked often whether it was a manner of exorcising my demons. It wasn't; the demons are still there and torment me, especially when I dream. It would be more accurate to say that I wrote Wartime Lies to take care of unfinished business. I don't think I could have written about other subjects, derived from my American life, without having first dealt with the matter of Poland.
Did it make you unhappy not to write between college and 1989, for some thirty-five years?
No, it made me unhappy for about two months to have given up Guerard's creative-writing course, to have dropped it in mid-semester, because I felt I couldn't and shouldn't go on. I had never done such a thing before and I haven't done it since.
How do you balance your writing with your work as a lawyer?
I don't balance it. My work as a lawyer and my work as a novelist coexist. I practice law during the week, and do my writing on weekends and holidays if I am not interrupted by office work. Naturally, I have had to give up taking naps, going to the movies even when there is a film I very much want to see, and, much more painful, reading as much as I would like.
Do you write very rapidly?
On a very good day I can do five to six pages. Is that rapid? On a mediocre day I can do three pages. On a bad day I am lucky if I can do one.
Do you revise?
I revise incessantly from the beginning to the end of the first draft because I can't advance unless I am comfortable with what I have already written. I do that on my laptop. Then, when I think I have a clean draft on the screen, I print it out and correct the hard copy. My secretary makes the changes, and once more I begin to revise.
Do you ever get stuck?
Of course I do. Because I interrupt my writing so constantly to take care of legal work, sometimes I lose the thread of the story or the feeling of excitement that was pushing me forward. The usual cure is to rewrite a part of what I have already done. Or, if I have run out of steam in the middle of a writing day, to lie down and sleep for half an hour.
When you finish a book does the next book present itself to you as an idea right away?
It has happened that way, yes.
When you begin a book, do you have it all in your mind beforehand?
I have a fairly clear image of the protagonist and of the protagonist's predicament. I also know how the predicament will resolve itself, which is another way of saying that I know how the novel will end. I don't set out in my little boat to cross the sea without a compass or a quadrant.
Perhaps I should be clearer. When I think of starting a novel, I do not have general themes in mind that I want to discuss. And I do not prepare the outline of a plot. The point of departure is, instead, the protagonist and the predicament. That is why I know how the story must start, and also the finish line. What comes in between is the hard work of invention. That is when I invent, word by word and sentence by sentence, using as material my observations and experience of persons in the milieu in which I have lived, and of its many landscapes, the incidents that get me to the finish line and enable me to cross it.
In Mistler's Exit, speaking of boats, did you know from the start how that book was going to end?
Yes. I knew the book's structure and its ending, although (as is the case with each of my novels, including Wartime Lies) it wasn't entirely clear to me how I was going to get from the beginning—which I knew—to the end, which was also known.
Did you know when you began that strong image of what happens in the last scene?
At the Bucintore boat club? Yes. I wanted to put that extraordinary building into my novel, and I knew that observing the building and the racing shells in it would make a man like Mistler think how he might take out a single skull and row with all his might into the night and perdition.
And The Man Who Was Late, did you always have the final scene of the bridge as your vision of how Ben was going to do away with himself?
Oh yes, absolutely. I thought of the story that became The Man Who Was Late for many years before I wrote it. At the time when I wasn't writing novels, and wasn't planning on writing any, occasionally I made up stories that I carried around in my head. Ben's story is one of them. It has its germ in an experience that is connected to Geneva, one that made me desperately unhappy. I remember walking across that bridge and thinking how suitable it would be to kill myself right there—if only I were sure that it would work. Not that I had any intention of jumping—I've never wanted to commit suicide—but I found the thought that this means was at hand if I made up my mind to end my misery was quite irrepressible. So I knew the end of Ben's story.
Ben falls on a herse. It's the last word in the book, quite an uncommon word.
Herse is another word for harrow. I was thinking of the electricity-generating machine at the Pont de la Machine, on the Rhône, as being a herse—a harrow—and that its teeth would tear at Ben's flesh when he fell on it. There is a slight connection there with The Penal Colony.
Were you having a joke with your readers, to make them look the word up?
No. I knew the word. I think it's a very beautiful one. I wasn't sure that harrow was as gorgeous. It never crossed my mind that I was sending readers to the dictionary. I wrote herse in all innocence.
And Véronique of The Man Who Was Late? Does she have a real-life model?
She's a composite of various ladies. She's not any person in particular; I've never, even to create a minor character, simply copied some acquaintance.
Does she do things that surprise you?
Did it surprise you, for example, that she sits in an airplane and is molested and goes to bed with that dreadful man who did it?
No. That did not surprise me.
Because it happened?
Let's just say that this sequence of events did not surprise me.
I don't know writers who write about sex better than you do.
Thank you. I enjoy doing it.
Why do writers have trouble writing about such things?
I suppose they are inhibited. I am assuming that they can write. If they can write, but can't write about sex, it's probably because they never got over their puritanical upbringing—the sort of upbringing that I didn't have. It helps that when I am in the right mood I will say—and write—anything that comes into my mind.
I think the frankness of it is what makes it so sexy.
It could be. I agree that those scenes are good. I'm not ashamed to admit that occasionally I've found myself aroused by my own descriptions of sex.
How would you compare your last four books to each other in terms of their tone? I mean is there some language they share? Do they have a “Begleyan” quality?
I think they have one unifying element, and that's me!
How do you rank your novels?
In terms of merit? I try to avoid doing that. It's like telling someone which of your children you love the most, which is something one must never do. I can tell you about my relation to my books, which is a different matter.
What is that relation?
In some ways I think I am furthest removed from Wartime Lies. It was very difficult for me to write that novel, and it is still very difficult for me to think about it. It exists as a book on tape, and I haven't been able to bring myself to listen to it.
I feel very close to The Man Who Was Late. I gave myself a great deal of freedom in it, more than in any other novel I have written, with the possible exception of my most recently published novel, which is Schmidt Delivered.
The Man Who Was Late was the book that followed Wartime Lies.
Yes. After that “chaste” story, I wanted very much to write a rascally book and I think I succeeded.
What do you mean by “rascally”?
Perhaps the word is wrong. I wrote The Man Who Was Late resenting bitterly what had happened to the protagonist, Ben, my heart overflowing with my own love for Véronique, the woman Ben loves, but doesn't love enough or, in any case, boldly enough. I didn't want to let anyone off, not for a moment. Not Jack, the decent, self-righteous WASP, not his relations, so secure in their privileged lives, not Rachel, the man-eating Boston heiress. For once, I thought, I would say aloud what I had been mumbling under my breath.
And the novels that followed?
As Max Saw It,About Schmidt,Mistler's Exit, and Schmidt Delivered each deals with a predicament that's very important to me. I think they are successful. When I read passages from them on book tours and similar occasions, or when I review translations, I find that I am not embarrassed. Indeed, I am pleased.
I'm curious about the eponymous protagonist of your most recent novel, Schmidt Delivered. You have a way of writing sympathetically about unsympathetic characters—and of making your readers care about them—that intrigues me. Schmidt is indisputably something of a bounder, who cheats on his wife, gets involved with a local waitress decades his junior, has problems with his only child—yet is capable of eliciting warm feelings from the reader. This is true of many of your characters, who go through life with a brittle, defensive armature of emotions—I think of Ben in The Man Who Was Late, of Mistler, of Schmidt. How do you achieve this feat?
I disagree with your characterizing my characters as unsympathetic, and I certainly don't think Schmidt is a bounder. Yes, he has been unfaithful to his wife. So have most of the men I know. I might add that I don't think I know many wives who are not on occasion—or systematically—unfaithful to their husbands. Why does Schmidt's occasional adultery, about which he has tried very hard to be discreet, make him a bounder? It makes him like other people. And what is wrong with his getting involved, after his wife has died, with a local waitress decades his junior? He isn't seducing a minor. The girl goes after him.
Schmidt, in fact, is clearly a gentleman. A gentleman who has, like most, at times behaved badly. I betray his confidence sufficiently to reveal three instances of such misbehavior in Schmidt Delivered. Schmidt's judgment about them and about himself is severe. There is no self-pity and no hiding behind easy excuses.
As for Schmidt's problems with his daughter Charlotte, are they entirely of his making? I wouldn't think so. He may not be especially adroit as a father, but isn't she a particularly provoking and ungrateful child?
Of course, I have sympathy for my principal characters. They are complex, imperfect, and intelligent people. I recognize myself in them, and so do my readers. Isn't inducing that sort of recognition the classical and recommended means of eliciting sympathy, the warm feelings you have mentioned?
By the way, I wonder about readers and professional critics who are troubled by the fact that the protagonist of a novel is “unpleasant.” Let's put aside the question whether Ben or Max or Charlie Swan or Mistler or Schmidt really is unpleasant. The more important question is, why shouldn't they be unpleasant? I have never thought that nice or pleasant are adjectives I would as a matter of course try to fit to great literary personages and then use the fit as a test of the novel's quality. Let's see whether you will disagree: Take the Narrator, Baron de Charlus, or any other principal character (the mother and grandmother excepted) in A la recherche du temps perdu; Kate Croy in The Wings of the Dove; Joseph K. in The Trial; Vautrin in Les splendeurs et misères des courtisanes and the other Balzac novels in which he appears; Ahab in Moby-Dick; the nameless narrator in Notes from the Underground (surely the fountain from which flows all serious modern fiction); or for that matter Tolstoy's Vronsky and Anna Karenina. I put it to you that none of them is “nice.” They are closer to “unpleasant.”
The principal characters in English Victorian novels are in a different category. They are the product of a certain sort of society and its special expectations.
You haven't told me much about Ben or Mistler. You have certainly covered Schmidt!
That's because you have provoked me into delivering a tirade. In fact, I would like to speak about my other characters.
I'll start with Ben. Frankly, I find it difficult to understand why one would find him “unpleasant” or difficult to sympathize with. What is he like really? To begin with, he is an Eastern European refugee from World War II, rather young to be at college, who nevertheless finds himself at Harvard in the early 1950s, completely over his head. His academic preparation is inadequate. His social preparation is close to zero. We don't find out what happened to him during the war, but it can't have been good. He knows he has not had the childhood he should have had to be at ease in the world of his classmates. Vacations, sailboats, lack of worries, happy supportive parents, aunts and uncles, friendships with other kids who would also end up at Harvard, a sense of belonging where he is, as of right—all that is missing. It's too late to catch up. In place of happy memories, he has memories that terrify him, that he would like to shut off forever, behind a bronze gate, as he says. Rather early in his college career, however, he is initiated into the mysteries of a world he has been looking at enviously, his nose pressed against the windowpane. Luck or misfortune, he has an affair with an older woman—a rich, proper Bostonian—widowed, with twin daughters. She prefers him to the men he envies. He marries her.
Of course, he is an overachiever and manages to start on a career appropriate for her, if not his, station in life. Wonder of wonders—remember that we are in the second half of the 1950s, before such things were commonplace—this very bright little Eastern European Jew goes to work for a white-shoe Wall Street investment bank and fits in. Does that make Ben and Rachel, his wife, live happily forever after? Certainly not. Performing one of those almost ritual operations of the 1960s—a woman who respects herself must get a divorce to show that she has the right stuff—she throws him out and breaks his heart. But it's too late to stop Ben. He becomes a partner in his investment bank, moves from Central Park West to Paris, where he will head his firm's office, he buzzes around the world, and all the while is having a sort of nervous breakdown. The existential problem—his feeling that it's too late: that his successes, his understanding of himself, have been reached too late to be of any use to him, or his parents, or even the woman he married—is acute. Then he meets Véronique and falls in love with her. There is something quite mad about that young woman. She scares him. He is afraid of commitment and of imperfection, in her and in him. Their story ends badly.
Why would anyone dislike Ben? I don't really know, but one or two more or less negative reviews in the American press and a couple of vicious reviews in English papers may provide a partial answer. These reviewers picked on Ben's frequenting fine restaurants, choosing expensive wines, staying in first-class hotels, and wearing clothes that were made for him. In other words, his high style—or, if you like, his high standard of living. Also, his cold and unpleasant way of looking at sex—and my descriptions of having sex. As for the “high standard of living,” what those critics missed is that Ben doesn't glory in material pleasures or comforts. They are like a skull that a hermit keeps before his eyes, to remind him that all is vanity and dust, and of his mortality. That is because, successful though he is, Ben has been unable to get the one thing he wants: to be able to love, and to be loved in return, to break out of his dreadful solitude. Therefore, all the material trappings of his success serve as a bitter reminder of his failure, and that is how they are intended. And my descriptions of sex? To me the sexual drive is all important. For many reasons. Among them is making it possible to break out of one's loneliness and attain a unique form of communication with another human being.
I should add that, overall, the critical response to The Man Who Was Late in the United States, France and Germany, and even England, was positive.
Does that mean you would ever cater to critical disapproval and have a future Ben go to less fashionable restaurants?
No, I don't write looking over my shoulder to see what reviewer X or reviewer Y might say.
Let's turn to the principal characters of As Max Saw It. There is the narrator, Max: a well-meaning, academically brilliant, and yet slightly dim Harvard Law School professor. I describe him accurately and make him a real person. He bumbles his way through the novel and grows up as he sees what goes on in the great world around him, principally the tragic love affair between his demiurgic college classmate, Charlie Swan, and a beautiful boy called Toby. Charlie Swan, by far more striking than Max, is a torrent of a man: violent and gentle, scornful and humble, devious and brutally truthful. Is Charlie “nice”? No, he isn't. Is he someone from whom you would withhold sympathy? Not unless there is something fundamentally wrong with you. If you are like me, you will be friends with him.
That takes us to Mr. Thomas Mistler, the eponymous protagonist of Mistler's Exit. He learns that he is going to die in short order of cancer of the liver and decides that, before he enters the “war zone,” he will have a week or ten days off—in Venice, the city where nothing irritates him—without his wife and without his only son. Once there, he divides his time between taking care of an unfinished business problem and examining his conscience. The business problem involves some sharp dealing by Mistler. Is he therefore a contemptible crook? He is the first to look down on himself, and in fact, if he were conducting himself with his habitual punctilio, I think he would have behaved better. He also has a sort of four- or five-night stand with a young woman who has chased him from New York to Venice, and an encounter with an old flame. Both are highly charged sexually, both reflect the sort of disgust with life and with himself that a man like Mistler who is in Mistler's situation might be reasonably expected to feel. But most important to Mistler and to me, he tries desperately to come to terms with his only son. All in all, is Mistler unpleasant, not worthy of sympathy? I do not believe I would find him such if I had the good fortune to meet him. It's true that he is not politically correct. Come to think of it, none of my principal characters comes even close to meeting that high standard.
And as for Schmidt Delivered? Suffice it to say the title was vindicated in the end. We won't say from whom or what …
What qualities does one look for in a writer?
In the first place there has to be love of words, a sense for what a good sentence is, for how you make a good sentence. Then, I suppose, comes something I will call literary intelligence, which doesn't mean that you're the brightest person in the world. It means knowing how to tell a story. How it begins and how it ends. What kind of things can be made to happen in between.
Of course. There is no such thing as literary creation without hard work.
Being in the legal profession helps that, does it not?
I think it does.
I take it you don't regret having become a lawyer?
I have never regretted my life as a lawyer, in fact I have loved it. The only trouble with being a lawyer is that your work never seems to end. The result is that my life as a lawyer, and—since I began to write, in mid 1989—also a novelist, has been quite hard.
Would you like to be a full-time writer?
I suppose that I would, and that, before too long, I will become one. All my law-school classmates seem to have retired, and so have many younger lawyers I have been used to seeing around me, some of them being in fact my partners. The time to follow their example may be at hand.
A gift to literature!
That depends entirely on whether there is water left in the well. One never knows.
How much water is in the well now?
Right now? I don't know. I am finishing a novel—it would be more accurate to say that I am finishing the first draft of something that I hope will seem to me to be a novel after I have written the last page and reread the draft from beginning to end. Both the present and the future will be clearer after I have made that judgment.
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 promises no great trauma at first. Eventually, however, Lea becomes more and more possessive of John, telephoning him constantly and making excuses to see him whenever she's in the US. This becomes more than John wanted or hoped for, but his vanity (flattered by the admiration of a young beauty) won't let him break away, and the course of their relations progresses inevitably to the point where catastrophe is inescapable. And once the crisis comes, and John survives it, he finds himself driven to confess.
Overworked to the point of caricature: Like Woody Allen, Begley (Mistler's Exit, 1998, etc.) sets his scenes largely by dropping names (here a party at the New Yorker, there an appearance on Apostrophes), but his characters never become credible in their own right. The story ends up feeling stagy and faked.