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, pricy 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.