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 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 …