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 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 marchese 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.
Moving from Begley to Tim Parks is like moving from Rameau to Kurt Weill or from Ingres to Jackson Pollock; from static to hectic, from tenue to hysteria. Europa is a virtuoso tragi-comic tour de force, very funny, with quirky, appealing characters, an unpredictable story, and a shocking denouement. Stream-of-consciousness embraces philosophical reflection and running—no, galloping—commentary. Details of behavior and environment are pungently observed as they race by, and Parks’s mimicry can compete for accuracy and comicality with the very best stand-up comedians—Woody Allen, say. Jerry isn’t Jewish, but like Allen he is a schlemiel with too much brain and self-awareness for his own good.
The sentences of his inner monologue go on for entire paragraphs, and the longest paragraphs can tumble on for pages. Yelps of recognition, dismay, pain, rage, and urgent sexual need bob along on the torrent. It’s like rafting down the Upper Rhine—except that such metaphors are off limits because at the heart of this novel is a polemic against cliché, with special reference to the sanctimonious new clichés of European Union—consociativismo for instance, a loathsome Italian coinage for “the sad glue that keeps couples and countries and coach [i.e., bus] parties together”; or, even worse, “United Colors of Benetton.” Actually, the topical clichés of Europe merely reflect the cliché-ridden condition of mankind as a whole.
The tempo of Parks’s prose mimics the journey of a chartered bus across the Alps, with its endemic torture of piped music, piped video, and “the strong and nauseating smell of plas-tics and synthetic upholstery.” It begins when Jerry joins a delegation of foreign-language teachers and students from Milan University. They travel overnight to Strasbourg to protest to the European Parliament about Italy’s discrimination against foreign “lectors,” or instructors, who don’t have tenure, whereas their Italian colleagues do. Jerry has no interest in the cause. He has always seen
this job…as a mere stepping-stone, a sensible way-station, an income to tide me over while I picked up my ticket to somewhere else (until, like my marriage, it became a desert island, a place of loathed and ultimately terrifying convenience), if I lose my job, I will have lost the last element in life, after wife and daughter and mistress, that gave me any sense of role and identity.
Jerry feels no guilt about leaving his wife with the cruel explanation that he found her repulsive. He loves his daughter, whose eighteenth birthday coincides with the expedition to Strasbourg and makes him feel guilty about missing her party; his mistress left him two years ago. Still, there he is, with his beady eye on his fellow passengers. All but two of the students are girls, mostly very young, naive, and touchingly well-intentioned as well as sexually desirable. They have been collectively christened “totties” by Jerry’s crude and lecherous English colleague Colin, who makes relentless passes at them and draws Jerry into deplorable tottie-talk.
Jerry is there because of his former mistress, a French lector and a leading spirit in the delegation—desirable, enormously sexy, intelligent, ambitious, and a Euro-prig. Their affair ended when Jerry hit her after discovering that she was two-timing him with a German lector named Georg. She defended her infidelity on the grounds that Georg was having a grim time looking after his little boy while his wife lay incurably sick in the hospital; going to bed with him was part of the “mosaic of friendship” (a prize priggish cliché) and it was immature of Jerry to object. Jerry has been pretending that he has got over her, but he knows he hasn’t and “that the very instant I took this decision was also the instant I recognized and recognized that I had always recognized that coming on this trip was one of those mistakes I was made to make.”
Until the last sentence in the book, Jerry never names his former lover.
If I never say her name, although I think of little else but her, it is partly because that name is still so powerful that its very articulation causes an emotional seizure, an immediate tension that I feel physically, but also and perhaps more importantly, because by never saying it I keep it that way, I prolong its power, I prevent its dilution in repetition, in the way a word like Europe has been diluted into thin air with all the times everybody says Europe this and Euro that, though once it was the name of a girl a god became a bull to rape and half the heroes hoped to find.
The brilliance of this passage lies in the ingenious but legitimate way it links Parks’s two main themes: the eternal one of obsessive love, and the topical one of the clichéification of Europe, plus the recurring motif of the classical scholar’s nostalgia for the ancient world:
the way they lived inside the natural world, at home in it in a way we never can be, the patterned constellations over their heads throbbing with deities, the deep wells they drew their water from encircled by serpents, and not a single holy text (I’m thinking of pre-Orphic times) or social manifesto, or sniff of political correctness to slip a credit card between themselves and the sacred.
Apart from the mannerly Georg and the unmannerly Colin, the lectors on the journey include a harsh Greek lady, a bland German surgeon’s wife, a smug Irish novelist, and a terribly correct Italian avvocato not too correct to bed one of the students. All these characters are ironically seen to a Dickensian extent, and it seems a miracle that Parks has found room for them (and a few others) in a mere 262 pages. Even more lecherous and chronically plastered than Colin is Vikram Griffiths, a voluble Welshman with an Indian mother. He claims to be the only colored member of Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, and is the instigator and organizer of the protest trip. He has two divorced wives, an analyst, no money, a custody struggle over his child, disgusting catarrh, and a smelly dog on whom his otherwise rejected love centers and who slobbers all over the bus. In spite of these inconveniences, Jerry manages to see and convey Vikram’s considerable charm and even greater pathos, and the others see it too; besides, political correctness compels them to make an effort to love the representative of not just one but two minorities.
The second part of Europa opens in Strasbourg with a memorable description of cafard. Jerry is lying on his hotel bed.
All I can see is that headlights pass at regular intervals stretching and flitting over wall and ceiling, their yellow glow softened by the synthetic mesh of the curtains, but with swift shards, as though of unpleasantly illuminating thoughts, where the material doesn’t pull to at the top. Attended by a slight rise and fall in the background swell of traffic noise, the intermittent brightness passes, a split second before the auditory peak, over a reproduction of something from Picasso’s blue period, a reproduction so flat in its printed melancholy, and so poorly framed in what must be extruded poly-something-or-other, it immediately makes you aware of all the other reproductions of famous paintings bought in bulk no doubt for all the other fifty or so rooms of this prefabricated, out-of-town hotel so suitable for accommodating large and unprosperous groups of coach travellers—pensioners, strikers, pilgrims….
There follows a meditation on Picasso’s lovers in their cheap reproduction, which ends:
You can see these two are at the thousandth attempt now, I mean of recapturing whatever it was, they’re years, if not decades on, so that it’s not really a conscious seeking they’re engaged in any more, they’re not expecting to recapture anything, but more a sort of mysterious imposition, this clasping, this rehearsal of intimacy, this placing of cheek against cheek, a blue and green ceremony they have forgotten the origins of, like the ceremonies Plutarch mentioned in Quaestiones Graecae and suggested were the most faithfully observed of all, the ones nobody could understand or explain to him any more.
Vikram gets so outrageously drunk during the delegation’s dinner in Strasbourg that the lectors decide he is unfit to present their petition, and they elect Jerry to do it instead. And so he does, stringing together clichés with the best of them. His excellent performance is interrupted by a shriek (in Greek) from the Greek lector: the humiliated Vikram has been found hanging in a lavatory of the parliament building. Even this is not quite the end of the story.
After identifying the body, Jerry spends four hours alone in the Parliament’s piously nondenominational Meditation Room. His thoughts are not unlike Mistler’s except that they refer to the Greek gods and not to Christ:
The thing that most terrified the Greeks was that they would be deceived by the gods. They would receive a message. A dream, an oracle. Attack now, Agamemnon. Clearly it was a message. Clearly it came from the gods. But it was the wrong message. It led to defeat. Or they would be invaded by a passion. Phaedra’s for Hippolytus. Clearly it was an invasion. Clearly it came from outside, from the gods. But it was the wrong passion. It led to madness. To suicide. As whole nations can be led to madness and suicide sometimes, on the back of the wrong dream, the wrong passion.
Jerry, of course, doesn’t believe in the gods (though he may wish he did): he puts Vikram’s death and his own infatuation down to an “enzyme shift.” The only difference, for Parks, is in the nomenclature: God the Father, the Greek pantheon, enzymes—it’s all the same, ineluctable and beyond human control.
November 5, 1998