Tuesday, November 13, 2012


Albert Schmidt, that is, but he prefers to be called "Schmidtie" and Louis Begley's trilogy captures the essence of a complex modern man.  It bothered me that a movie had been made of the first novel, About Schmidt (1996), with Jack Nicholson playing the title role, and it took a while to get the image of good ole' Jack out of my mind.  I also don't like seeing a film first and then reading the book, but years had intervened by the time I read the book last summer. Thus I had a hard time associating it with the film (other than Jack).  But as it turns out the book is entirely different (it would be best to say the film was "suggested" by the novel) and in fact when I now think of what Schmidtie might look like, I see Louis Begley, a remarkable writer and with a remarkable personal history.

Begley came to writing late in life and like Joseph Conrad and Jerzy Kosinski, English is a second language, Polish being the language of their birth.  The similarities to Kosinski are striking, Begley having to exorcise his demons about the Nazi occupation of Poland by writing Wartime Lies.  It is a thinly autobiographical account of the protagonist's attempt to avoid persecution as a Jew . I remember reading Kosinski's Painted Bird when it was first published, a profoundly disturbing holocaust novel.  I haven't read Wartime Lies, but it is now on my list.

After that novel, Begley felt he could move on as a writer, even though he remained a full-time attorney with the firm of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, specializing in international corporate transactions. He has since retired and now devotes his full energies to writing at the tender age of 79!

I've dealt with enough attorneys in my career, mostly corporate ones and those specializing in intellectual property, to know that their work depends on the careful execution of language.  Most of the attorneys I worked with thought that crafting a legal document was like building a fine piece of furniture or even creating a work of art.  No, that did not make them automatically eligible to start a second career as a creative writer as one needs something to say as well.  In fact Begley, by his own admission, did not pursue a career as a writer at first for that very reason, although he enjoyed a creative writing class at Harvard where he earned his AB in 1954.  It took him decades to find his voice, and now that he has, he is, thankfully, writing full time.

Interestingly, his class of 1954 included none other than the late John Updike, my favorite writer.  They both graduated summa cum laude and they must have known each other.  Whether they kept in touch over the years we will find out when Begley's son, Adam Begley, is finished with the biography he is writing of John Updike.  I will be lining up for the first copy!

After finishing All About Schmidt, I promptly turned to the second novel of the trilogy, Schmidt Delivered (2000) and now have finally finished the third novel, Schmidt Steps Back (2012) and have been profoundly affected by it.  Although these were written years apart, I had the good fortune to read all within a few months and, therefore, I almost think of them as one work.

For me, Begley sort of picks up where Updike left off, following one character and setting that character against the backdrop of the times in which he lives.  Updike updated us every ten years in the Rabbit tetrology while Begley's trilogy is a more compressed time frame.  Nonetheless, there are many similarities, particularly the novel as memoir, a kind of history of our times, and the intellectual level at which both Updike and Begley operate, their erudite prose befitting of their excellent educations.

Rabbit is more of an "everyman" whereas Schmidtie is moving in the upper echelon of society, certainly the upper 1% to borrow from the recent election.  And that should not be surprising as Begley's legal work put him front and center in that stratum of society. 

In terms of style, Begley writes like an attorney in many respects; his sentences sometimes complex but finely crafted and I like his dispensing with quotation marks for dialog.  It takes a little getting used to, but it seems so natural.  I felt neutral to the protagonist in the first novel, moved a little closer to him in the second, and by the third felt simpatico.   

Rabbit and I shared many commonalities, and now I find myself in Schmidtie's shoes, thinking similar thoughts and of course witnessing the same events.  It makes these novels living breathing documents to me.

Begley covers so many topics and themes in these novels, the ambiguity of memory, Jewishness, moneyed privilege (consider this beautiful crafted passage on that topic: "Tim had it all, every quality required to make him, as the younger partners put it, the complete package.  Handsome, imperially slim, arrayed in discreet made-to-order suits and shirts that did not shout their Savile Row and Jermyn Street provenance, he trailed an aura of old New York money."), mental illness, homosexuality, the publishing industry and the legal establishment, the death of a spouse (his wife, Mary dies early on in the first novel), spring-winter romance, divorce and infidelity, the tragic relationship with his only child, Charlotte ("His short-lived happiness had been added to the monstrous inventory of Charlotte's resentments.  There was no doubt: the ever-deeper -- he was beginning to fear permanent -- estrangement from his daughter was his life's principal liability.") and, finally, sex scenes worthy of Updike's Couples.

He throws down the gauntlet in the opening pages of Schmidt Steps Back (the best of the three novels), Schmidtie speculating as to how many years he has left (he guesses ten) and how death might come calling. Dr. Tang is his physician and Gil his best friend from college. I was fascinated by this long paragraph, as if Begley was listening in on my own private thoughts as they pertain to the inevitable.  He also sets up some of the basic themes in the novel, the prospect of happiness (and his ability to have sex) with a woman he had romanced thirteen years before the opening of the novel, Alice, and the consequence and obligations of money:

"Silly business, Schmidt thought, Dr. Tang's attention to his diet.... He had asked Dr. Tang whether she could foresee the form in which death would come for him. You won't  scare me, he had said, everyone has an appointment in Samarra, and I own a cemetery plot with a view of Peconic Bay I rather like. She laughed gaily in reply and told him that with a patient in such good health it was impossible to predict. Schmidt's simultaneous translation was Don't ask stupid questions, leave it to team death, they'll figure it out. Ever polite, he had merely laughed back. In truth, he had his own hunches: stroke or cancer, demonic diseases that don't always go for the quick kill. But whatever it might turn out to be, no one, absolutely no one, would get him to move into a nursing home. If he was compos mentis, and not yet paralyzed, he would find his own way to the exit. Otherwise, the instructions left with Gil, naming him the sole arbiter of Schmidt's life and death, should do the job, with a little friendly nudge from Gil if need be. It was no more than he would do for Gil, who had made his own arrangements giving Schmidt the power of decision. Dementia, the illness most likely to cut off the means of escape, held more terror than any other. But he had not heard of a single ancestor, going back three generations, who had been so afflicted. The other side of the coin, the agreeable side, was his overall good health. Once he got going in the morning, he was still quite limber. In truth, he doubted there was much difference between his condition thirteen years earlier, when he first called on Alice in Paris, to take an example that preoccupied him, and the way he was now. Not unless you wanted to fixate on the deep lines, running to the corners of his mouth, that had only gotten deeper or the hollow cheeks or the fold of skin sagging from his neck. Taken together, they gave him an expression so lugubrious that efforts to smile made him look like a gargoyle. The situation was less brilliant when it came to his libido and sexual performance. The grade he had given himself when last put to the test had been no higher than a pass, but as he had told Alice, he had not yet tried any of the miracle pills that old geezer-in-chief Bob Dole swore by on television. Besides, the test in question had been unfair: the lady whom he may have disappointed could not hold a candle to the incomparable Alice. Did his age and the ravages of time make it reprehensible to keep over- paying the Hampton mafia of gardeners, handymen, carpenters, and plumbers for the pleasure of having everything at his house just so? Or to pay the outrageous real estate taxes that financed town services, neatly itemized on the tax bill as though to taunt him by proving that he derived no personal benefit from them? Hell, there were lots of men unable to get a hard-on and lots of women who had faked orgasms until blessed moment when they could finally declare that at their age they'd given the whole thing up, living comfortably in houses much grander than his. Spending more money than he!"

Then there is the notion of the novel as history.  Begley gives witness to the manners and mores, the foibles, and the likes and dislikes of his times. Updike's characters are similarly entwined with their periods in American history. I would rather read a novel in this vein than any history book to get a sense of what people not only witnessed, but what they felt.  This is why I prefer fiction to nonfiction (although some of nonfiction could probably pass as fiction!).  We all remember where we were on certain momentous days.  My older relatives remember Pearl Harbor, while I remember where I was when Kennedy was assassinated that moment in time only to be surpassed by the events of September 11, 2001.

Begley  flawlessly describes the horror and the incredulity of that infamous day in the third novel:
"Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Perfect blue sky, perfect late-summer temperature. If it hadn't been for the foundation's board meeting, Schmidt would have stayed in Bridgehampton. As it was, he had driven in the evening before, got to the office early to prepare for the meeting, which was to start at ten. His secretary, Shirley, walked into his room shortly after nine to say good morning and ask whether he wanted coffee.
By the way, she added, one of those pesky little private planes has plowed into one of the World Trade Center towers. There's smoke coming out the building where it hit. If you come to reception you'll have a good view.
Schmidt glanced at his papers. For all practical purposes he was ready. He walked down the corridor to where a large number of Mansour Industries employees already assembled in the forty-eighth-floor reception area were looking toward the southern tip of Manhattan, staring at the smoking tower, when the second plane hit. No one thought any longer that some neophyte aboard his Piper or Cessna was to blame. The traders who occupied two-thirds of the floor and had been glued to Madrid's El Mundo on their computers, unable to reach other sites, dashed in with the news; someone brought in a television set and connected to a German station. On the screen tiny-seeming figures, some of them holding hands, could be seen jumping from the vast height of the wounded buildings. Someone shouted, Look! Look! Schmidt turned away from the screen to look south, and before his eyes one tower crumbled and, not a half hour later, the second. Then came news of another plane that had hit the Pentagon and another still that had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. And the passengers in those planes, men, women, children-their seat belts buckled-waiting for the moment of impact, knowing that they were to die in flames of burning jet fuel. Schmidt found that he could not detach his thoughts from them, as though it were his own nightmare from which he was unable to awake. Were they praying? Strangers embracing strangers next to whom they sat across armrests? Recollecting quickly all that had been good and beloved in their lives? Some of the children must have understood, but the others? The infants? Did the sound of their wailing fill the planes' cabins? Did it soften the murderers' hearts or was it their foretaste of paradise?"

Begley has already written several other novels, ones now on my reading list.  Perhaps he is working on his fourth Schmidt novel (one would hope!).  He is a worthy writer to be added to my personal pantheon of "favorites." 

Although now ten years old, here is an excellent interview with Begley from the Paris Review