During a telephone conversation from his office in New York, Louis Begley quickly rattles through an impressive list of other writers who began publishing late in life. Then, with characteristic understated humor Begley adds, "I think it would be highly unlikely that one would successfully begin writing poetry at the age of 56. But novels are different."
No doubt. Begley proved this in 1991 when he became a first-time novelist at 56. The accomplishment is even more remarkable, considering that he wrote the novel while on a four-month sabbatical from his law firm, where he is senior partner and still practices full-time, Based partly on his experiences as a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Poland, Wartime Lies won the Hemingway/ PEN award and the Prix Médicis Étranger, France's highest award for fiction in translation.
Begley followed that with The Man Who Was Late (1992) and As Max Saw It (1994). Both were critical and popular successes. Then in About Schmidt (1996), Begley delivered what a Toronto Sun critic called his most surprising book, and created his most compelling, perplexing, even controversial protagonist, Albert Schmidt.
A tough, WASP establishment lawyer who is unmoored by the death of his wife and a deepening rift with his only child, Charlotte, Albert Schmidt at first seems to be merely an embodiment of the stiff prejudices of his class. But Begley lifts the veil and creates an intelligent, sympathetic portrait of an increasingly self-aware man in pursuit of unvarnished emotional truth.
Schmidt is a character who lingers in a reader's mind. He has apparently also lingered in Louis Begley's mind. Hence Begley's newest novel, Schmidt Delivered.
"My interest in Schmidt has to do with questions of heredity versus nurture in his relations with his daughter Charlotte," Begley says. "It may be my time of life, it may be the time in which we live, but I am riveted to the relationship between Schmidt and Charlotte. For instance, why is it that it turns out badly between parents and children? And why is it that we ourselves turn out the way we are? Why is it that we find traces—the least lovable traces—of our parents in ourselves? How is it that we do not manage to stop ourselves from transmitting those very traces to our own children?"
Begley notes that Schmidt "is clearly not a choir boy." But he expresses surprise at the level of contempt directed at his protagonist by some critics of the earlier novel, who focused on Schmidt's anti-Semitism, evidenced mainly in Schmidt's reaction to his daughter's plan to marry Jon Riker, a young lawyer in Schmidt's firm. "This crowd of people thinks that characters in novels are supposed to be nice," Begley says. "If one sets aside Victorian novels, where are the nice protagonists of good novels? I don't know any."
In Begley's view, Schmidt is essentially a very decent man, struggling with his limitations. "He's not your card-carrying anti-Semite. He is a man who is full of prejudices, some of them comical, some of them less comical. He is quite conscious of the undesirability of his prejudices but he also knows that they are a part of him. We all have dirty little secrets. . . . One of the things a decent man or woman must do is keep these things under control. Schmidt is not someone who would ever harm a Jew, by word or action. It's just part of his variegated soul."
In fact, Schmidt's saving grace is that over the course of these two novels, he grows in empathy and self-awareness. Begley attributes much of that growth to Schmidt's increasing love for the magical Carrie, a young Puerto Rican waitress Schmidt meets in a local restaurant.
"My interest in writing this book is really a double interest," Begley says. "An interest in Schmidt and an interest in Carrie. I think of Carrie in a way as a noble savage. But it goes much beyond that because she is a very complex young woman—extremely tough, gifted, shrewd, courageous and wildly beautiful. She humanizes Schmidt. And I'm simply not willing to let her go, anymore than I'm willing to let Schmidt go."
Which leads Begley to muse on the limitations that Schmidt must ultimately face. "I'm generally interested in that perception that one has, at a certain point, of one's own limitations and the limitations of others. People start out in life thinking that anything is possible, for them and for others. As they go along, if they have their eyes open, they see that there isn't just an unlimited potentiality. There is a point beyond which one cannot go, however much one tries. And a point beyond which people one loves intensely and for whom one would have one's right hand cut off will never progress. How does one come to terms with that?"
Begley explores the serious questions of this novel with a deft, often playful touch. He offers, for example, a marvelous comic portrait of Mr. Mansour, a billionaire who takes the reluctant Schmidt under his wing.
"Mr. Mansour and his circus!" Begley exclaims with evident delight. "He's a sort of godlike figure, a pagan god, who can bestow great benefactions. He'll screw things up in the most extraordinary ways. He's also full of himself. Absolutely certain that he can fix everything. One of the funny things about very rich men is that they think they will have life eternal—because money is eternal. . . . I have an interest in what you might call the darkly humorous side of society. I mean I have fun with that."
Both the seriousness and the fun of Schmidt Delivered are carried by prose that is astonishingly clear and precise. Begley is a masterful stylist, which is also remarkable, given that he is not a native speaker of English. "Obviously I speak English well," he says, "but you'd be surprised how one's language falls apart when one is trying to write. I don't think this is true of native writers: suddenly you are unsure of the construction of any sentence. So I am a compulsive reviser; to get a paragraph written is like working on a chain gang breaking stones. At the same time I must say that after I've written a page or two, I realize it is also the happiest of occupations because it leaves me with a great sense of happiness, a happiness that I don't experience in other contexts.
"For me," Begley continues, "the real goal is to write something that is not boring. That may sound very simple, stupid really, but it is true. My wife reads everything I write as I write it, and I say to her, 'Don't tell me whether it's good or bad. Just tell me whether or not it is boring.'"
Schmidt Delivered is not boring.
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.