An adroit blend of melodrama and literary fiction, Louis Begley's Mistler's Exit recycles character types, themes, and settings from his previous novel, About Schmidt. Again, our New York narrator is a wealthy, privileged, supposedly talented old man of acid tongue and heart. Again, too, his long marriage has been a facade hiding an unforgiven sexual betrayal. Still again, a quirky younger woman seizes upon him as her sexual ideal and leaps into his bed, eager and inventive.
But widower Schmidt ran south to make a new life at sunset. Mistler, whose wife is still alive, escapes alone to Venice to settle his head in light of the warning that liver cancer may kill him within months.
Not surprisingly, Mistler's Exit draws upon Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, but there are strong contrasts. Unlike Mann's wasting hero, Mistler is self-consciously virile. He schemes to sell his advertising agency for a huge sum of money, only slightly concerned that concealing his illness might be sharp practice. He wreaks revenge upon the former Harvard roommate and business partner who once had an affair with Mrs. Mistler. He indulges in various sexual postures and recalls others.
Through Mistler's recollections and chance meetings with old acquaintances, Begley sums up the man's emotional life. It is not an especially pretty sight. He apparently came close to alienating his only child, a son who is an academic in California. He is obsessed by his late father's affair with a luminous if romanticized woman in Paris. He admits his role in his wife's discontent but moons after a blowsy old bag who rejected him in college.
Between such reflections and his snits about hotel service, Mistler and his adoring young woman eat in his favorite Venetian restaurants and visit his favorite Renaissance paintings. He ponders God's cruelties while trying to recreate the most precious moments of his past.
Unfortunately, precious is sometimes accurate in a disabling sense. When a smug Mistler amazes his lover with philosophical speculations that would be at home in any college dorm, the reader wonders whether or not Begley entirely realizes the extent of his protagonist's self-satisfaction and self-delusion. Similarly, the novel's Manhattan social stratosphere is preposterous. Begley treats as contemporary the world of midtown eating clubs, but he surely knows that exclusivity has long since bowed to the need to swell the rosters to pay overhead, and that raspberries are not always reliable in winter. More importantly, his portrayal of elitist power is several decades out of date.
Reviewers often praise Begley's precise, measured, well-tailored writing, and Mistler's Exit is certainly a work of assurance. Is the coldness of the dying Mistler the consequence of his never having slept with the one woman he loved, the paragon who was his father's mistress? Perhaps. But that is a kind of sentimentality difficult to square with Mistler's betrayals of old friends and proprietary impulses toward women. Charles Flowers is the author of A Science Odyssey (William Morrow).