Book Review: Louis Begley's Schmidt Steps Back

Author Louis Begley uses his new novel to cast a gimlet eye on love, sex and class relations in contemporary New York

TVR Books | Mary Albon | December 2011 / January 2012

Reinventing the Anti-Hero: The Man Behind Schmidt

Unlike many first-time novelists who make a splash on account of their youth, Louis Begley was nearly 60 when he strolled onto the literary scene in 1991 with his stunning debut, Wartime Lies. Begley’s autobiographical novel won the PEN/Ernest Hemingway First Fiction Award and several international literary prizes, and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Not bad for a 50-something novice.

Although Begley dabbled in fiction while studying English at Harvard alongside classmate John Updike, "I felt I had nothing to say", he confessed to an admiring audience at Vienna’s Theater in der Josefstadt on 13 Nov. "One can’t become a novelist simply because one writes good English", he said; "one also has to find one’s subject."

For Begley, a Jew born in Poland in 1933, that subject was his wartime childhood spent hiding in plain sight. He was born Ludwik Begleiter in the Polish town of Stryj (now part of Ukraine).

In 1941, his physician father was conscripted into the Soviet Army and his grandparents were shot. Begley and his mother survived thanks to false papers that identified them as Catholics. Reunited after the war, the family emigrated to New York in 1947.

As a young man, Begley was not ready to write about his past; his experiences were "too recent and too confusing". Instead, he decided "the only honorable and intelligent thing to do was to shut up and do something else".

Following a stint in the U.S. Army, Begley earned a law degree at Harvard and joined a "white-shoe" law firm in New York. After a few years, he was made a partner; in 2004, he retired as head of the firm’s international practice.

Begley is a master stylist, writing with grace, exactitude and understated, yet lethal wit. "The way I write has more to do with the fact that I write in a third language", he said. "It is impossible to have spontaneity in a language one has to be taught." His spoken English, bearing the slightest trace of a Polish accent, is also judicious and precise.

In the 20 years since Wartime Lies appeared, Begley has published eight more novels and several nonfiction works. In Vienna for Buch Wien, the city’s annual international literary festival, Begley read from his latest novel, Schmidt Steps Back, due out in March 2012.

The new novel is Begley’s third featuring Albert Schmidt, a recently widowed lawyer retired from a top Manhattan firm. After his wife’s death, Schmidt sold his Fifth Avenue apartment and retreated to his summer house on Long Island’s exclusive South Fork, where, fortuitously, Begley and his wife take daily walks on the beach.

"I met Schmidt on these walks", he said. "He came into my mind fully formed and fully clothed. I adopted him, and we became very close friends, and I’ve become his biographer."

At first glance Schmidt might seem to be Begley’s Doppelgänger – except that "Schmidtie" is an old-school WASP, replete with all the prejudices of his age and caste, including anti-Semitism. In Schmidt, Begley has created a contrarian anti-hero: reserved, remote, and judgmental.

Reeling from loneliness in his Long Island hermitage in About Schmidt (1996), Schmidt falls for the charms of Carrie, a Puerto Rican waitress less than half his age, who just might save him from his own worst failings. These include his growing estrangement from his daughter, Charlotte, a PR apologist for Big Tobacco, and his distaste for her Jewish fiancé and his family.

In Schmidt Delivered (2000), a besotted, libidinous Schmidtie turns a blind eye to Carrie’s infidelities even as he takes pleasure in the knowledge of Charlotte’s marital problems. As the saying goes, there’s no fool like an old fool. Now, in Schmidt Steps Back, Carrie is pregnant, possibly by Schmidt, who meanwhile has fallen for a Frenchwoman closer to his own age.

Begley acknowledged that Schmidt can be difficult to like and that many readers find Schmidt’s anti-Semitism "troubling", as well as the "odious nature" of Charlotte’s in-laws. "Could I have written it differently?" Begley asked. "Yes. But one obeys a strange rule when one writes a novel. There are some things characters do out of their own free will that one cannot prevent."

He insisted that Schmidt is "very true to life" for a certain type of upper-class New Yorker, possessing "the qualities of his age and social situation" as well as "a whole catalog of prejudices, taboos, fetishes, tics". Begley himself likes Schmidt "for his good qualities", which include loyalty and generosity.

Now that both author and anti-hero are in their late 70s, will Begley continue to chronicle Schmidt’s loves and losses? "Assuming Schmidt has a life worth discussing, and I continue to be in good form to be his biographer," Begley said a fourth installment might appear "no sooner than 2016."

Schmidt Steps Back

by Louis Begley

Knopf (2012), pp. 384

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