Louis Begley

Louis BegleyNovelist and soon-to-be-retired lawyer Louis Begley was born in Poland in 1933 and came to the US in 1946. He attended Harvard University and after a stint in the US Army, Harvard Law School, where he graduated with honors in 1959. Louis Begley has spent his entire legal career at the major international firm of Debevoise & Plimpton. He has written seven novels beginning with the publication of his first, Wartime Lies, in 1991 and then The Man who was Late, As Max Saw It, About Schmidt, Mister’s Exit, Schmidt Delivered and recently Shipwreck. His novels have won numerous awards and been finalists in the National Book Awards and the National Book Critics Circle and been translated into fifteen languages. About Schmidt was the basis for movie starring Jack Nicholson. Louis Begley lives in Manhattan with his wife, French writer and biographer Anka Muhlstein, and their two cats, Kasha and Misia.

Shipwreck begins with novelist John North introducing himself to the novel’s unnamed narrator at a café called L Entre Deux Mondes and then proceeds to tell him a story he has "never told anyone before." And so begins this story within a story. North has been reviewing his work and begins to doubt his celebrated genius prior to an interview at a Parisian café with a journalist from French Vogue. North decides to sleep with the young woman; thus begins an obsession that turns his fidelity into "a man preparing to commit murder…murder of my adored [wife] Lydia." The sexual affair that follows and its compelling resolution are the engine of this story but not at all the most attractive aspect of this narrative. It is, as Janet Maslin points out in her New York Times review, "…Begley’s predilection for choosing life’s small picture over the big one and for studying his characters with punishing precision."

Louis Begley: My daughter Amy has become a romance writer. She writes under the pseudonym of "Laura Moore," and one fine day this Spring she asked me, "Dad, do you know how to click on a website?" I said, "I don’t, maybe my secretary will show me." And she did, and I clicked on Amy’s web site, which is LauraMoorebooks.com. And I thought it was pretty terrific. She said, "Why don’t you have one?" I said, "I wouldn’t even know how to begin to make one." She said, "Nobody knows how to make them. [both laugh]. You get somebody to do it."

Robert Birnbaum: A thirteen-year old kid.

LB: Actually I got a forty-year-old lady who had made Amy’s site. I was appalled by the amount of work this required, but now it exists, LouisBegley.com.

RB: Simple. No one expropriated your URL and tried to sell it back to you? [laughs]

LB: No, isn’t that nice? Blind luck.

RB: When a story’s main character is a writer, there is a strong temptation—maybe an unavoidable one—to ask the author of the story how much of the character’s observations and personality tics are drawn from the author?

LB: That is a question that is asked of [the main character in Shipwreck] John North. He is asked, "How autobiographical is your novel?" He has just published a novel a called The Anthill. He says, "It’s not autobiographical any more than my other books. All my novels are made of my experiences, of what I have observed, of what I have read. What I have suffered. Good things. Bad things. Nightmares. Then they are recombined and made into fiction." So to answer your question as directly, as truthfully as I can, you may assume that many, if not all the views on writing that John North, the protagonist of Shipwreck, expresses coincide with my views. Although the novel, indeed, is not autobiographical.

RB: One of the reviews had the astute observation that if one was a writing student or an author wannabe, one could go through this book with a highlighter and pick out wonderful observations and instructions on how to write.

LB: [chuckles]

RB: I won’t belabor that, but I also found amusing your wry observation that "an 800-page novel was a sign of serious intent."

LB: There is now this fashion for mega books. The only book that is 800 pages long or thereabout that I can seriously contemplate reading is War and Peace. I suppose also the great Dostoevsky novels. I cannot read novels of huge length, with no characters, no intelligible plot, and really no point except as a compendium of private jokes and obsessions.

RB: Care to name names?

I cannot read novels of huge length, with no characters, no intelligible plot, and really no point except a compendium of private jokes and obsessions.

LB: I would take the Fifth Amendment.

RB: I was just reading something by the former publisher of Penguin India’s about his view of "the three high points" of publishing in India. That piece reminded me of Vikram Seth’s book A Suitable Boy

LB: Oh yes…

RB: Which is about 1400 pages and was larger in manuscript. I don’t hold it against a book that it is long….

LB: I don’t either. I have not read Seth’s book. I read another book of his, which was shorter. And I do not think his book is the way I described the books I don’t like—which are without characters, without a plot, without something that sweeps you off your feet. I happen to love Victorian novels, which are very long.

RB: You think it is the fashion to write long novels. I think it’s the opposite.

LB: I think that is changing. The day of the short novel is coming back. Don’t forget that John North is perorating at the beginning of the 1980’s. So he is not talking about what is true in 2003. And the same for instance, you may have noticed that when he talks about his research into women’s sexuality, his research seems to have stopped with Betty Friedan. But that is because of the date he is speaking as of, when he speaks.

RB: Speaking of Victorians, what does one miss if one has not a familiarity with or love for Henry James? If I read no Henry James would I be suffering some loss in understanding Shipwreck?

LB: I do not think so. The only point at which you would be at somewhat of a disadvantage is a fifty-word reference to The Golden Bowl, where I speak of the marvels of the Prince, the husband as a lover. That’s one of those things. We can’t all get all of the allusions in all books, laugh at all private jokes. But I think that my novels are not hermetic and they are not addressed to aesthetes or to lovers of recondite literary law.

RB: The care with which you write makes it so obvious that, as you say in another context, there is no hamburger helper in your stories. My sense of you is that the precision of your description well serves the focus of you attention—social interaction and manners. Something that is perhaps a throwback to earlier times…

LB: I do write with some care and I rewrite compulsively. So indeed….

RB: Some care?

LB: Well, yes, by the time I have finished I think I have trimmed away everything that is not essential. I have a very difficult time really, dealing with the question of subject matter of my books. Because it seems to me so very natural and uncontrived. I don’t set out to illustrate this kind of manners, or that kind of manners. I am in love with Hemingway’s observation when he wants to send a message he goes to the post office. [chuckles] I don’t send messages. So you see I write themes that interest me. In this, the theme is betrayal. Betrayal in a marriage, what that does to the betrayer and to the person who is betrayed and also to the third person in this trio —who in this case, this could be equally applicable to an adulterous woman as an adulterous man. So that is my theme, and the point of departure in this novel is actually its ending. I wrote the ending before I got going on the beginning except for the first scene, the very first scene. I knew the scene in the café, John North putting his hand on the shoulder of the nameless narrator (but in fact listener) and says, "I have a story to tell you I have never told before." I knew what the theme was and what I wanted to accomplish. I knew the ending and the rest I simply used those materials that seemed to come to hand that I know that I am able to handle.

RB: Sure, if you were a different person and had grown up in Wyoming and went to the University of Texas you would be writing about something else…

louis begleyLB: Yes.

RB: I get that point. I am not suggesting that there is anything inauthentic.

LB: Nor is it a philosophical position that I want to write about this kind of person or that kind of person.

RB: I know you wouldn’t be about writing crack addicts and homicide cops ala Richard Price.

LB: Right. I don’t know them. The only addicts I know are rather desolate children of friends. It’s something; of course that has been dogging me. Which is this question of why do I write about this, why do I write about that? Why don’t I keep on writing exactly the same thing that I wrote about in Wartime Lies, my first novel? The childhood of a little boy in Poland during the German occupation, a noble subject, great theme, the inhumanity of the Germans, the inhumanity of Catholic Poles, cosmic suffering, injustice, etc. Well, I have written that book. I cannot write the same book over and over. So I write what involves me as I go on.

RB: Perhaps I should have asked before, are you still lawyering?

LB: I am but am glad to announce that this is coming to an end on the last day of 2003. On January 1, 2004 I will be a free man. Until now I only worked as a writer on weekends and holidays. I am unable to write in the evening of a workday—not because I am tired. I am actually quite resilient but because my head is full of the wrong words.

RB: [laughs]

LB: It really is a question of words. Words on subjects that are not connected with what I am doing. I don’t even like to write in the afternoon. I like to start in the morning—when I haven’t had contact with people or had real concerns and words crowding in on me. When I get stuck as I write I find that the best solution is either to go for a walk or even better is to lie down and sleep for twenty thirty minutes, and then when I get up I have a whole new view.

RB: I’ve never been able to catnap.

LB: I’m a specialist.

RB: Any trick to it?

LB: Just lie on your back, close your eyes. Don’t make a big deal. Don’t pull down blinds. Don’t open the bed. Don’t make it so that if you don’t fall asleep you have failed in some humiliating way.

RB: [laughs] John North’s urgent concern was his lost of faith and confidence in his own work. I’m certain that happens more than once in one’s writing life and probably happens frequently. Have you experienced that?

LB: I experience it constantly. I can’t really generalize about other writers. I experience it constantly because I move along and write and it all seems to come out okay and I have written a chapter and I show my work to my wife as I go along. She is my first reader and my best reader and she says, "Oh it’s alright." And then I read it and I say to myself, "Why am I doing this?" Because I know what I this is made up of and…

RB: Like making sausages…

So you give it to your editor. He thinks it’s a book. Finally, it is printed and you read the bound galley and there begins a period of enhanced self-loathing.

LB: It’s the debris of things I picked up and put on the page, and I say to myself, "Why, why, why, why have you gotten yourself into this? You should stop." But then I say to myself, "Maybe I can make it come out alright." And I plug ahead. And plug ahead and plug ahead and when it’s finished — there are some moments of high and then I revise the thing and suddenly it looks like a book. So I give it to my editor. He thinks it’s a book. Finally, it is printed and I read the bound galley and there begins a period of enhanced self-loathing.

RB: [laughs] Is that good or bad?

LB: [laughs] It’s bad! [emphatically]

RB: There is something to be said about the cessation of excruciating pain. What makes your wife your best reader?

LB: She is so intelligent and honest and has excellent taste and she is a writer herself. She writes biography so there isn’t a shade of competition between us. What she does is so totally different not that there would be even if she were to write fiction. There would not be competition between us, but there could be a divergence in what we thought was the way to go about writing. I know she writes differently and she knows that I write differently. Besides, she writes in French, and I write in English.

RB: Okay, well you went through a period of "excruciating self loathing," now what do you think about Shipwreck?

LB: I am becoming accustomed to it. I am becoming accustomed to it. I am influenced in becoming accustomed to it by an extraordinary outpouring of expressions of admiration for the book by people whom I know and whom I respect the most. And who would not lie to me for one moment—they don’t need to. So I am beginning to think that maybe this book isn’t so bad. And then, of course, doing readings can either devastate you —which has never happened to me, actually. Or it can make you feel rather better. I think when I read it aloud I have the feeling that what I have written is not badly written. I also have the feeling that it isn’t boring. It doesn’t seem to bore my listeners. So I am progressively feeling better, more at ease.

RB: Are there audiotapes of your books?

LB: Oh yes. I think of all of them.

RB: Any of them stand out? A really good rendition?

LB: I think whomever it was who read About Schmidt did an excellent job.

RB: I think that the audiotapes are a different iteration and not a lazy way to "read a book." I sometimes read the book and then listen to the tape.

LB: I agree with you one hundred per cent. I am just in the home stretch of listening to Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time.

RB: [laughs] How many tapes is that?

LB: God! Forty tapes? I don’t know but we listen to it going back and forth to the country. And I have read that book(s) surely twice. I admire it immensely. But listening to it read is quite marvelous because, of course, you can’t skip anything. You really pay greater attention than you do when you read because your mind wanders off sometimes when you turn the page. It’s a marvelous experience even though I wish sometimes this particular reader had done better when he tries to give different characters different voices. Or for instance I have listened on tape— not to all of Proust because it’s not available in it’s entirety— but In Search of Lost Time, with which I am extraordinarily familiar. I have to admit there were whole passages that I never paid attention to because my endurance for descriptions of landscapes is limited. [laughs] So I have tended to just move on. But you can’t with books on tape.

louis begleyRB: So the groundswell of appreciation for Shipwreck— I am going to assume that you are working on something now…

LB: I started working on a novel very seriously in late June, and I did quite well until the beginning of August. Then all of my children and all of my grandchildren came to visit in waves, and [since] the book that I was writing is a very unhappy book, somehow going on with it in this house full of happiness became really impossible. So I did some more or less journalistic things that I had to do. The birth of a book is extremely time consuming. September has been given over to various things and half of October will be and then much of November as Shipwreck has also come out in Germany and I have an extensive German book tour. So I get back to it in December.

RB: Perhaps the good reception for Shipwreck may be deleterious to your writing this new unhappy book? You’ll be in too good a mood…

LB: Oh, it’s not that kind of mood that matters. It’s just that —I was writing about the misspent youth of two characters and since one, as we have already established, writes out of things one has seen and experienced they were things that were difficult to deal with my children and grandchildren sitting around. But they won’t be sitting around in December.

RB: When I talked with Joseph Epstein last summer, I was very aware that his characters in Fabulous Small Jews were mature and in many cases facing problems of serious disease, dying relatives disappointing children and siblings. And it struck me that so many young writers seem not have a sense of the weight of real life problems.

LB: I can’t really comment on that due to the combination of my profession and the time sit takes, my legal profession and my writing profession and the time it takes. I actually get to read very little new literature.

RB: Will that change?

LB: I suppose so although I am such a compulsive re-reader that I am not sure how much. There is a whole backed up list I want to go back to. Also, I have spent some time writing some short stories, which I have not done since college. It’s a beguiling occupation. I may very well want to do some more of that. There is a tremendous pleasure about it because you have a story to tell. You write and thirty-five pages later you are finished. You don’t have another hundred and fifty pages to go. It’s quite marvelous.

RB: Can you say more?

LB: I think that one wants to tell stories and there are many stories that one has trotting around in one’s head. Some stories, most of the stories I think about, I believe are only suitable for a novel. They don’t have a punch, a single punch. Not that I am completely convinced that a story needs to have that kind of quality of an event happening. Maybe it’s enough of a story if it gives a picture of something. But to be able to use some of that material that otherwise has no place to go, the only thing you could do with otherwise is in the course of a novel try somehow to place it but then my novels are rather sparse so it’s hard to place something.

RB: Writers frequently say that novels are more forgiving and allow for less rigor and will recover from a slight lapse here and there.

LB: That’s true.

Victorian novels are like huge houses that you can close off wings you don’t like. If for some reason you don’t want to be there you just forget about them or board them up—make sure they have good insulation and make sure everything is covered up and you don’t need to go there.

RB: It strikes me that you wouldn’t tolerate that in your carefully drawn novels?

LB: I don’t think so either. I am extremely attached to John O Hara. His stories don’t necessarily make a point of any sort. But they do have to be in their own way, perfect. I don’t feel that’s a big difference for me between a novel and a short story. Victorian novels are like huge houses that you can close off wings you don’t like. If for some reason you don’t want to be there you just forget about them or board them up—make sure they have good insulation and make sure everything is covered up and you don’t need to go there. I could not write that way but I am happy to live with novels like that just as I would be very happy to live in a rambling Victorian house, though I don’t.

RB: In Shipwreck, if you were given to embellishment or writing a bigger novel, you could easily have brought in more inter-action with North’s families (his and his wife’s). I was curious about them beyond what you presented.

LB: Of course. Of course, but then I would have had to have a different form of novel, and I really wanted to write [Shipwreck] this way. It would have had to be very different.

RB: How much—looking now at the nameless narrator— did you think of the mystery or ambiguity that such a character creates in the story?

LB: I thought about it quite a lot. It was quite important to me that there would be no certitude about whether there really was such a person. About that person’s reliability as, if you like a layer of unreliability that you can add to a North’s unreliability. I am not sure one need take every word that North says for revealed truth. So yes, that was quite important to me. As is indeed the detachment of the place in which the narration occurs from any place, Café L’ Entre Deux Mondes. Is it in Quito Ecuador? Is it in Odessa? Who knows?

RB: I guess I assumed it was in Paris because it was a French name {one review suggested it was in Paris another on the upper East side of Manhattan], but I guess there is no reason to think that.

LB: Yes, you can put it anywhere you like. Maybe it’s no place. Maybe the cafe doesn’t exist? Maybe it’s North just thinking about a book? Maybe he is writing that book? Maybe the novel he says he’s writing…

RB: This is beginning to have shades of Jorge Luis Borges.

LB: No, no, no. But I mean he says he is writing a novel called Loss. Well, shipwreck is loss. So maybe he is actually writing the novel he is telling? Which, of course, comes awfully close to the truth. But all these things, one can think about.

RB: North is certainly compelling because he has made the reader and the narrator pay attention but I find him barely likeable.

LB: [sniffs]

RB: Well, he’s not likeable. Forget barely, he’s not likeable. He has these incisive observations and brisk acute ways of commenting on the world. That makes me wonder why his wife likes him—his wife whom he describes as something special and a gentle soul. And the few friends he has in France and it remains to be seen what his mistress’s flaws are. Are we supposed to like him?

LB: I must be very peculiar because I don’t understand why one wouldn’t like John North. I would like him. I think he is acerbic. He says he is misanthropic, but in fact he says that because he is in fact somewhat shy but more afraid of being rejected than misanthropic.

RB: Okay, I’ll give some reasons.

LB: Please.

RB: They are not about his smart and acerbic and frequently off putting behavior to people. It’s his discussion about having a child makes him out to be extremely self-centered and self-important.

LB: Don’t you feel the heartbreak in what he says? The sense he has of having made a dreadful mistake.

RB: [long pause] I have to say that I didn’t.

LB: You should.

RB: Okay. [both laugh]

LB: You should. He is not proud of what he has done. He is not proud of it. And is not proud either of the envy that has come between him and his wife’s family. The sense of envy and rejection, which may be at the bottom, as he points out, of the dreadful mistake, he made about not having children. Because he is so fed up, in a way, with the Frank family always being able to take care of everything and “So alright, if my wife, a Frank, wants to have a child she is competent, let her get it done then.” He gets himself into a terrible spot and he knows it. He wants to break out of it. [He’s] Rather pathetic.

RB: I have to commend you on the scene after North’s father’s funeral when John North is comforting his father-in-law. Surprising but pitch-perfect…

LB: I thought that scene was important and North behaved very well. You see he is so totally lucid about himself, and that to me is an extremely likeable and attaching quality. But I may very well be extremely peculiar.

RB: [laughs]

LB: Because people, who other people don’t like, I find I like just fine.

RB: My other reason for disliking North —I won’t give away the ending—is what happens in the end.

LB: [laughs]

RB: It’s hard to—it makes sense and I can understand it, but it’s hard to think well of him.

LN: Well, yes she has driven him up the wall and he has warned her and warned her.

RB: And he said what he would do.

LB: Of course, he is one of those men who don’t know how to say no, who don’t know how to put a stop. For all his toughness and bluster that kind of man marks himself out as a prey. And eggs on the pursuer. So there is that aspect of it. He’s gotten himself into a terrible pickle. A writer’s life is a very odd one. I received a letter just recently from someone who likes my books. Who had just read Shipwreck. And he said, "Yes this holds up the mirror to anyone who has ever been adulterous. But in real life it can be even more awful. I am sending to you a document which memorialized the end of something that took place five or six years ago." And this was a copy of a letter that he had written to a woman putting an end to a ten-year affair in which he refused to confront his wife with what he was doing. He refused to stop although he kept on saying to her, to his lover, that he would never leave his wife and his children. He just let it keep going. And then his wife got terribly sick and he used that as the excuse finally to break. It is having resorted to that form of excuse that came upon him as the worst ignominy that was possible. And in a way I think that is worse than what North did.

RB: [long pause] Do you expect your writing life to change much?

LB: I will write on a less desperately difficult schedule. I have deprived myself of going for walks, going to the movies going out [laughs] doing nothing. I haven’t had that sort of doing nothing time since 1989. That’s a long time. One never knows whether one will be able to write. Maybe I won’t be able to…

RB: Maybe you need that pressure?

LB: Maybe I do. But If I am able to write, I am going to write more, and at the same time I hope I have time to read more. Also, the Metropolitan Museum is three blocks away from my house. I hope to spend a great deal more time there.

RB: You have no long-harbored desires to go skydiving or mountain climbing?

louis begleyLB: None. None. None. None. I don’t want to change any of our mode of existence. Neither does my wife. We have traveled a great deal. We don’t particularly feel that we want to do any traveling. We have a place in the country we like. We have a place in the city we like. She works terribly hard, very fruitfully, and I hope it will just go like that.

RB: You mentioned some journalistic obligations. I am not aware of you doing journalism.

LB: I only do it when I let myself be bamboozled into doing it. And I often am. I call journalism all sorts of commissioned stuff. During the winter I wrote an essay on what it’s like to be a writer who writes in a language that was not originally his own, for an anthology that will be published in 2004. I wrote an essay on what Europe means to me for a German literary magazine. I thought it was going to be a snap. But in fact when I sat down to write it I discovered what I thought I thought about Europe was not at all what I thought. And so I had to rethink the subject and so that consumed half of my vacation in Venice. And I undertook for reasons, bizarre reasons I undertook to give a speech at a conference in Germany and that turned out to be a rather more complex business than I would have thought. There were several other things of that sort. And I have undertaken to write an introduction to O’Hara’s Rage to Live.

RB: For the Modern Library?

LB: Yes. I call these things journalistic, but they are not necessarily journalistic. They are non-novelistic. I have been hopped up about short stories. There is one that I have written and I haven’t had time to go back to revise it, which I really like to do.

RB: Is your intention put together a story collection?

LB: I have no intention. One has just appeared in Zoetrope. I rather liked that story. It is called "All Saint’s Day." I think I would like to keep on writing them. Their future will define itself.

RB: It’s a brave new world come 2004.

LB: [shrugs] George Plimpton died on Thursday night. I spent some time with him on Wednesday evening; our tenure here is not very secure. I have not much of a feeling that one should make elaborate plans.

RB: Does your mortality loom large when you are writing?

LB: I think about it constantly. I am not at all morbid about it. I am simply aware of it. If I am able to I will write the novel that I began. I will finish it in two thousand and four, maybe not too late in that year, and I very much want to see about the short stories. And after the novel that I may be able to write, I have another novel project. It’s all a question of how it goes. All I can do hope and work hard.

RB: "A novel I may be able to write?" Are there novels that you haven’t been able to write?

LB: No.

RB: Or started one and not been able to finish?

LB: No, but one never knows. It’s not like getting on a bicycle. You can always keep going. It isn’t like that.

RB: I did notice you wrote a piece for the Times about your experience with the making of About Schmidt. Are there other of your novels being made or considered for film?

LB: Stanley Kubrick had acquired the rights to Wartime Lies, and he had gone in to pre-production, very extensively and spent about ten million dollars. And then, I believe principally because of Schindler’s List, he thought they would wait a while and turned to Eyes Wide Shut. Then, of course, he died, so the rights are in limbo. They are in the pocket of Warner Brothers. Will somebody wrest them away and make a movie? I don’t know. It’s complicated.

RB: I didn’t see the paperback. Was Jack Nicholson on the cover of About Schmidt?

LB: No, no except in Japan. Very funny

RB: Richard Russo was very happy that Paul Newman was on the cover of the paperback of Nobody’s Fool. Well, thank you very much. I hope we can continue with part three of our conversation in 2005.

LB: 2005 or 2006. It will be great.

© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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