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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