“Schmidt Steps Back”
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95
The self-portrait begins with the intention of mimesis. The ego stands outside itself looking in at a now-inert object composed of personal history. Psychoanalysis precludes the possibility of such undertakings. How can the subject relinquish its own agency, turning itself into the object of scrutiny?
Hence the proliferation of such attempts in everyone from Rembrandt and Durer to Joyce, Updike, and Roth, with their famed alter egos — Stephen Dedalus (“Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” “Ulysses”), Rabbit (“Rabbit, Run,” “Rabbit Redux,” etc.), and Zuckerman (“My Life as a Man,” “The Ghost Writer,” and “Zuckerman Unbound”) — are by definition fictions. Philip Roth does appear as a character in “Operation Shylock,” but he’s a double. That’s what alter egos are created for. They use hyperbole and self-dramatization to tread the fine line between fiction and reality.
From the beginning of his career, Louis Begley has followed the path of writers like Updike and Roth, perhaps with a nod to Louis Auchincloss, another lawyer turned writer, who, like Mr. Begley, recorded the manners and mores of a privileged class. Maciek, the Jewish child who is the lead character of Mr. Begley’s “Wartime Lies,” is spared the depredations of the Holocaust by an aunt who is able to pass the two of them off as Catholic — a story that closely resembles Mr. Begley’s own biography.
And then there are the Schmidt books, “About Schmidt,” “Schmidt Delivered,” and now “Schmidt Steps Back,” in which we are introduced to a character whose story also closely resembles that of the author. The law firm of Wood & King that appears in the latest novels conjures Debevoise & Plimpton, where Mr. Begley was a partner. Schmidt has a house in the Hamptons and attended Harvard, like his creator, who graduated with a summa in ’54 (indeed, Harvard, Harvards everywhere, without a drop to spare, but where are all the Yalies?).
However, there’s one exception to these comparisons. Schmidt is not only not Jewish like his creator, but he also has a partially deserved reputation as a Jew-baiter in his firm — admittedly an odd turn for Mr. Begley’s alter ego to take. Is there a bit of self-reproach in the accusations of anti-Semitism, as if the character Mr. Begley created and by extension Mr. Begley himself were still like young Maciek, forced to hide his Jewishness to survive?
If there were ever any doubts about the strong autobiographical impulse in Mr. Begley’s work, they were dispelled by a piece the writer contributed to the Op-Ed page of The Times on the occasion of his latest offering in the Schmidt saga. “I have followed the progress into old age of Albert Schmidt, like me a retired lawyer, in three novels,” Mr. Begley wrote. “Schmidt is 60 when we meet him in l991; when we part on New Year’s Day in 2009, he is 78, therefore a couple of years older than I was then. Life has not been kind to him, but so far, Schmidt enjoys excellent health, marching up and down the Atlantic beach in Bridgehampton and New York City’s avenues, and doing laps in his pool. Although he worries about his performance, his libido is intact. Nevertheless, the reflection of his face in the window of a shop is frightening; he sees a red nose and bloodshot eyes, lips pursed up tight over stained and uneven teeth, an expression so lugubrious and so pained it resists his efforts to smile. My appreciation of my own charms is not very different. Like Schmidt, I see that nothing good awaits me at the end of the road, and that passing years will turn my life into a Via Crucis.”
In “Schmidt Steps Back,” Mr. Begley’s character muses, “Dementia, the illness most likely to cut off the means of escape, held more terror than any other . . . the hollow cheeks or the fold of skin hanging from his neck. Did his age and the ravages of time make it reprehensible to keep overpaying the Hampton mafia of gardeners, handymen, carpenters, and plumbers for the pleasure of having everything at his house just so?”
Later, as Schmidt tortures himself over the younger woman he’s in love with, Mr. Begley remarks about his character, “He had been asking her in various formulations to tie her life to his. How could he ignore the disadvantages and risks inherent in that fact: the inevitable diminution of his libido and potency, incapacitating illnesses he might suffer, the near certainty that he would be the first to die?” If we are seeing a “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” to quote the title of a John Ashbery poem, it’s “a portrait of the artist as an aging man.”
On the other hand, how far can we as readers go? Can we infer that Mr. Begley himself doesn’t take Cialis or Viagra when the narrator remarks, “he had not yet tried any of the miracle pills that old geezer-in-chief Bob Dole swore by on television”? Did Mr. Begley, like Schmidt, have an affair with a 20-year-old Puerto Rican waitress? Were a former wife and future girlfriend both editors in publishing houses? Did Mr. Begley, like his alter ego, celebrate making partner by going to 21 and ordering a Pommard?
And while “Schmidt Steps Back” is not a scandal sheet, one can’t help speculating about the real identity of Gil Blackman, Schmidt’s Harvard roommate, who has become a famous director, or whether the Manhattan club that appears in the novel is the venerable and sometimes controversial old Century, a proper home indeed for Harvard-educated former Debevoise partners who become highly touted novelists. After all, this is the Hamptons, where places and names are the lingua franca of social interaction.
In this regard, reading “Schmidt Steps Back” can become a kind of celebrity sweepstakes, albeit on a refined level. On which former lawyer turned novelist is the character of Joe Canning based? Could it be another mutation of Mr. Begley himself, to the extent that Mr. Begley, like Canning, is a lawyer turned novelist who is married to a biographer? The reticulations of Mr. Begley’s art/life leitmotif are often dizzying. On which Hamptons billionaire is the character of the Egyptian Jew, Mike Mansour, parenthetically one of the least realized of the author’s creations, based? Is O’Henry’s, the clubby Bridgehampton eating establishment, Bobby Van’s? Will we find Mr. Begley holding court there?
“Schmidt Steps Back” is a Who’s Who a clef. But as the old saw goes, “All autobiography is art and all art autobiography.” Proust was the ur-creator of the kind of roman a clef we’re talking about, and he wrote an essay titled “Contre Sainte-Beuve” to attack the contemporary critic who insisted on the necessity of going back to an author’s biography to understand his work.
If the latest installment of the Schmidt saga raises these questions, it also doesn’t prevent it from being a very good tale and at times an old-fashioned page-turner. It begins in the dawn of the Obama era and extends back to l968, when Schmidt and his deceased wife, Mary, were first making their way in the world — he as a lawyer and she in publishing — against a background of revolutionary politics, to l981, when the election of Mitterrand in France sets the stage for a radical change in the path taken by Schmidt’s law partner Tim Verplanck, and finally to the l995 Oklahoma City bombing, when Schmidt, retired from his law practice and working for the foundation run by Mansour, journeys to Paris and ignites an affair with the now-deceased Verplanck’s wife, Alice.
Mr. Begley’s technique is impressionistic. Huge agglomerations of data, ancillary relationships (another affair with a former Solidarity member, Pani Danuta, is a digression from the relationship with Alice), and learned citations (Schmidt’s reading includes Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now,” a satire about financial venality, and Coetzee’s “Disgrace,” a novel about the legacy of apartheid) all vie for attention. Readers who have ever ventured into the personals columns in The New York Review of Books will enjoy the particularly humorous and ribald episode that results from Schmidt’s response to an ad. Words like acedia and vade mecum compete for space with the Anglo-Saxon iterations of the female genitalia.
The section on the relationship between Tim and Alice Verplanck is a kind of novel within a novel that displays Mr. Begley’s mastery of the conventions of a certain kind of sophisticated romance fiction. It includes infidelity, ambition, the Holocaust, AIDS, and, a favorite Hamptons subject, admission into prestigious Manhattan private schools like Brearley and St. Bernard’s. Schmidt’s daughter’s miscarriage and the birth of his onetime mistress’s baby have the quality of one of those old-fashioned montage sequences in which the train is coming with the hapless femme fatale tied to the tracks.
The novel ends with a horrific and hard-to-swallow Dickensian disaster, which leads to an almost equally indigestible happy ending that even Dickens would have had trouble writing. But it’s the soaring prose and the author’s polymathic imagination that drive the plot.
Listen to how the beloved Alice’s hands are described. They were “almost as large as his but fine, with delicate elongated fingers, they were the hands of a mime, reminding him, as she gesticulated, which she did often when telling a story, of Jean-Louis Barrault in Les enfants du paradis.” The pointillism and sense of detail are increased by the use of paraphrasis, all the dialogue between characters being described rather than rendered.
But Mr. Begley’s most powerful technique is the juxtaposition of individual and collective experience. “Was there anyone, he wondered, outside of Obama’s family, of course, whose affection for the man was as great and as pure as Schmidt’s?” Mr. Begley comments about his character at the beginning of the novel. Are we talking about Hegel or Herder? Is Mr. Begley’s tale presenting a philosophy of history? The answer is probably no. But the contrast between the micro and macrocosm, between the individual and the larger whole, creates a dialectic that’s at the root of the novel’s power.
When you see Monet’s “Water Lilies” up close, it’s impossible to make out the forms. You have to step back to see the shapes of things. “Schmidt Steps Back” is Mr. Begley’s title. “It was time for him to step back,” the author himself comments. History illuminates the shadows on the wall of Mr. Begley’s cave.
Louis Begley has a house in Sagaponack.
Francis Levy, who lives in Manhattan and Wainscott, is the author of the novels “Erotomania: A Romance” and “Seven Days in Rio.” He blogs at TheScreamingPope.com.