Issue 162, Summer 2002
Louis Begley was a lawyer with the distinguished whiteshoe firm of Debevoise & Plimpton when he surprised his colleagues—and the literary world—by publishing his first novel, Wartime Lies, about a young Polish Jew caught up in the inferno of the Holocaust. The novel appeared in 1991, when Begley was fifty-seven, and had great success, winning the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for a First Work of Fiction and the Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize. In the decade since, Begley has published five novels: The Man Who Was Late (1992), As Max Saw It (1994), About Schmidt (1996), Mistler's Exit(1998), and Schmidt Delivered (2000). One of the most striking features of his work is the rapidity with which he developed, relatively late in life, a singular and self-assured literary voice.
Born in Stryj, Poland, in 1933, Begley—then Ludwik Begleiter—survived the Holocaust through circumstances that closely parallel the trials endured by Maciek, the protagonist of Wartime Lies. Separated from his father, a physician, the blue-eyed, fair-skinned Begley and his mother managed to survive the war by passing as Aryan. Reunited after the war, the Begleys immigrated to New York, where they adopted a new name and a new language. Louis Begley spent two years at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, the alma mater of Bernard Malamud and many other Jewish children who achieved fame in later life. At Harvard, from which he graduated in 1954, he was a member of The Harvard Advocate, the nation's oldest college literary magazine.
It was in his capacity as president—and, for a time, as treasurer—of The Advocate's board of trustees that I got to know Begley; I joined the magazine's board in 1990, a year before his literary debut. When we first met, he was a lawyer known among friends and associates for his discerning literary taste—but not himself a writer. Urbane, soft-spoken, impeccably attired in dark suits, he radiated a lawyerly calm; only the barest trace of some indistinguishable accent (or was it simply a refined elocution?) suggested that he hadn't sprung from the pages of a Louis Auchincloss novel.
Yet there is nothing Auchinclossian about Begley's work. Its outwardly civilized milieu is often a stage for corruption, betrayal, the exercise of unruly appetites—even, in his first book, barbarity. Proustian in their attachment to the past, his novels demonstrate a robust knowledge of the world as it is. Their absorption in the mechanics of high-level finance—stock options, trusts, sharing-of-proceeds agreements—reminds me of Balzac. Begley's long experience as a working lawyer has served him well in his new career; among other things, About Schmidt is an engaging treatise on how to avoid estate taxes.
Like all great fiction, Begley's work follows the contours of its time; it would be possible to reconstruct from his shelf of work, in archaeological fashion, the cultural and political events and currents of the last four decades—the prissy simplicity of the Eisenhower era; Vietnam, the anti-war protests and the cultural revolution of the sixties (“1965! The year of the vaginal orgasm!”); the disgrace of Nixon; the decline of old forms and the rise of new men and new fortunes in the eighties and nineties. He chronicles the places where certain social types lived, the clothes they wore, the food they ate and the wines they drank. And yet—again like all great fiction—his work operates against the dominant intellectual tendencies of its own age.
In person, Begley is a reserved but quietly authoritative presence. He prefers not to talk about himself, expressing the hidden complexities of his character in his work. Though he is now an established writer as well as a prominent and busy lawyer, little has changed outwardly in his life; he still maintains a strenuous schedule, putting in long hours at his firm's office on Third Avenue. He writes on weekends, during a month's summer vacation at his home in Sagaponack, and during his annual spring visit to Venice.
Our first interview took place in Begley's office on a day when the corridors of Debevoise & Plimpton were especially hushed; the lawyers were off at a company picnic. A few months later, we met in the living room of his elegant Park Avenue duplex on a sun-warmed Sunday morning, surrounded by beautiful objects: a chinoiserie cabinet, a Louis XVI desk, a comical oil portrait of Proust. Scattered on end tables were photographs of his family in silver frames. Begley is married to the biographer Anka Muhlstein, and has three grown children from a previous marriage: Adam, the books editor of The New York Observer; Peter, a painter and sculptor living in Rome; and Amey, an art historian and novelist. Begley was in casual mode that day: dressed in slacks and a flannel shirt, he puffed on a thin cigar as we talked. He was concerned that we had devoted too much attention to his life and not enough to his work, so we concentrated on the craft of fiction—how he composes his novels.
Over the following year, we sent versions of the interview back and forth. Toward the end of our labors, I provoked Begley into a passionate outburst by proposing that Schmidt was a “bounder,” eliciting thereby his longest and most eloquent answer. I wasn't sorry.
You published your first book, Wartime Lies, when you were fifty-seven. How do you account for such a late beginning?
I'm not sure I can, and I'm not sure that it was, in fact, such a late beginning. Penelope Fitzgerald, for instance, whose work I admire intensely, especially The Blue Flower, was even more ancient than I when she wrote her first novel. It may be simply the case that some novelists need a longer period of development than other, more precocious, writers. I think it's also likely that if one hasn't written a novel in a burst of enthusiasm when one is very young, for instance in one's twenties, one becomes cautious, perhaps excessively so. Caution and self-criticism then act as a brake.
There must have been some moment when you grabbed a pen and decided to do it.
I didn't grab a pen. I typed Wartime Lies on my laptop. I remember exactly how it happened. In 1989, I decided to take a four-month sabbatical leave from my law firm, and I started the book on August 1, which was the first day of the sabbatical. I did not announce to my wife, Anka, or even to myself that this was what I was going to do. But, just a week before the sabbatical began, in a torrential downpour, I went to a computer store and bought a laptop. Now why would I have bought a laptop if I wasn't going to use it? So I must have had the book in my mind. I sat down that first day and wrote, and then wrote every day that followed. We stayed in Long Island until mid-September; afterward, we went to Venice, and then to Grenada and Seville. We spent November in Paris. I finished the first draft on the last day of our stay in Seville, and finished the revisions during the month in Paris.
Did you know that it was good enough to be published?
I knew that some of it was very good. Anka reads everything I write. She said it was very good. My older son, Peter, who was with us during some of the time when we were in Europe, read it and said it was good. I didn't have much of a question about it being a good book; I had a terrible moral problem. A dilemma, because if, as I feared, writing an accurate memoir about Poland in the war was the only permissible way to write about that time and the events that took place, then clearly I was not going to write about them. I didn't think I could write a memoir, and I didn't want to. I am not an historian. So I thought that I might have done a bad thing by fictionalizing that war material, making a novel out of it. I considered putting Wartime Lies away in some box or drawer. Anka thought I was completely nuts. Michael Arlen read the manuscript and told me I was nuts. I have enormous respect for Michael (and for my wife, too!), so I said so be it, and sent the manuscript to Georges Borchardt, who was already Anka's agent and Adam's. Adam is my younger son. Georges is now our family agent.
Why is it called Wartime Lies?
Because the protagonist, the little boy Maciek, and his aunt and grandfather survive by lying, by denying and falsifying their identity. Little by little, the quantity of lies grows; the authenticity and validity of practically everything becomes suspect. At least for Maciek. I do not mean to suggest for one second that the family were wrong to lie, that the lies were not completely justified, but living within an invented identity is not without consequences. Maciek is not only deprived of a childhood—the sort of childhood one may imagine he might have had if Hitler hadn't come to power, if Germans hadn't invaded Poland, and so forth—but also of his self. Its place is taken by something fabricated. A lifesaving invention. Of course, Tania, the beautiful, outrageous, and heroic aunt, is also deprived of the sort of life she would have had as a young woman, the one to which she certainly felt she was entitled. But for a grown-up, particularly a grown-up with a strong, fully formed character, the lies and distortions are less corrosive. In any event, that is my theory.
Tania is based on your own mother.
She has many things in common with my own mother. And she has some traits that I wished my mother had had, but didn't have. Perhaps no real woman could have had them.
Is the scene in the Warsaw railroad station where she persuades the official to take her and Maciek off the train to Auschwitz, is that something that was imagined or is true?
I won't answer that question.
Or what you saw the German officer do—take a baby out of the line of march and drop it into a sewer.
That is something I saw.