A Man of the Old School

A Man of the Old School

A Man of the Old School

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 24 1996 3:30 AM

A Man of the Old School

Louis Begley's About Schmidt.

About Schmidt

By Louis Begley

(Knopf; 274 pages; $23)

Illustration by Ellen Forney

Louis Begley's work is like a bibliographer's idea of nostalgia: Everything has been downhill since the first book. Begley's first novel, Wartime Lies, was a work of great distinction. Three novels later, it is still his best, a marvel of achieved restraint. Unhappily, the subsequent novels have been unwitting examples of the difficulty of writing about restraint as a subject. About Schmidt, his new book which explores the dwindling years of a morose retired lawyer, a man who calls himself "the last of the Wasps," offers some of his most delicate writing yet, but once again involves Begley in the paradoxical task of giving expression to repression.

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Wartime Lies, which is largely autobiographical, recounts the adventures of Maciek, a Jewish boy who, with his aunt Tania, is fleeing the Nazis in Poland. The pair do not look Jewish, and this, combined with Tania's charm, enables them to evade capture, even as they live openly yards from the Warsaw ghetto. Nonetheless, they are in great peril, and are hiding from that peril. By contrast, Begley's second novel, The Man Who Was Late, is about a man who is hiding a secret. Ben is a successful American financier who has repressed the memory of his unhappy Jewish childhood. What mysteriously disappeared, from one book to the next, is a sense of the perilous. It is as if Begley could no longer identify the enemy. In this novel and his third, As Max Saw It, his characters are still hiding, but now they are hiding from themselves. It is this self-division that seems to defy lucid expression. The secrecy is more opaque than it appears to warrant.

A>bout Schmidt is a better book than its two predecessors, partly because of the honesty of Albert Schmidt's self-disclosures. There is clarity here; he hides nothing from us. Publicly, he maintains the Wasp proprieties--a stiff upper lip, a stiff drink, the rattle of small talk. But privately, his soul is in turmoil. Essentially, Schmidt narrates this novel (the third-person narrator hews closely to his point of view); in the process, he uncovers his own hurts. His only daughter, Charlotte, is marrying one of his former junior partners from the old law firm, Jon Riker. Schmidt thinks him dull and laborious and, with the kind of bigotry that is the fermentation of social vintage, disapproves of his Jewishness. Schmidt is also still in mourning for his wife. His daughter seems to be cleaving to the Riker family rather than to her sad father. He kicks old memories around his lovely house in Bridgehampton--a house that he tries to give to Charlotte and Jon, but that they ungraciously refuse. At 60, his body is cooling, and even the heat of an affair with a dangerously young waitress at a local restaurant will not warm him for long.

What is fine here is the precision of Begley's attention; he does not strive to make Schmidt either likable or a monster. He paints with care the natural variegation of Schmidt's petty anti-Semitism, its defiance on top, its embarrassment under-leaf: "To the best of his recollection, no matter how deeply or how far back he looked, Schmidt was sure he had not once in his life stood in the way of any Jew." Schmidt's codes of belonging, his fastidious prejudices, are laid bare. In sentences of loping, baroque syntax, Begley makes his elegant, stately report. There is something impressive about a writer so undaunted by a character's trivial unpleasantness, by his daily acts of meanness.

But About Schmidt loses delicacy as it proceeds. Its power flows from its fidelity to Schmidt's unhappiness, and this unhappiness has a reality only because we see how self-invented it is. Schmidt's selfishness is the most convincing element of this portrait. But then Begley cheats; he weights our sympathy in Schmidt's favor. His daughter becomes not merely ungrateful but implausibly hostile. In a climactic scene, she telephones Schmidt to tell him that a rabbi will be performing the wedding service, and that she will be converting. "There must be more to being a Jew than your kind of Episcopalian," she sneers. Since she has not, until this moment, shown interest one way or another in her inherited religion, her sudden zeal to abandon it seems clumsy on Begley's part. Meanwhile, her fiancé, who is interestingly dull at the beginning of the book, begins to curdle into uninteresting stereotype--the dry, ruthless Jewish lawyer poised to strip the in-law of his treasures. He is abetted by his beautiful psychoanalyst mother, Renata, who is also crudely drawn: Like some caricature of a Freudian, she has an urge to psychoanalyze Schmidt whenever he is in her presence. Schmidt quotes from King Lear, and Begley intends a soft echo of that play in his tale of an aged patriarch quarreling with a daughter. But what's interesting about King Lear is that Lear has no reason to blame his daughters: Their villainy is all in his head. The obviousness of Charlotte and Jon's evil leaches the force from the story. Begley wants us to feel pity for a man already swimming in the emotion.

As Begley loses his critical distance from Schmidt, the novel grows maudlin and bleary. Clannishly, Begley offers Schmidt sexual release. He romps with Renata, and then with a 20-year-old waitress named Carrie, who is so eager to have sex with a man 40 years her senior that she begs for it. The Jamesian upholstery is ripped off Begley's prose, and we are down to springs and horsehair: "I haven't seen your breasts. I think they are small and hard," Schmidt muses. "You're wrong. I've got big tits," she replies. Then Schmidt retreats from us, lost in a cloth that Begley throws over him, and what began as a sharp examination of public restraint and private release dwindles into a self-pity which seems not merely Schmidt's, but Begley's.

Repression is one of Begley's main themes. But his latest novels do more than just showcase it; they become its victims. It is difficult not to detect an autobiographical note in his heroes' struggle to control inner distress and bury forgotten memories. Even Wartime Lies, apparently so different from Begley's later work, is introduced by a man who "has no childhood that he can bear to remember." In the last 100 pages of this novel, Schmidt's struggle to control himself fades from view, and one suspects that it is a struggle Begley can no longer depict, because it is a struggle he can no longer win. Instead, he shuts it down, and Schmidt dissolves into Begley's anxious obscurity.

James Wood is a senior editor of the New Republic.