Authors: Louis Begley

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Wartime Lies, 1991

The Man Who Was Late, 1993

As Max Saw It, 1994

About Schmidt, 1996

Mistler’s Exit, 1998

Schmidt Delivered, 2000

Biography

Louis Begley (born Ludwik Begleiter) was still a child when Nazi Germany occupied Poland and began persecuting the Jewish population. His father, a physician, was sent to Russia and returned in 1946, when the family emigrated to the United States. Louis became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1953, attended Harvard University, and graduated in 1954. After two years in the U.S. Army, he returned to Harvard, earning a law degree in 1959. In 1956 he married Sally Higginson and joined a New York law firm, becoming a full partner in 1968. He and his first wife had three children before they divorced in 1970. Four years later, he married Anne Muhlstein Dujarric de la Rivière, a French writer. In addition to practicing international corporate law and traveling the world, Begley established himself as an accomplished novelist, beginning with Wartime Lies, which he wrote when he was fifty-five years old. He also contributed regularly to prestigious periodicals and served as a senior visiting lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania from 1985 to 1986.{$I[A]Begley, Louis}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Begley, Louis}{$I[tim]1933;Begley, Louis}

In the decade following the publication of his first novel, Begley received a number of awards and honors, beginning with the International Fiction Prize from Irish Times-Aer Lingus. Wartime Lies won the Harold U. Ribatow Prize as well as the PEN/Hemingway First Fiction Award and the Prix Medicis Étranger. The American Academy of Arts and Letters gave him its Award in Literature in 1995, and five years later he received the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres.

Begley’s childhood in Poland is important to his early novels because they focus on the emotions stirred by his experiences with the Holocaust and the questions of divine and human justice they raise. Begley’s principal characters after Wartime Lies are rare in modern fiction: older white corporate executives. Begley shows how these intelligent, wealthy individuals face failure, death, and loss without becoming losers. Albert Schmidt, one of Begley’s most compelling characters, is a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant lawyer who copes with the death of his wife while trying to maintain a difficult relationship with his daughter. Schmidt struggles with his limitations and wins sympathy for his willingness to look at himself and his situation honestly. The capacity to recognize their own limitations and contradictions makes Begley’s major characters complex, interesting, and sympathetic, even though at first they may appear unattractive.

Begley also likes to depict characters conducting parallel lives. Maciek, in Wartime Lies, for example, and his aunt Tania, survive by disguising their “real” selves behind their purported non-Jewish Catholic selves. Many of Begley’s principal characters travel to escape troubled lives, and others travel in search of refuge and self-understanding. Mistler, for example, knowing he cannot survive liver cancer, goes to Venice to find, in Begley’s words, “grace and irresponsibility.” Mobility, for Begley, is a metaphor of change, of disappearing and reappearing, of disguising oneself by changing one’s environment. For him, too, love symbolizes solidarity and uniting. The difficulty of finding and retaining it, and losing it, threads through all his work.

Begley’s legal training and experience in writing corporate contracts have been credited with shaping his style, which combines subtlety, clarity, precision, and control. He has said that his chief concern as a novelist is not to be boring, and his own interest in his characters is communicated to the reader.

BibliographyAlexander, Victoria N. “Louis Begley: Trying to Make Sense of It.” Antioch Review, Summer, 1997, 292-304. Alexander sees a thematic development from Wartime Lies through About Schmidt, reflected in events and characters and having to do with retribution, punishment, and justice, both divine and poetic.Edwards, Thomas R. “Palm Beach Story.” The New York Review of Books 43, no. 17 (October 31, 1996): 63-65. Edwards describes Begley’s first three books before turning to About Schmidt and giving a clear and detailed explanation as to why he considers it to be a departure from the early fiction and the best of Begley’s novels to date.Hepburn, Allan. “Lost Time: Trauma and Belatedness in Louis Begley’s The Man Who Was Late.” Contemporary Literature 39, no. 3 (Winter, 1998): 380-404. This study traces evidence of psychological trauma in Begley’s first three novels, connecting them to the fictional works of other authors and to theories of psychology to explain Begley’s treatment of character.Mendelsohn, Jane. “Fiction in Review.” The Yale Review 83, no. 1 (1995): 108-120. An illuminating study that traces the development of Begley’s ideas and emotions as they are expressed in the major characters of Begley’s novels up to As Max Saw It, which Mendelsohn sees as a culmination of several themes.
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