By Hal Espen, The New Yorker
May 30, 1994
THE LIVES OF LOUIS BEGLEY
BY HAL ESPEN
In his new novel,
attorney Louis Begley steps out of the shadows of his Holocaust childhood
to explore survival and guilt in the time of AIDS.
Louis Begley’s singular ascent through late middle age continued this spring with another startling feat. The writer—who is also a corporate lawyer and is unequivocally heterosexual—has, in his just published third novel, “As Max Saw It,” created one of the most vivid and fully realized homosexual characters in recent memory. Still, if pulling off an elegant and powerful novel about AIDS is no small thing, it is nevertheless only one of many important things that Louis Begley will tell you he is “fiendishly busy” doing.
At the New York law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, where he is chairman of the international practice, Begley has been working for months on negotiations involving something he describes, with unassailable discretion, as “a very large multinational joint venture.” Meanwhile, in late March he celebrated the twentieth anniversary of his marriage to the historian Anka Muhlstein with a black-tie party at the Century Association. A week or so later, in his capacity as president of the PEN American Center—he was elected to that office last June—he presided at its annual literary gala, a benefit dinner for seven hundred that raised a substantial percentage of the organization’s annual budget. The next evening, he and his family, friends, and colleagues attended the publication party for “As Max Saw It.” This event took place in the Park Avenue duplex apartment of Robert von Mehren, a recently retired senior partner at Debevoise (the Begleys live in an apartment just like it, three floors above the von Mehrens), and the guests included Betty Comden, Robert Silvers, George Plimpton, Breyten Breytenbach, Morley Safer, Paul Goldberger, Mitchel Levitas, Bill Buford, and Sonny Mehta, who is Begley’s editor. The following night, Begley read from “Max” at Endicott Booksellers, on Columbus Avenue, and the next morning he began a publicity tour that took him to Boston and Washington and then—after a short weekend at a house he has in Sagaponack—to Chicago and San Francisco. He skipped the last two stops—Seattle and Minneapolis—and returned to New York early, because the negotiations surrounding the proposed joint venture had entered a crucial stage and he was needed back at Debevoise.
Begley was fifty-seven years old when his first novel, “Wartime Lies,” was published, in 1991. Remarkably, his nascent literary career has had no effect whatever on the scale and intensity of his legal work. It is equally remarkable that the demands of his international-law practice have had no effect on his productivity as a writer. (He is already at work on a fourth novel.) “I can’t think of another example, in the history of this country, of an artist who has been this successful creatively while operating at such a high business level,” says James Goodale, a former general counsel of the Times who now represents media and communications clients at Debevoise. Begley’s combination of professional and artistic accomplishment does seem unmatched in our day. Louis Auchincloss, the novelist-attorney whose name is often invoked as a precedent, labored in a relatively languid trusts-and-estates practice; and neither the legal nor the literary stature of the Turows and the Grishams can be compared with Begley’s. It may sometimes amuse Begley to describe writing as a kind of pleasant diversion, but there isn’t the faintest hint of the dilettante in his books.
Despite his late start, Begley has lost no time in establishing his range. “Wartime Lies” is a historical novel, in the form of a memoir, about a Jewish boy’s struggle to survive during the Second World War. His second book, “The Man Who Was Late,” is a modernist tale that draws upon a wide repertoire of narrative forms and shifting perspectives to explore a life of worldly success and emotional failure. “As Max Saw It” is set among a circle of well-travelled, moneyed professionals who meet and pass their days in Italian villas, hotels in foreign capitals, and grand houses in the Berkshires. But its course is charted by those times and places in which the lives of Max, a law professor and loner by temperament, and Charlie, an old classmate of Max’s who has become a famous architect, intersect. Max is straight, and Charlie is gay. Charlie’s companion is a beautiful young man named Toby: he is “Eros himself, long-haired and dimpled, his skin the color of pale amber.” The tale begins, like “The Portrait of a Lady,” with an Arcadian vista of ceremonious leisure, and the prose, as in all of Begley’s books, is lucid and perfectly modulated—almost old-fashioned. Yet Begley has deeper, more urgent concerns than the slightly formal surface of his writing seems at first to indicate.
The enigmas of Begley’s life—the source of his drive; the sudden, late emergence of his fictional voice—are surrounded by the darker enigmas of his childhood. He was born Ludwik Begleiter, a Polish Jew, in 1933, and he spent the Second World War trapped in Poland, with the Holocaust raging around him. He was saved by his mother, who kept him close to her through four years at the edge of the abyss. In June of 1941, Ludwik’s father, a doctor in the town of Stryj, was impressed into the Russian Army as it retreated to the east. Three months later, the Germans and their Ukrainian collaborators in Stryj took a thousand Jews, including the boy’s paternal grandparents, into a nearby forest and shot them. Ludwik’s mother helped arrange for her own parents to go into hiding, and then obtained false papers and embarked on the harrowing ruse of passing herself and her son off as Catholic Poles. In “Wartime Lies,” a boy named Maciek and his Aunt Tania adopt just such a ruse, manage to avoid the firing squads and the death camps, and survive the war, at great cost. Ludwik Begleiter and his mother were reunited with his father after the war, and in 1947 the Begleiter family came to New York to start over. Ludwik was thirteen.
The narrator of “Wartime Lies” writes that he “has no childhood that he can bear to remember.” Louis Begley says much the same thing when he is asked about his life in the immediate aftermath of the war: “Whether I had bad dreams then about the war—I’m sure I did, I have them now. But I don’t really remember.” His rebirth in Brooklyn, he says, entailed “a rejection of Poland, a rejection of Europe, a rejection of the Old World.” He wanted an American self and “some imagined life that was all right, that didn’t have to be forever explained, that you didn’t have to drag around like a sack of potatoes.” The Begleys—they Anglicized their names shortly after arriving in America—settled in Flatbush, and Louis became a Brooklyn teen-ager. He was a fast learner and a brilliant student. At sixteen, he graduated from Erasmus Hall High School, then renowned for its academic excellence, and was awarded a scholarship to Harvard. Begley wrote a few stories at Erasmus Hall, and he published some fiction in the Harvard Advocate during his first two years of college, but gave it up. Louis Begley was one of just two summa-cum-laude English majors in the Class of 1954; the other was John Updike. After graduation, Begley served two years in the Army, got married, and entered Harvard Law School. He graduated from there magna cum laude, and joined Debevoise & Plimpton as an associate in 1959. He became a partner in 1968. He had three children, divorced, and got married again in 1974. He rose to the top of his profession. And he rarely spoke about his Polish past.
It was a successful existence, but it was one dogged with exquisitely difficult questions about identity and about survival. And then, four decades after rejecting his past, Begley was compelled to begin one of the most dramatic self-excavations in contemporary literature.
Begley works on the twenty-fifth floor of a building on Third Avenue in the East Fifties. When I went there to meet him one afternoon, he came out to the reception area to escort me to his office. People who know Begley invariably describe his manner as courtly; he is formal and correct without being stiff. It is impossible not to precede him through a doorway. His office is a large, triangular room with floor-to-ceiling windows and a northwestern view. Neat stacks of memoranda and reports covered most of his desk. He asked me to choose either a small couch or a chair, offered me coffee or water, and asked permission to smoke. When I took the offered chair, he sat across from me on the couch, lit a Schimmelpenninck (a Dutch cigarillo), and settled back as if he had all the time in the world.
Begley is a trim, meticulously well-dressed man with gray hair and pale-blue eyes. He once wrote about “the un-welcome, startling gray face of a sour-looking, grim stranger” that greets him in the mirror; in fact, it is a handsome, avuncular face, with an expression that is alternately wry and intent. As we got to know each other, I felt I was the object of a comprehensive study. He is very watchful, and he remembers everything you say to him.
I had to strain a little to hear what Begley said to me. “Louis has a quiet, persuasive mode of discourse,” Robert von Mehren told me, “but he has one disadvantage in negotiation, and that is that he speaks too softly.” Others see it as a habit he is capable of using as a weapon. After a while, I adjusted to Begleys sotto-voce manner of speaking. He still bears a mild trace of a Polish accent.
Begley’s rendition of his vita began with an affectionate inventory of his family: for a few moments, his cosmopolitanism seemed overtaken by an immigrant father’s pride in a well-placed set of adult children. Begley’s first wife, whom he had met when she was at Radcliffe, was Sally Higginson, the daughter of a founding partner of the investment advisory firm Scudder, Stevens & Clark. They had three children. Peter, thirty-six, is a painter and sculptor who lives in Rome. Adam, thirty-five, is a writer and book critic who is married to a French industrial engineer and lives in Wisconsin. Amey Larmore, thirty, is an art historian and teacher in Manhattan, and her husband is a philosophy professor at Columbia; they are the parents of Begley’s two grandchildren, Nicholas and Julia. Anka Muhlstein’s two children from her first marriage moved with her from Paris to New York when she married Begley, and they grew up in the Begley-Muhlstein household. Robert Dujarric is now a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, in Washington, D.C., and Stephane Dujarric works in the London bureau of ABC News. The one other member of the family circle is Begley’s mother, Frances, who lives a dozen blocks away from her son. Begley’s father died in 1964.
Now that all the children are grown, Anka and Louis are the sovereigns of their household. They entertain his clients, and they have dinner parties for their New York friends, who include a number of writers, academics, journalists, and artists. But most of the time their home life is very quiet. Begley’s friends use extravagant terms to describe Anka’s contributions to his well-being, and their affinity is obvious. She has written seven books, all of them in French, and her latest book, a biography of the French explorer La Salle, won the history prize of the Académie Française and has just been published in English. Her father, Anatol Muhlstein, was a Polish diplomat stationed in Paris during the thirties; her mother was Diane de Rothschild, a great-granddaughter of James Rothschild, the founder of the Paris branch of his family’s banking business. The Muhlsteins escaped from France to the United States in 1940, when Anka was five, and she and her sister spent the war years in Port Washington and New York. After the war, the Muhlsteins returned to Paris; Louis met Anka when he was a guest at her sister’s house in Provence in 1971. They were married three years later.
Louis Begley loves being an international lawyer. He shudders when he is asked if he might give up the law for writing. Some of his partners think that his practice is still much more important to him than his recent literary adventures, and he himself rejects any suggestion that the law has been a lesser vocation for him—a lucrative compromise that occupied his energies until he found his true calling. His two careers have something in common: as a lawyer, he has always been a graceful writer. He has published only a few articles in law journals, but clients and colleagues extoll his legal correspondence and other documents he writes as models of clarity and wit. A former associate told me that Begley has the ability to dictate a long, complex memo that is accurate, grammatically perfect, and logically sound, and requires no revision.
In addition to representing Americans, Begley has worked for clients who are based in France, England, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Brazil, Australia, Japan, Korea, and China. When James Goodale joined Debevoise, in the early eighties, he was stunned to discover an American lawyer putting together so many projects and deals in which no American parties were involved. Begley, given the loftiness of his contacts, sometimes seems more like a diplomat than like a lawyer. The historian James Chace, a fellow-student at Harvard and a longtime friend, says, “Louis works at the very highest levels of industry and government. He could easily have been an Under-Secretary of State under Acheson.”
Begley says there is nothing bloodless about his legal milieu. “On the contrary, there’s usually blood on the floor every day: people struggling against each other; enormous personality clashes as well as clashes of material interest; great ambitions that are born and thwarted or fulfilled; moments of extraordinary anxiety, excitement, and triumph. I can’t think of anything more amusing, in a way, than the kind of law that I practice.”
And, by all accounts, he practices it superbly. When he worked in Debevoise’s Paris office, in the late sixties, he helped the advertising titan David Ogilvy buy the fourteenth-century Château Touffou, in Bonnes, overcoming a tangle of legal impediments. Afterward, Ogilvy told Francis Plimpton, one of the name partners at Debevoise & Plimpton (and George Plimpton’s father), that he thought he’d never done anything smarter than hiring Louis Begley. Another fan is Marie‑Monique Steckel, the president of France Telecom North America, who has been a client of Begley’s since the late sixties. She has seen him negotiating up close. “You have the impression that he jumps at the jugular, but he doesn’t jump aggressively,” she says. “He kills quietly, as cats do—they, too, don’t make much noise. Louis takes the Oriental approach, which is to use the other person’s force to beat them down.” It is said that Begley once represented a Japanese company in a negotiation involving a hundred matters in dispute, and prevailed in his client’s favor on every one of the hundred points. Begley seems to enjoy his reputation for velvet-gloved aggressiveness: about a year after his first book appeared, he wrote an essay in which he warned, “Those who think that writing fiction turns one into a pussycat esthete at the negotiating table are welcome to come and try me.”
Still, the adversarial role is not one that Begley prefers. With a few conspicuous exceptions, he has not been involved in litigation; he is a conciliator and facilitator. Begley describes his career over the past twenty-five years as an overlapping series of negotiations in which seemingly intractable problems and mutual suspicions are methodically overcome, and in which polyglot players and far-flung sources of capital are slowly brought together in contractual amity. Much of what he does falls under the rubric “project financing”: two American companies want to develop a liquefied-natural-gas operation in Algeria; the Japanese want to mine iron ore in Australia or Brazil; Korean clients want to build a huge cement plant in China’s Shandong Province. He also represents clients in acquisitions, as when a consortium of Southwestern Bell and France Telecom wanted to buy a strategic stake in Teléfonos de Mexico, the recently privatized national phone system. Sometimes these multinational deals end up in arbitration in a place like Geneva; Begley has been at the center of several such events. But not everything he does is part of his international practice. In 1987, he was outside counsel to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in its nine-hundred-and-seventy-million-dollar bailout of First City Bancorporation of Texas.
Practicing the kind of law he does seems to answer some deep need in Begley. I was once talking with Peter Sourian, the writer and chairman of the division of languages and literature at Bard College, who is one of Begley’s oldest friends, about Begley’s apparent delight in overcoming vast thickets of difficulty. “If you read the first book, you know why,” Sourian said. “Coming out of that background, you’ve got to make it work, or you’re dead. If that’s the psychic demon that’s inside you while you’re doing this stuff that is not dangerous or deadly—except that it is dangerous in the corporate world—you’ve found your niche.”
In 1991, “Wartime Lies” made Begley famous. It was nominated for a National Book Award, and was awarded several major American and European literary prizes. Stanley Kubrick bought the film rights to the novel and is planning to make a movie based on it. Although the book is a work of fiction, it is also an unmistakably authentic testament, and Begley has had to contend with a succession of journalists wanting to interrogate him about his actual experience. He responds with several kinds of demurrals, but they all amount to an insistence that his memories are personal rather than historical, and that fiction gives him more freedom to tell the truth than the facts do. After “The Man Who Was Late” was published, last year, there were more questions, for Ben, the protagonist, seems, at least superficially, to be a lot like his creator. An international businessman, he is a Central European Jew who survived the war, graduated from Harvard, and achieved success as a dealmaker and negotiator. But Ben is a tragic cipher, paralyzed with self-loathing, and disloyal in love and friendship; he eventually commits suicide.
“You fall victim to the popular fallacy if you try to find the writer all over the place,” Begley warned me after I followed in the footsteps of those interlocutors who had asked him to collate his life with his books, “He is all over the place, but not in any simple way.” Begley can provide countless examples of the differences between his own experience and those of the “toys” who populate his fiction. It was in the midst of such a disquisition, for example, that he informed me he had never had homosexual intercourse. “I have not committed suicide,” he added dryly, and went on, “Nabokov said that when you put something into a book it’s no longer yours. You lose it, it’s gone. Since I’ve written a book about the Second World War, what it could or could not mean to someone who lived more or less the way that I did, that book has been substituted for my recollection of those events. So it’s very hard for me to give any reliable answer.”
Begley, of course, is entitled to his equivocation. His first loyalty is to fiction and its capacity to embody moral and emotional truth. “There are some doors one cannot open just by turning the doorknob; their opening must be conjured” is how he once put it. Outside of his fiction, the closest Begley has come to addressing the question of memory and identity is an essay titled “Who the Novelist Really Is,” which was published in the Times Book Review in 1992. “It is no secret that I am a Jew, that I was born in Poland in the same year as Maciek, that I lived in Poland during the war and that the name I bear is not the one that was written in my first birth certificate,” he wrote. “I am unwilling to separate incidents in my book that may be said to have happened to me or that I have witnessed from those I have imagined.” He described the novel’s Aunt Tania, Maciek’s savior, as “a woman of great beauty, courage and cunning,” but the acknowledgment of who his own savior was comes in a passage that could hardly be more indirect: “My recollection is vague except with regard to very important events—and even with regard to those, I am not sure that what I remember is right. For instance, my memory of certain events differs from my mother’s.” It was the only time he mentioned the model for his greatest character.
Louis Begley is a brilliant man, but his mother is a genius. The story of how Frances Hauser Begley saved her son is a chastening tale of ingenuity in the face of black and endless evil. Her son has his own good reasons for insisting on the autonomy of his fiction, but most of the fearful events and the stratagems for escape and survival that are related in “Wartime Lies” had a nearly exact counterpart in actuality.
She is in her eighties now. Her apartment on Lexington Avenue is large, and is filled with paintings—some of them by her grandson Peter—and books. When I visited her, a copy of John Updike’s “Brazil” lay on the table next to her chair in the living room. Her hair is pure white, and she has a pale, narrow face that is still beautiful. Her eyes, which are blue and deep-set, seemed not quite to meet mine; they had a faraway look. She apologized for her Polish accent, explaining that it has become more pronounced in recent years because she spends so much time talking with a Polish neighbor in her building. She added that she is sorry the family Anglicized their names—she thinks of herself as Franciszka Begleiter, even today. No matter what last name she used during the war, she was always Franciszka. Louis was always Ludwik. The names helped them to keep their stories straight.
She and her husband were members of prosperous Jewish families in Galicia, in eastern Poland. Franciszka was born in Rzeszow, and Dawid Begleiter in Rawa. Her parents were landowners, and her husband’s family owned real estate and supplied hay and other provisions to the cavalry. Dawid Begleiter studied medicine in Vienna after the First World War, and he had been practicing for ten years when he met Franciszka, at a wedding. They were married on November 1, 1932. The couple settled in Stryj, near Dawid’s parents, and Ludwik was born the following year. Dr. Begleiter had a family practice and operated a municipal health clinic.
After Mrs. Begley and I had talked for a while, she brought out five framed photographs: a portrait of her maternal grandparents (he wearing a yarmulke and a dark wool coat, she in a high-buttoned dress), a snapshot of her father (a handsome young man with a black mustache and bristly hair), and three portraits of her mother. The pictures had all belonged to an aunt who moved to America before the war, Mrs. Begley said, spreading the pictures across a corner of the coffee table. No other relics of the elder Hausers exist. The war and the Holocaust took everything.
As far as I know, Mrs. Begley had not been interviewed before. Her son had seemed disconcerted when I told him I hoped to speak with her, but he consulted his mother and cleared the way for me. As it turned out, I didn’t have to ask about the war. Her story came unbidden, and it was the kind of tale that needed to be told from start to finish. The telling was interrupted a few times because Mrs. Begley was overcome with emotion. I also occasionally caught a glimpse of the hauteur and steeliness that she had summoned time and again as a desperate young mother. When she was telling me about “a clever little lie” she had to tell a peasant woman in order to elude the Gestapo, she practically spat out the words, and I felt some inkling of what a life of never-ending duplicity had cost her and her son.
After her husband was impressed into the Russian Army, Franciszka took young Ludwik and fled to Lvov and, later, Warsaw, where they tried to lie low and avoid the Gestapo. Maciek’s grotesque predicament in “Wartime Lies” is not only that he shares the constant fear and privation of the Nazi occupation but that, through circumcision, he is marked as a Jew and therefore marked for death; an inspection of the boy’s penis was to be avoided at all costs. Ludwik Begleiter faced the same constant threat.
On August 1, 1944, Franciszka and Ludwik were caught in the street at the moment the Warsaw uprising of Polish nationals against the Germans erupted. They ducked into the doorway of an apartment complex and were trapped inside for eleven days. The Germans, once they had crushed the rebellion, began shipping the civilian population of the city to concentration camps.
“We walked and walked and walked,” Mrs. Begley told me. “That’s where I cried. They took us to a big place where normally they kept livestock, and there we were kept overnight. No one had water. After dark, the Ukrainian and Latvian soldiers were picking out girls. Louis saw what was happening, and he covered me with a shawl and a blanket, like I was a bundle, and sat on top. He spent all night watching.”
The events of the next day inspired what is perhaps the most memorable scene in “Wartime Lies.” In the novel, Tania and Maciek witness horrifying scenes of cruelty and suffering as they are marched to the Warsaw train station. At the station, the crowds are being pushed into boxcars bound for Auschwitz. With a little water and lipstick, Tania manages to effect a bravura transformation, turning herself into a haughty Polish matron—a doctor’s wife from a town outside Warsaw, and a German speaker to boot. She confronts a Wehrmacht captain and, with a combination of charm and hectoring, convinces him that she and her boy should be separated from the crowd and escorted to the proper train. The performance works.
Mrs. Begley told me that she, too, went to confront a German officer. He didn’t tell her they were going to Auschwitz; he simply said they were going to “a very fine place,” adding that the children would be separated from the adults. This was unthinkable. “I wasn’t going to be separated from Louis,” Mrs. Begley told me. In the crowd she saw a Polish man she knew, and she recruited him to pose as her husband and Ludwik’s father. They conned another German officer in much the same way that Tania does in the book, and the three of them made it onto a safe train. Before the train left, they were able to convince the Germans that another couple—a man and his pregnant wife—were relatives. They all got away.
The war dragged on nine months longer. Franciszka and Ludwik continued their “Aryan” masquerade in a succession of villages and towns, living in terror and surviving further close calls. After the Germans surrendered, the mother and her son limped into Kraków, and Franciszka found work as a cook for the militia. One day, the doorbell rang in their tiny apartment, and Franciszka heard Ludwik cry “Daddy!” Dawid, they learned, had spent most of the war in Samarkand.
The three came to New York in early March, 1947, after a four-month stay in Paris, where Dr. Begleiter and his son studied English at the Berlitz school. In New York, a proverbial rich uncle named Jacob Hauser put them up for two weeks in the Empire Hotel, and then said, “Now swim!”
Dr. Begley quickly earned his American medical credentials and established a practice, eventually specializing in cardiology, with his wife working with him as a nurse throughout his career. Meanwhile, Louis began to create what he later called “a sort of idealized self-portrait.” The normal adolescent struggle for independence was powerfully intensified by the fact that Louis and his mother had been so close and so dependent on each other. Their relationship would always have a kind of epic quality, and it has created a family dynamic in which a loving but very fierce standard of loyalty and duty prevails. “When those two clash, the universe shakes, the sun stops in the sky,” a friend of the family told me. “When they have a little squabble, it’s extremely intense.”
The only evidence that Begley was haunted to some degree by the war appears in the stories that he wrote at Erasmus and at Harvard. Essentially, they are early drafts of “Wartime Lies.” He won a high-school fiction prize for “Polonaise 1943-1944,” in which a boy named Peter is hiding from the Nazis in Warsaw. In “Krzysztof,” one of the stories he published in the Harvard Advocate, a motherless boy who was taken in by a Polish farmer and baptized when he was eight—the implication being that he is Jewish—plays an eerie game of identifying with a Nazi squad terrorizing the village. (“He, at the head of others, faced a hostile crowd. It converged on his group of soldiers and his fingers ached excruciatingly for the trigger. He tried to assign faces to the gray figures and in hopeless fear prayed to erase from the picture the face of his mother.”) Finally, he runs away and hides in a haystack. There a bayonet pierces his breast and kills him.
Reading these youthful writings, one is amazed by the precocity of the writer—particularly since he had only recently learned to speak English—but one also realizes why he turned away from writing for so many years. The experiences they dramatize are so overwhelming and so freighted with moral anxiety that it is impossible to imagine that a young writer could really master them. Yet the material stood in the way of any other subject: on the one hand, this was his necessary confession, his bildungsroman; on the other hand, the merest trace of callowness, anything less than the highest pitch of solemn irony, would have rendered the project worthless. Begley will not address these speculations. “Why I wrote my first book when I wrote it, that’s a question to which I don’t know the answer,” he told me. But, by waiting, he wrote a book that will last.
Through the years, Begley told very few people about his childhood of wartime lies. At Harvard, he presented himself as someone who had come from Erasmus Hall—a bright and interesting young man from Brooklyn. Charles Platt, the architect, went to Harvard with Begley, but the two didn’t become close until they were in the Army together after college. They were stationed at the 9th Division Headquarters, in Göppingen, Germany, southeast of Stuttgart, from 1955 to 1956. Platt remembers that he first heard a few details about Begley’s childhood one night when Begley told him that during the day he had encountered a Polish man living in a displaced-persons camp who had once worked for his family in Stryj, and that the man had somehow recognized him and had come over and kissed his hand.
One day, Platt told me, they went to Munich and struck up a conversation with an elderly German couple, and somebody mentioned Dachau. Did they know? Of course they knew, the couple said. Everybody knew—Dachau was near Munich, and they could smell it. “Louis was questioning them like us—like an American—rather than as someone separate,” Platt said. “But on the way back from Munich we went to Dachau. We couldn’t get in. It was late, and it was closed. We parked our car and got out and looked at the walls. And then Louis told me some stories that come up in ‘Wartime Lies.’ It was the first time I had any real idea of what had gone on in his life. He spoke with a degree of detachment, but also with intensity—he wanted to have the description be real, and not casual.”
Begley’s son Peter says, “He never talked about it, in general. He once told us he’d never been to school, and we thought that was fascinating. My grandmother would every once in a while tell an episode, but it was clear these were not the sort of things that were talked about. We were hesitant to ask, and they were not supplying information on their own, so it was kind of doubly surprising that all of a sudden he made public what had never been discussed in private.”
Without telling anyone except his wife, Begley decided to write “Wartime Lies” during a four-month sabbatical in the summer of 1989. “Louis calls me quite often,” his mother told me. “But during that time it was different. He asked me such strange things about Poland—what that means, what this was. He asked me about songs. It didn’t occur to me he was writing a book. I thought he was on vacation.” During my visit to her apartment, she showed me an elegant white scrapbook containing all the reviews of “Wartime Lies” and all the articles about her son and the prizes he had won. Someone at Debevoise had put it together. “It’s the most beautiful gift I have ever gotten,” she said.
“He has pulled off the hat trick,” his old friend Peter Sourian says. “He has a family life—my impression is that Anka is a terrific woman for him—and he has his children. His success as a professional person is off the charts. But the one thing he didn’t have was something much closer to his nature, which is intellectual, scholarly, and artistic. He should have been elsewhere than a law firm, in one sense; in another sense, it fits him perfectly. But he always had a genuine, deep love of literature. I don’t envy Louis. You read that book, and you think this is a man who has been murdered inside. I don’t envy him—I admire him, but I can’t envy him. This is a book about a man who was killed when he was eight or nine years old. His mother was not killed; his mother was old enough so that her sense of what is right and wrong, her sense of what should be, as distinct from what is, was already intact. She was down-to-earth, because she was born on earth. She lived the first twenty-five years of her life on earth, in a situation that was relatively normal. Louis did not—his first view of the world told him that lies are survival.”
Sourian’s estimation of his friend’s wounded soul certainly rings true to a reader of “Wartime Lies,” but I remembered Begley’s warning against an over-identification of author and fictional character. Although Begley continued to invite such interpretations with “The Man Who Was Late,” the second novel is much less straightforward than “Wartime Lies.” On one level, it seems like an autobiographical sequel to the autobiographical first novel, with Ben/Louis as the adult product of Maciek/Ludwik’s wartime childhood. As Begley wrote in “Who the Novelist Really Is,” his Times Book Review essay, “the game of false identities will continue even after the war has ended.” But the self-portrait becomes inverted. It’s as though Begley had decided to explore every negative possibility of his grownup existence, to see where the wrong turns would have led.
Ben is slightly ashamed of his parents, who are “irretrievably diminished by America.” His Harvard classmates are disappointed when he turns his back on a writing career; he becomes the “house Jew” for a Wall Street investment bank instead. When Ben describes to someone his “paltry wartime miseries,” he is alienated from himself: “As always, it was like hearing another man speak.” Most significant, however, is Ben’s failure in love: his compulsive and almost mechanical sexual exertions are interrupted when he falls in love with Véronique, the unhappily married wife of a French business associate, but he falters, and repays her love with a heartless betrayal.
“The Man Who Was Late” is intricately crafted and technically inventive, but it often registers as something of a mannered performance: there is too much serenely ironic cataloguing of tokens of status, and the despair it chronicles seems brittle and minor. And yet, in its second half, there are passages where the novel escalates in strength and intensity, thanks in large part to a quality that few reviewers have recognized in Begley’s writing—its eroticism. The emotional crux of the tale is a wrenching sexual confrontation between Ben and Véronique in a Paris hotel room: the gradient from confused arousal through confessions of degradation worthy of Bataille to demoniacal breakdown is traversed in a few searing pages. A wan, chilly novel burns red hot, and the beast leaps out from the tapestry. It’s a shocking dramatic twist, and another surprise from Begley: he is interested in propriety but also in its subversion, and is prepared to be shockingly frank about the way our libidos search out death as well as love.
With his new novel, “As Max Saw It,” Begley has moved past his autobiographical shadows. As the title implies, he is enjoying his prerogatives as an observer. The energy in “Max” comes first of all from a terrific character. Charlie Swan, a gay architect whose beautiful young lover dies of AIDS, is a grand invention—a big, booming American who bears evidence of Begley’s admiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald. Begley does a superb job of gradually involving Max, his narrator and Charlie’s friend, as a loving witness and an inseparable participant in Charlie’s defiant expression of grief. And once again Begley springs a trap. The last chapter is a stunning conflation of literary effects and a brave plunge into the mess of blood, sex, and mortality.
Begley told me that he writes about “experiences that have been etched on me with acid, things that have hit me very hard.” According to him, “Max” grew out of such experiences. “I have been friends with a large number of homosexuals, and, of course, during the eighties they began to die. They were friends in the most genuine sense—old friends—and not simply acquaintances,” he stressed. “I was also struck by the predicament of the survivor, and what one feels while watching as the person one loves is being destroyed, and almost degraded by the disease. How does one feel about the struggle to prolong life, and how does one feel, if by a miracle or accident, one does not fall sick oneself?”
It is difficult to think of another example of a major homosexual character in recent fiction by a straight writer. But Begley did not hesitate about creating Charlie Swan. “I did not think that there was anything unseemly or out of the way for a heterosexual to write about homosexuals and homosexual love,” he said to me. “After all, probably the greatest novel about heterosexual love”—he meant Proust—“was written by a homosexual. So I can’t see why, through the power of empathy and imagination, someone like me could not write about homosexuals. And I was extremely eager to find out how homosexuals whose literary and moral judgment I respect most would react. Obviously I was interested, because the subject matter is so very highly charged. I was overwhelmed by the generosity and quality of approval of these readers.”
Begley’s books have several elements in common: they all employ a slightly detached narrator to observe painful events from a certain remove; they dramatize the relation between questions of identity and those of survival; and they attend equally to the predicament of those who escape danger as to that of those who succumb to it. Begley’s early experiences seem to have made him a meditative writer; suspense and simple heroism have no place in his vision of the world. Anka Muhlstein says, “What holds him is what I would call the real things: evil; what it is to have no childhood; how do you reinvent yourself. These are the things that obsess him, rather than day-to-day anxieties.” Begley told me that his characters have “a dryness of the heart,” and that they struggle to sustain themselves against an encroaching numbness. It’s in this sense that Louis Begley isn’t a Louis Begley character; for he has evidently found an anodyne to his own numbness—and the relentless interiority documented in his fiction—in his complete immersion in the rapid currents of international law and commerce.
By accepting the presidency of PEN, Begley has turned outward in another way. “Over the years, I haven’t been very good at volunteering for worthy causes, or doing charitable work,” he told me. “It was partly because I’m shy—you probably don’t believe I’m shy— and not very gregarious. But I felt I had a moral obligation to do it.” Even with his time at a premium, Begley has devoted himself energetically to PEN’s campaigns on behalf of imprisoned and otherwise beleaguered writers, to its growing roster of symposiums and educational programs, and to the enhancement of its literary prizes. Halfway through a president’s customary two-year term, he seems both dedicated to the job and slightly bemused by it, but he bridles at questions that imply that he is some kind of political figure. “PEN is an apolitical organization,” he says. “In its charter it disavows any politics.” There has been grumbling both inside PEN and by some outside observers that it is unseemly to have a man who has business dealings in China at the head of a human-rights organization, but Begley dismisses such criticism with a lengthy and impassioned defense of his business ethics and his concern for the fate of Chinese dissidents. Some members of the PEN board will privately express a certain dismay about what they describe as the high-handed way Begley conducts meetings, but most such comments sound like culture shock: the shock felt by writers who have come face to face with a world-class negotiator in a hurry. In any case, it’s difficult to imagine Begley remaining deeply involved with the organization after his term is up.
The main character of his novel in progress, Begley says, is a man who has retired and is having trouble facing the fact that his life has come to an end. It sounds like Begley’s biggest stretch to date. What does he know about retirement? He plans to practice law as hard as he can for six or seven years longer, and at his current pace he’ll be able to publish three or four novels between now and the turn of the century. He has had to put the next novel aside for the moment, though. In addition to the multinational joint venture he’s nudging to fruition, he’s been dealing with “all the beastly afterbirth of publishing”: the German translation of “Wartime Lies” needed to be looked after, for instance, and he had to approve the French version of “The Man Who Was Late.” In addition, he has agreed to write an introduction to a new edition of Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory,” and the introduction is due June 1st. If he has the time, he may be able to reflect with satisfaction on one of the Russian Master’s perfect sentences: “It is certainly not then—not in dreams—but when one is wide awake, at moments of robust joy and achievement, on the highest terrace of consciousness, that mortality has a chance to peer beyond its own limits, from the mast, from the past and its castle tower.”
1994, The New Yorker
*Reprinted with permission from Hal Espen and The New Yorker