Louis Begley is perhaps currently best known as the author of About Schmidt, the novel from which the recent acclaimed film starring Jack Nicholson was adapted. This is a somewhat misleading introduction to the novelist and his work: For starters, the film departed from the novel in placing its eponymous protagonist among the middle classes of the American Midwest, rather than in the rarefied air of Long Island’s Hamptons. Moreover, Schmidt–in spite of his moneyed society and his irascible, fastidious nature–is not wholly typical of Begley’s characters: As the author has said, “Schmidt is different from my other protagonists. I would say that he is more ordinary. I know a number of men like him.”
John North, at the center of Begley’s new novel, Shipwreck, is a more representative Begley creation. He is far from ordinary, an unlikely and not wholly likable man whose accomplishments, as much as his breeding and prosperity, set him apart from the pack. The tale that he has to tell is more lurid, and more novelistic, than Schmidt’s poignant, faintly mundane familial troubles; but this is perhaps not surprising, given that North is a celebrated novelist.
Curiously, however, North is a novelist to whom Begley does not grant full control of his narrative. North tells his story through the intermediary of an unnamed narrator/confessor he encounters in a bar called L’Entre Deux Mondes. Quite why North settles upon this listener, why this listener so avidly endures the account over a matter of days, or why this listener then relays the account to us, is never made clear: All the questions such a structure inevitably raises–to do with the nature and needs of our primary interlocutor–are here unanswered. He is the ultimate voyeur, all-seeing and unseen, unrevealed to the point that he comes, eventually, to irk North himself–though never sufficiently to interrupt the inexorable flow of North’s tale.
This Conradian device is but one literary allusion in a novel that, both in its form and its content, provides references galore to great antecedents. This, like North’s patrician background and his keen interest in sex, is typical of Begley’s work. Begley is, in this sense, an elegant copyist, and a witting one: In As Max Saw It, for example, a novel whose opening pages are pointedly and almost cloyingly Proustian in style, one of the main characters is named Charlie Swan. In Shipwreck, the literary allusions flow from the mouth of John North: Flaubert’s Sentimental Education and Madame Bovary, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Augustine’s Confessions–all are natural points of reference for an author; and all provide resonant echoes for the story at hand. North is, after all, a protagonist whose sailboat is named Cassandra.
North’s vocation also affords Begley the opportunity to reflect upon the pressing but unapproachable issues of their shared craft. The fictional author (at the behest of his creator) reveals a willingness, even eagerness, to confront unpalatable truths: Successful, vain, self-absorbed, North has been stricken, in middle age, by a crippling doubt that proves the indirect catalyst for the novel’s romantic plot. At the time, in about 1980, of which North tells, he has recently reread his oeuvre to discover that “entire sentences I had written seemed to disintegrate like figures in a kaleidoscope when you turn the tube, only my words did not regroup and coalesce as new wonders of color and design. They lay on the page like so many vulgar, odious pieces of shattered glass. The conclusion I reached came down to this: none of my books, neither the new novel nor any I had written before, was very good. Certainly, none possessed the literary merit that critical opinion ascribed to them.” And this is the judgment of a writer who firmly believes that “we never get closer to the truth than in a novel. Gide thought so too.”