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.”
The quandary and the challenge are evident: If North is inadequate as a novelist, and yet fiction is man’s greatest hope for truth-telling, then will he redeem himself through oral memoir, or quite the opposite? Are we to believe that he is telling the truth, or inventing a fiction, the better to serve truth? These questions come to the fore as the plot reaches its melodramatic climax (think An American Tragedy, with a touch of Rebecca). North reflects:
The question I have had to put to myself is whether it isn’t a colossal mistake to tell you my story, when I should be faithful to my craft and set it down on paper. That is how I could give it a proper conclusion, so that you and every other reader would know, when you reached the last line on the last page of my book, exactly how the story ended. Now you may never know. Who is to say that the story is finished if I am still alive?… An even more important failure is that while I may never in real life resolve the conflicts that have torn apart the real John North, I think I could resolve them in a novel.
The irony, of course–or one of them, in Begley’s complex game–resides in the novel’s reliance upon our suspension of disbelief, our acceptance of this unexplained encounter in L’Entre Deux Mondes (between the worlds of fact and fiction, perhaps): The reader must believe that John North is, in some measure, actually alive, in order for this novelist’s monologue to have meaning. And yet the novel, like its novelist, insists repeatedly upon its literariness and artificiality, with a willful lack of transparency that makes North’s story most emphatically, almost metafictionally, fictional.
The outline of that story is classically simple. North, in his 40s and in the wake of his crisis of literary faith, finds himself in Paris for the French publication of his novel The Anthill. While there, he discovers that he has won a major literary prize and that the film rights have been sold for a hefty sum. He also, apparently coincidentally, becomes besotted with a glamorous artist/journalist named Léa Morini, who interviews him for French Vogue–this although he is extremely happily (and significantly, childlessly) married to a brilliant and “prodigiously cultivated” scientist named Lydia, back in New York.
There is, and need be, no more plot than this: The unfolding of North’s affair is as predictable as it is passionate. Of their first sexual encounter, he explains:
As the night went on I was to learn that, in addition to the daring and knowledge of a high-class whore, Léa had a whore’s gift for making a man feel that each thrust into her, and each surrender of her body to a new demand, was the willing sacrifice of a barely nubile virgin, a part of mysteries one imagined to have been performed at a temple in Greek Asia…. And her complaisant body was beautiful beyond anything I had imagined: she was a maiden of Sparta painted by Renoir after a mural by Puvis de Chavannes.
While at first Léa provides him with peaks of sexual satisfaction theretofore unknown, and prompts him to behave in ways completely out of character; while initially he is attracted by her whimsical, unreliable nature and, of course, her physical beauty, in time these traits pall and she comes to seem a burden, an unshakable, even menacing, worry. Concomitant, though (at least in his account) unrelated, is the deterioration of his perfect marriage to Lydia, a sense that their union is faltering. Meanwhile, fictionally, North is intermittently at work upon a novel he titles Loss, which details the collapse of a marriage.
That Léa is in some way a necessary projection, an element crucial for the resolution of North and Lydia’s relationship, is both trite and true. The similarity of the two women’s names encourages us simultaneously to conflate and distinguish between them. Ultimately, in the hyperbole with which they are described, both Léa and Lydia are equally unreal, characters in the fiction of North’s life, just as he, himself, is a fictional character in our nameless narrator’s account.
Begley is a writer of considerable sophistication and elegance, and this novel is no exception. Like Anita Brookner, he revisits familiar territories in all his books–sexual obsession; homosocial relationships; the social intricacies of the aristocracy–as he lays bare the self-involvement and limitations of his highly refined characters. John North may be a novelist, but he is as set in his patrician habits as in his selfish work schedule: He riffs about the flaws of custom-made shirts from Hong Kong, about the value of property on Martha’s Vineyard, and flits from Paris to the Hamptons to the Greek islands. This rigidity of temperament is reflected in the parameters of North’s world, to somewhat stifling effect.
More unsettling, in this instance at least, Begley’s plot and his characters share with his fine but somewhat unindividuated prose the sense of being an excellent pastiche rather than an original work. Reading Shipwreck, one is reminded time and again of the classics that, in one aspect or another, it resembles. And yet in spite of the novel’s intelligence and allusions, in spite of its thoughtful exploration of the nature and responsibilities of storytelling, there is something hollow at its core, a sense not only that John North is not alive (let alone Lydia, or Léa), but that all this is mere pretending. This may be the point, of course–North is, after all, the novelist who doubts his own powers–but it sits uneasily with his apparently genuine pronouncement that “we never get closer to the truth than in a novel.” While there are rewards of several kinds to be found in Shipwreck, unmediated, heartfelt truth is not obviously among them.