About Schmidt by Louis Begley

“Thou hast neither youth nor age; but, as it were, an after dinner sleep, dreaming on both.”
— Shakespeare, Measure For Measure

Louis Begley’s fourth novel was originally published in the States in 1996. Now British readers can get to grips with his challenging and entertaining style as About Schmidt is made available in the UK to accompany the release of Alexander Payne’s film version of the novel. Begley has commented in media interviews on the difficulty of filming his novels, which rely heavily on what he calls “interior dialogue”, a kind of internalised third-person narration that has to be drastically altered in order to be viable in the visual medium.

The novel itself is thoroughly rewarding and grips the attentive reader within the first few pages. Character is meticulously constructed here in a tour de force of narratorial skill, so that we develop our sympathies for Schmidt even as we learn more and more deeply the disturbing, destructive sides of his personality. He’s not so much a lovable rogue as a self-deceiving charmer, a wise fool whose effects ripple far beyond his actions.

Schmidt is a retired lawyer living in some wealth on Long Island in a house largely empty after the recent death of his wife. His relationships with his daughter and with the man his daughter will marry constitute the bulk of Schmidt’s preoccupations through the novel. Or rather, his continual worrying away at the financial implications of her marriage and its effects on his own monetary position constitute the primary things he is concerned with. For Schmidt, like many of us, is a master at making his own interests disappear into the disguise of concern for someone else, and it’s in this process of deception that the charms of the character, and the skill of the novelist, reside.

Not for one minute is the reader allowed to have any illusions about Schmidt and his obsessions. He feels aggrieved at his treatment by the firm he worked for all his life; he’s aggrieved that his wife is no longer with him; he’s aggrieved that his daughter will marry a younger lawyer who, all too clearly, mirrors Schmidt himself, although he could never admit it; and above all, he carries a burden he can barely acknowledge, the taint of his own personal prejudices.

There’s a rather shadowy character in About Schmidt who’s referred to at one point as the law firm’s “ubiquitous Lew Brenner”, their “own Jewish Al Pacino”. Begley is a Jewish Pole, who survived the war and the Nazi occupation of Poland by masquerading as a Catholic. Begley now lives a double life as a novelist and a lawyer. He shares his initials with Lew Brenner, and perhaps shares too Brenner’s subtly implied point of view of Schmidt himself.

Schmidt’s semi-acknowledged racism, his tendency to ascribe all professional slights and changes in the constituency of his form to Jewish influence, suggests a level of allegory that Begley’s novel only offers hints at. While it is no Marathon Man, About Schmidt is a deeply thoughtful and carefully modulated examination of the kinds of self-deception and denial that characterise a particular generation that has been moulded by its experience of twentieth century history. All of Schmidt’s residual guilt and self-loathing is redirected into anxieties about his relationship with his daughter, a relationship that gradually crumbles into increasingly indirect forms of communication. The relationship is sketched with something of the moral comedy of a Charles Dickens or a George Eliot, with occasional macabre undertones. Schmidt writes to Charlotte, late in the novel:

Since I am not dead yet I don’t think you will get Mom’s and my silver just yet. I will send candelabra, trays, and such like that belonged to Aunt Martha. You may not recall it, but your mother gave Martha’s table silver to one of her assistants as a wedding present. That would have been about five years ago. For the same reason — my being alive — I will have to go over the list of furniture you want and decide what I can send to you without changing the look of the rooms here. [.] Shouldn’t I send a copy of Charlotte’s letter to Renata? Schmidt asked himself. She has the tape. If she gets the letter, she’ll be starting a real collection. In the end, he didn’t do it: he felt too ashamed.

Schmidt’s letter moves uneasily between a kind of outrage at his daughter’s grasping mentality, embarrassment at his own covetousness, and a glimmering awareness that, for all his faults, he remains somehow in the right, and morally superior to the self-serving younger generation — after all, he has at least worked for what he has. One of Begley’s themes, in delineating his central character in this way, is the establishment of the elderly as central protagonists in the world of the young, who remain rather less realised figures in About Schmidt. Schmidt’s patriarchal and paternal authority in the social world of the novel rests almost entirely on his wealth being greater than that of those younger than him, who are continually threatening to usurp his position, his property and, ultimately, his life.

No surprise, then, that inheritance plays a central role in the novel, and offers one aspect of its resolution. Another aspect — the answer to Schmidt’s increasingly cantankerous loneliness — is resolved in a surprise love affair that spans generations, insisting that the fraught relations of one family shouldn’t be taken as exemplary. Louis Begley displays something of Edith Wharton’s finesse in tying up the loose ends of the novel (and after all, About Schmidt is in many ways a modern retake on the high American bourgeois society of 19th century Old New York that Wharton so powerfully realised in The Age of Innocence).

Begley’s dense, entrancing prose does more than justice to the complexities of a character like Schmidt: it allows Schmidt to speak to us of what his concerns are, and in doing so, offers an important meditation on the enduring meanings of age, maturity and experience in a world increasingly devoted to the brevity of youth.