About Schmidt by Louis Begley

John Sears

Offers an important meditation on the enduring meanings of age, maturity and experience in a world increasingly devoted to the brevity of youth.

About Schmidt

Publisher: Serpent's Tail
Length: 288
Price: £8.99 (UK)
Author: Louis Begley
UK publication date: 2003-02
"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.






Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".


Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".


The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.


July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.


With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.


Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.


MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.


Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.


Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.


John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."


'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.