Parallel Lives

Louis Begley returns to promote his most provocative novel

Author Louis Begley in his office in New York where he worked as a lawyer | Photo: Michael Freund

When it comes to living parallel lives, few have outdone attorney and novelist Louis Begley.

Begley was a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, a distinguished New York Law firm, when he surprised the literary world with his first novel, Wartime Lies, about a young Polish Jew caught up in the inferno of the Holocaust. The novel appeared in 1991, when Begley was 57, and was very well received, winning the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for a First Work of Fiction and the Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize.

Begley continued writing and practicing law for 16 years, working during the week and writing on weekends before finally retiring in 2007, at the age of 73. Last year he presented the German translation of a biographical essay on Franz Kafka, The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head.

On Feb. 10 he was back in the city Vienna, at the Hauptbücherei am Gürtel, for to launch his latest book, The Dreyfus Case: Îles-du-Diable, Guantánamo, History’s Nightmare (to be published in German by Suhrkamp in May), and for a discussion of his work in general.

He began with excerpts from Wartime Lies, based loosely on his own life. Questions about this annoyed him, however. Perhaps he has been asked about this them too many times in the intervening 18 years. One should not confuse the literary merits of a book with the biographical facts concerning the author, he said.

By the same token, some parallels cannot be overlooked. Just like Macek, the main character in Wartime Lies, Begley was born in 1933 in Poland to a wealthy Jewish family, and both escaped the Nazi army. Begley’s family fled Poland in 1941 and, after a long odyssey, settled in the United States in 1947. Seven years later, Begley graduated from Harvard College in English lLiterature, summa cum laude. In 1956, he entered Harvard Law School on a scholarship, graduating in 1959, magna cum laude.

Begley still looks like a lawyer, in his dark blue blazer and red tie, reserved and quietly authoritative. But the audience in Vienna quickly succumbed to his boyish charm.

“Why did it take so long to write your first book?” the audience asked.

“What was the hurry?” he replied..

Later during the discussion, he admitted that originally he had lacked the confidence to write fiction, and hadn’t actually been sure that he had anything to write about. His life in the United States hadn’t seemed interesting enough to him, and the wartime experience was, as he said, “unmentionable. I didn’t think anybody wanted to hear about it.”

Well, it was clear that everybody in that room did. He read from the book in a low and soft voice – a trademark technique that he said he used in court to grab attention.

Although Stanley Kubrick bought the film rights for Wartime Lies and invested $11 million in pre-production, the film never got made. The director decided to let the media hype about Spielberg’s Schindler’s List calm down, and do Eyes Wide Shut first. He died soon after the movie was finished.

But another film based on a Begley novel was made: All About Schmidt, starring Jack Nicholson as Warren Schmidt who is forced to deal with an ambiguous future as he enters retirement. Soon after, his wife passes away and he has to come to terms with his daughter’s marriage to a man that he does not approve of, and the failure that he believes his life has become.

Originally set in the Hamptons and Manhattan, the movie version was reset in the American Southwest, angering many Begley fans who found that this altered the tone, and even Schmidt’s character, fundamentally.

With all its commercial success, Begley sees the limitations of the film. A movie can only resemble a novel, he said. But it can never be as good, simply because a film and a novel are two very different things. But Hollywood he found fascinating.

“There is money flowing like a huge vast river, and you only have to stand by with a little cup.”

In the last two decades, Begley wrote has written several more critically acclaimed books, including the novels The Man Who Was Late and A Matter of Honor and: Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay.

For years Begley and his wife, Anka Muhlstein, have made Venice their favorite European destination. At one point, his German publisher asked them whether they would write a book about the city.

At first they refused.

“We are not travel or restaurant writers. Also, I write in English and Anka in French, so we found the idea absurd.” But then he wrote a speech for a charity event to save Venice and Anka wrote an essay about its restaurants and their owners. The publisher was delighted and asked for one more short story in order to complete the job. Trusting the book would only come out in German, Begley wrote a story he described as “very pornographic.”

Soon after the German edition, however, the book was also published in the UK and then in America. “And now I have to avoid all those women in the States,” he said smiling.

Begley’s charm faded as he began talking about his latest book, The Dreyfus Case: Îles-du-Diable, Guantánamo, History’s Nightmare. Alfred Dreyfus was a French artillery officer of Jewish descent who was sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly having been a spy for the German Army. The case against Dreyfus was so weak that French counter-intelligence manufactured evidence against him. In 1894, Dreyfus was sent to the penal colony at Devil’s Island in French Guiana and placed in solitary confinement.

“You put yourself at danger when you write a polemic book,” he says. But then he brightened: “But I never enjoyed writing a book this much!” When Yale University Press asked him to write something about “Why the Dreyfus case matters,” he was not interested at first. But as he researched the case, he realised that it was not only a fascinating detective story about how dishonorable behavior was used to protect honor, but also a compelling parallel to what was going on in Guantánamo.

By the end of the discussion, the audience had come full circle: How did he actually decide to write his first book at such an advanced stage of his life?

“I never had the nerve to say, ‘Now I am going to write a book,’” he said, “I just did it.” And how did he feel when it was finished?

“I was surprised.”

Of course he was – he had just embarked on a new life.

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