In a feat of extraordinary timing — in a summer when F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterwork on love and ambition is being peddled as countless commercial knockoffs from Tiffany to Crate & Barrel — Louis Begley gives us the literary equivalent of a hat trick: the anti-Gatsby novel. Here is a tale of New York society and its parvenus; but, unlike with Fitzgerald’s classic, ambitions are met, sex is brazenly consummated, mysteries are revealed, beauty is trumped by old age, and not a character in sight is in love. Here is the tale of a loveless marriage.
Begley is nothing if not an elegant wordsmith. He has made his mark in nine exquisitely crafted, brittle novels with largely unsympathetic characters. His best known is “About Schmidt,” in which a curmudgeon looks back on a lifetime of material gain and attendant losses. Begley’s best work, however, is his dazzling first: “Wartime Lies,” an autobiographical novel about a Jewish boy running from the Nazis and passing as a goy. In every opus, he casts a dispassionate eye and delivers a trunkload of human failings. In this, his eighth decade, he brings us face-to-face with perhaps his grittiest theme — the business of want. Of being on the outside, craving in.
Being something of a curmudgeon himself, Begley will not look kindly on that facile description. He is not one to reduce his stories to tidy themes or easily digested sound bites. “I’ve never thought I knew what a novel — somebody else’s or mine — is ‘about,’ ” his protagonist writes, forging as fine a foil against a book review as I’ve ever encountered. “My stock reply . . . is that a book is about what it says.”
So let’s consider what his book says: “Without simple affection, not sex but affection, a marriage can’t work.”And what his book is about: Wedlock is an accidental state, and for all the shenanigans and longing, fate is its only master.
From the first, we know that our narrator’s brief and happy marriage has been destroyed: by his child’s death, by his wife’s fleet and fatal illness. Philip is left alone. A widower, a childless father, an outsider. That essential loneliness is made more acute by the fact that Philip is a writer, a practitioner of that most solitary of occupations. He is a tale-monger, a soul-stealer, a man who is all too eager to look into someone else’s heart.
That someone else is Lucy De Bourgh Snow, a socialite with whom he once had a passing dalliance and whom he sees all of a sudden, 40 years or so later, in one of those vast public spaces in New York’s Lincoln Center. It is during intermission at a tedious Balanchine ballet, and as Philip downs a remedial shot of whiskey, he hears, “Philip! I turned and saw a tall slim lady in her late sixties or perhaps early seventies, strikingly good looking and turned out in a black suit I attributed to Armani and black pumps. A black pocketbook hung from her shoulder on a gold chain. I blinked as I realized who she was. Many years had passed since I had last seen her. How many I couldn’t immediately calculate. But yes, without doubt, it was she.”
So is it that Philip is reintroduced to this fierce, man-eating blueblood, a De Bourgh whose American pedigree dates to the Mayflower, whose accumulated wealth entitles her to sojourns in Paris and mansions in Rhode Island, but whose love life has been a spectacular failure. Once upon a time, she had been “ravishing, a knockout,” the quintessentially “funny, original, devil-may-care girl,” but life and its serial disappointments have turned her into a caricature. By the second intermission, Philip is listening to Lucy’s life story, hearing her call her dead ex-husband — a garage mechanic’s son turned highly successful banker — a perfect monster. The writer’s curiosity is piqued. After a few rambling, discomfiting conversations in her Park Avenue apartment and elsewhere, as he hears more about Thomas Snow’s ravenous sexual appetite, his grasping hunger for social acceptance, his sudden demand for a divorce, and his subsequent remarriage, Philip is hooked.
Perhaps it’s the rawness of the narration, the endless detail, the startling intimacy, but Philip finds Lucy’s account of her marriage as compelling as it is repellent. But he is too drawn into the drama to walk away. “Prudence be damned: I was determined to understand how the quirky but beautiful, charming, and seductive young woman I had known had changed so, had become an embittered and aggressive shrew.”
Begley is no stranger to the glitter and caprice of Manhattan society, and he tells this tale with all the archness — and yearning — of a voyeur looking in. He is, after all, the epitome of an outsider who has worked his way to the front row. This is a writer who was born in Stryi, Poland, fled the Holocaust and arrived in New York as a teenage immigrant. He attended Harvard as well as Harvard Law, and rose through the ranks of the prominent, exclusive Manhattan firm Debevoise & Plimpton, becoming the head of its international division. His evocations of glistening mahogany in New York’s club rooms, of summering in the Hamptons, of oysters and whiting at the Paris Savoy have the clear ring of truth. He has observed the relevant mannerisms, and he garnishes his scenes with all the glee of a name-dropping arriviste: Here are Jerome Robbins, Peter Martins, Ambassador Dillon, Ambassador Houghton, Claiborne Pell, Jerzy Kosinski, JFK, Jackie, even a grandson of pointillist Georges Seurat (although, alas, Seurat had no grandchildren).
All right, then. I will follow the author’s advice and not say what this absorbing, altogether harrowing story is truly about — nor tell you much about its prickly and singularly unlikable characters — but I will venture that, in it, despite a false note here and there (tears running down cheeks at implausible moments, for example), Begley proves he is a master dissector of the American character. Among contemporary novelists, he may be the wryest, most devastating critic of class in American society. Like the great Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, who effectively skewered Poland’s class system with probing, ironic novels that laid bare the absurdities of social convention, Begley delivers a literary stiletto to what Tiffany or Crate & Barrel might blithely call “the Gatsby set.”
What happens to the son of a mechanic who would elbow his way into an old-boy culture? What happens to an heiress who crosses the bright red line of social acceptability? What happens to a writer who throws over decorum for a glimpse into a baffling marriage? Read it and weep.
Arana, a writer-at-large for The Washington Post and a former editor in chief of Book World, is the author of numerous books, among them the novel “Cellophane” and the biography “Bolivar: American Liberator.”
By Louis Begley
Nan A. Talese/
Doubleday. 188 pp. $25.95