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Turn to Louis Begley’s biographical entry at Debevoise & Plimpton’s Web site, and you’ll learn when he was born, where he went to college and law school, when he joined the firm, and other standard details of his professional life. But you’ll find no evidence of his literary accomplishments. Begley’s six novels and numerous literary honors fail to earn even a mention. As far as Debevoise & Plimpton is concerned, Begley, the firm’s most senior partner and the head of its international practice group, is all lawyer. When asked in a telephone interview about this limited portrait, Begley, speaking from his office at Debevoise & Plimpton’s New York City headquarters, chuckles and remarks that he and his firm are “always hiding our light under a bushel basket.” If his clients are aware of his writing life, he says, it’s not because he or the firm make an issue of it: “I don’t bring it up myself because I’m basically modest.” Yet despite his reticence to speak about his writing, clients do occasionally ask him to sign copies of his books, the self-effacing Begley admits. Perhaps it’s merely logical to consider Begley as a lawyer first and a writer second. After all, he has been a lawyer with Debevoise & Plimpton ever since 1959, the year he graduated from Harvard Law School, and a published novelist only since 1991. “I have always been mostly a corporate lawyer,” Begley explains. “Ever since I became a partner [in January 1968], the bulk of my work has been in acquisitions, dispositions, joint ventures, and complex contracts of various sorts. … In many ways, I’ve been a jack-of-all-trades.” Begley has negotiated deals in Asia, Australia, South America, Western Europe, North Africa, and the United States. His clients have included, among others, the Panhandle Eastern Corp., Mitsui & Co., and the Aetna Life Insurance Co. And even though he is 67 years old, he has not slowed down at all. “I work harder than ever,” he says. Begley has seen myriad changes in his practice over the more than 40 years he has been at Debevoise & Plimpton. First and foremost, he says, is that “transactions have gotten much, much larger.” He also points to the technological developments that have helped lawyers complete such deals. When he first joined the firm, he recalls, the available technology was basically limited to an electric typewriter and the telephone, with the telex being on the cutting edge. “Today,” Begley says, “the telex has been replaced by the fax machine, and the fax machine seems to be on it’s way out. There have been tremendous improvements in the ability to move documents, and today, of course, e-mail is king.” Unlike some others of his generation, Begley has no aversion to using the new technology. “I’ve never been able to accept the proposition that my younger colleagues can do things that I can’t do,” he says. He thus has embraced the use of the laptop and the cellular phone. In fact, he writes his novels on his laptop. But just when does such a busy lawyer find the time to practice the novelist’s trade? “I write on those weekends when I’m not prevented from doing so,” Begley says. “In the evening, my head is full of the wrong words.” Yet Begley wrote his first novel, “Wartime Lies,” not on the weekends but while he was on a four-month sabbatical in 1989. He finished a workable draft of the novel in Seville, he says, and burnished it in Paris. Published in 1991, “Wartime Lies” is the story of a well-born Jewish boy in Poland who is able to avoid Nazi capture by buying a false identity and masquerade as a Catholic. The novel tracks the broad outlines of the life of its author, who also was born in Poland and used such a ploy to escape the Holocaust and emigrate to the United States with his family in 1947. “Wartime Lies” not only captured the 1991 PEN Hemingway Award, but also was a finalist that year for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. “Wartime Lies” corresponds to his life, but it is not his story, he contends. “My war stories are banal as all war stories are banal.” Begley’s partners were unaware that he was spending his sabbatical writing a novel, he says, but it was not because he had intentionally withheld his plans from his cohorts. “I didn’t tell them that I was going to write a novel when I went on sabbatical,” Begley explains, “because I didn’t know I was going to do it.” Suddenly less busy with his family (three children and his two stepchildren were finally grown and on their own) Begley just started writing, he says. Three months later the book was finished. “Because of the constant revising as I go along,” Begley explains about his writing process, “I’m really quite finished with what I’ve written by the time I come to the last stage of the novel.” Begley is gratified by the reception his firm has given “Wartime Lies” and his five subsequent offerings — “The Man Who Was Late,” “As Max Saw It,” “About Schmidt,” “Mistler’s Exit,” and “Schmidt Delivered.” Regarding his writing career, Begley says, “my partners have reacted magnificently.” What gives Begley special satisfaction is when one of his books is praised by a young lawyer — or, for that matter, any young reader. “It gives me intense pleasure when people in their 30s say they like my work because it gives me the sense of a bridge to another time, another generation.” When asked for his literary influences, Begley takes some time to formulate his response: “I’ve read widely and, obviously, one is influenced by the reading. For instance, how can one not be influenced by [Marcel] Proust? How can one not be influenced by [Henry] James? How can one not be influenced by [Franz] Kafka? So, I would say that all of the best literature I’ve read has been an influence. … But I have never tried to write like anybody whom I admire.” Begley also favors Feodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and Joseph Conrad. Is Begley a fan of any contemporary writers? “I admire Philip Roth boundlessly,” he says, “but I certainly don’t write like him. And if I thought I was writing like him, I would tear up the page.” When Louis Auchincloss, another lawyer who writes fiction, is mentioned, Begley says he finds comparisons to Auchincloss flattering, but believes he is quite a different writer. “I think, fundamentally, he is less pessimistic and less harsh than me,” offers Begley. “He’s a happier writer.” Begley is currently working on a new novel, “but slowly,” he says. When asked about the two Albert Schmidt books, Begley admits that he never set out to make the retired white-shoe lawyer the centerpiece of two novels, but that the creative process is unpredictable. “I’ve grown to like Schmidt a good deal,” he confesses. So is Schmidtie out of his system? Or will he make a reappearance? “Nothing is less certain than the future,” Begley says, “but I’ve finished Schmidt Delivered in such a way that the door is open for him and the other principal characters to return. And if fate gives me life and time, I’d like to try to have Schmidt return in a few years.”

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