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A decade ago, lawyer Louis Begley became lawyer-novelist Louis Begley. Since then, his fiction has been widely lauded. It’s also been hounded by one unfortunate adjective, “autobiographical.” Begley once compared this insistence by critics to the “persistency of a young dog trying to climb onto a sofa.” These days, Begley laughs at the dreaded word. “When I was in my salad days, when I was new to all of this, these things used to bother me. They have stopped bothering me,” says the head of the international practice group at Debevoise & Plimpton. “Anybody who wants to say [my work] is autobiographical, fine. It really doesn’t matter. It’s false, but it has stopped being a cross to bear.” If further convincing is necessary, look no further than Albert Schmidt, Begley’s best-known creation and the curmudgeon-like antihero of two novels. “Schmidt Delivered,” Begley’s latest work, was published in October by Alfred A. Knopf Inc. Filming is scheduled to begin in March on a movie based on the 1996 book “About Schmidt.” Jack Nicholson will play the title role. A man in his 60s, Schmidt is at loose ends. His New York, white-shoe law firm has shunted him aside. His wife is dead. He is estranged from his daughter, her husband and just about everyone else. He often mopes around his house on the Long Island shores, none too gracefully watching time pass. There should be no confusion about character and creator. Begley has achieved an extraordinary professional pairing. He maintains a punishing legal practice, while writing fiction only on weekends and holidays. Yet he has published six novels in nine years, all of which have sold well and been critically acclaimed. He is working on a seventh. A LATE BLOOMER This is a remarkable accomplishment for anyone, let alone for an individual who began writing fiction only when he was in his mid-50s and is now 67. “Until very recently, I hardly knew what it meant to be tired,” he says by way of explanation. Not that Begley now finds himself striding down the corridors of the Scott Turow-John Grisham school of legal thriller writing. He admits to never having read such a page turner nor can he conceive writing one. However, he’s convinced that their authors have created a brilliant commercial package, heavily plotted but peopled with thinly explored characters. Begley contrasts these books “written from the outside” with his own internally centered novels. His characters don’t dash, they stumble. They don’t singlehandedly solve gruesome murders or Byzantine mysteries of global significance. Rather, they attempt — and often fail — to decipher and resolve more timeless conundrums of a plodding and personal nature. Lives are messy. Lust elbows out love. Affairs are broken. Action is minimal. The hero is usually anything but heroic and sometimes not very likeable. “The plot is very far down there on the list of things I worry about,” Begley says. For Begley, it wasn’t a question of lacking the confidence to write, he says. Rather, it was a matter of what he was going to write about and finding the time to do so without forsaking his passion for law. Begley is slight, dapper and almost meticulously gracious. Richly turned out in a worsted wool suit, he sits attentively in an airy and spacious midtown Manhattan office. Photos of his wife, now-grown children and grandchildren line the window sills. Artwork of his son, Peter, adorns the walls. Legal treatises fill one bookshelf. Another contains Begley’s books, alongside those of his wife, Anka Muhlstein, a French biographer. AN INTENSE BEGINNING Begley ponders questions intently, often staring into space before answering in quiet, measured tones. His well-lined face often breaks into a courtly smile. He speaks with a bit of inflection, a slight accent which reflects Begley’s background — no less amazing than his literary and legal accomplishments. He was born Ludwik Begleiter in 1933. A Jewish native of Stryj, Poland, the young Begley was trapped by the war. He survived the Holocaust alongside his mother. Both used forged papers identifying them as Catholic Poles. His father was a doctor and drafted into service by the Soviet Army. They were reunited after the war and moved to the United States in 1947. His grandparents didn’t make it. The Nazis shot them dead in the forest outside Stryj. Begley’s initial foray into fiction — and the source of persistent notions of autobiography — captures the Holocaust in singular fashion. “Wartime Lies,” published in 1991, came in an intensely brief creative outpouring. In 1988, Begley took a four-month sabbatical with the intention of chronicling his father’s story. Instead, a young Jewish boy’s extraordinary tale of survival took over. Why the switch? “I have no satisfactory answer,” he replies. “The first morning of my sabbatical, when I sat down to write, it went that way.” Over the years, Begley has struggled to explain this literary unfurling. “I had a story to tell. That was clear,” he begins “It was a story I certainly wasn’t going to tell in the form of a memoir.” Begley didn’t want to write a recollection, nor did he think he could. Some incidents, Begley says, he remembers very well. Other periods were “blank or gray or with some shadowy matter.” HOW HE TOLD HIS STORY The answer was fiction, where he could freely alter the characters and story as he saw fit. “There are some doors one cannot open just by turning the doorknob; their opening must be conjured,” he wrote in The New York Times after his novel was published. “I would not have been able to open the door of ‘Wartime Lies’ without the intercession of its form, which is that of a novel, and the distance that the form of the novel permits the writer to take from his subject.” Begley finished “Wartime Lies” in less than four months. “It was a book that I could write fast because I had a story line to follow,” he says, after first dismissing its rapid gestation as primarily reflective of the book’s short length. “It was a story in which I could use my experience without treading on ground on which I did not want to tread.” Told from the vantage point of a boy named Maciek, the style is deceptively simple. Maciek reduces the horrors he sees and experiences to an almost naive-like ingenuousness. He knows the smallest misstep could mean death, yet how does a 10-year-old check himself at every turn? And how does he assume a new religious and ethnic identity without confusion as to who or what he really is? “Wartime Lies” bedazzled critics in the United States and Europe. The book won the Pen/Ernest Hemingway First Fiction Award, the Irish Time-Aer Lingus International Fiction Prizes book award and the Prix Medicis Etranger. It was a National Book Award finalist. Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick bought the rights to the book but died before production could begin. Not that Begley was tempted to turn his back on his legal practice. “I’m very much devoted to law,” he says. It was a devotion that didn’t come overnight. After high school in New York, an undergraduate degree in English literature from Harvard University and a stint in the U.S. Army, Begley found himself at loose ends. He dismissed earlier notions of academe and hightailed it back to Harvard and law school. “I had to get a job,” he says. “Law seemed the least obnoxious, probably because I knew nothing about it.” LURED BY JUSTICE Begley dismisses any link between a love of his profession and his wartime experiences. He pointedly contrasts a sense of jurisprudence — of what one of his law professors termed “right reason” — with a jaundiced view of humanity and a disbelief in divine justice. “I have always been appalled by injustice, by man’s cruelty, by the bestial forces that are loosened upon man, by a rareness of goodness and an abundance of evil,” he says, adding: “I’m repelled by established religion, although I have the greatest respect for people with faith.” In 1959, Begley returned to New York. He joined Debevoise & Plimpton, then a typical Manhattan white-shoe firm. (He disputes that the description remains applicable. “There’s no way that a law firm like this is anything but a meritocracy and meritocracies and white shoes don’t go together.”) He’s been there ever since. Begley has shepherded corporations through huge joint ventures and advised them on acquisitions, arbitration and tax issues. He rattles off a few of the more prominent tasks, describing them with an almost literary flourish: Begley led the legal team defending Daiwa Bank Ltd. in the United States against changes of criminal and regulatory fraud. “It was a nightmare that lasted almost a year,” he says. A COMPLEX JOB He oversaw marathon legal work on behalf of an energy company called Panhandle Eastern Corp., now part of Duke Energy, and a series of contracts and arbitration cases with the Algerian state oil and gas company. “They were mind-boggling legal issues, of exquisite, exquisite complexity,” he relates. “The stakes were appallingly large.” He spent 2-1/2 years shepherding through a Japanese-Australian iron ore mining and transportation joint venture called the Robe River project. Begley was Mitsui & Co.’s principal counsel. At the time Robe River was the largest Japanese investment outside the country. “It was like giving and taking a course in commercial law and banking and mining,” he recalls. Then there was France Telecom, which Begley has represented in several major deals during the past 20 years. He singles out France Telecom’s “benighted” joint venture with Deutsche Telecom and Sprint Corp. “It was three years of nonstop horror. As a joint venture it was the menage a trois out of hell.” Assigned to his firm’s Paris office for almost four years and still someone who often dashes to Europe for a couple days’ work, Begley makes good literary use of locations around the world, and some high finance is also present. The main character of “The Man Who Was Late,” Begley’s second novel and a favorite of his, is an investment banker who thrives on financial detail, fastidiousness and complexity, a counterpoint to a messy personal life that disintegrates rapidly and tragically. Begley writes: “Ben’s dislike of entanglements and a closely allied consideration — his reluctance to have disorders of his personal life seep into the neat, protected space in which he conducted official business, the bank’s and his own — were deeply rooted.” REALITY SEEPS INTO FICTION But it would be a mistake to dwell too much on these touches of real-life Begley, he maintains. When quizzed why his novels — with the exception of “Wartime Lies” — inevitably revolve around the rich and successful, he becomes slightly defensive. “I happen to live in that sort of world,” he says. “I’ve always thought that my novels demonstrate the vanity of riches and power and sad truth [that] they don’t bring happiness.” He also dismisses the fact that literary setting and professional milieu often collide. “People remark that I write about what goes on in the law firm, what goes on in the advertising agency,” he says. “I do that in part simply for fun and in part in the maybe stupid belief that it is in fact amusing for people to know how characters spend their days.” Then he adds a possible explanation as to why critics keep pondering the relationship of his literary work and experience. “Writers, generally speaking, do not lead extremely interesting lives. I suspect in some ways my life, although not as interesting as Hemingway’s, is slightly more interesting than the life of the average fellow who teaches creative writing in Iowa or Syracuse.” In fact, Begley stands in stark contrast to many of his literary creations, who trip over personal relationships. He beams when describing his children. He positively glows when asked about his wife and her work: “She’s the single most admirable person I know,” he says, describing Muhlstein’s biographies that include the explorer Rene-Robert de LaSalle and James de Rothschild, the French banking patriarch and Muhlstein’s great-great-grandfather. “Nothing is difficult for her.” The two married almost 27 years ago, combining his three children and her two from previous marriages into a large, rambunctious family. “My children love her more than they love me,” he says in admiration, then adds with a twinkle, “She has good character, which can not necessarily be said of me.” A DISPLACED PERSON Begley’s love of literature also is undebatable and unmistakable. Literary — as well as artistic and musical — allusions so dot his work, one critic complained Begley “has a bookish way of viewing life, forever comparing it to classical literature.” To mention just one, the lead character of his novel “As Max Saw It” is Charlie Swan, an obvious nod to Proust’s Charles Swann. “I have a misplaced sense of humor,” he says. “Sometimes I leave a clue in the interests of seeing who gets it and who doesn’t.” Toward the end of a conversation, he is asked about the notion that he is a displaced person, not only in the literal sense of being a post-war refugee, but in a larger philosophic sense. “Oh, yes, indeed,” he begins, then pauses. “Everybody is a bundle of contradictions. I’m a displaced person who has lived in the same apartment for 28 years now. I’ve worked in the same law firm for going on 42 years. I’ve gone to my most recent barber for probably 11 years. “I feel myself exceedingly American. I’m a true ethnic, an unreconstructed American patriot. At the same time, I can’t disavow the part of me that is European, emotionally, culturally, linguistically.” The lawyer who is a novelist concludes: “I do not have, I think, a single identity.” Copyright (c)2001 TDD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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