JACK MILES, BOOK CRITIC
September 20, 1998
''Nice people who don't
tell lies are not likely to write great novels,'' Louis Begley observed in
1996 apropos Jerzy Kosinski. Few novelists, to be sure, can have falsified
their own history as much as Kosinski did, but the novel itself is
''feigned history,'' to quote W. H. Auden's trenchant definition.
Kosinski's early novels were simply an extreme case. Unlike fable and
related forms, which present the incredible and charm you into believing
it, the modern, realistic novel -- the kind Auden had in mind, the kind
Kosinski wrote -- presents the credible and defies you to doubt it. You
finish such a novel late on a quiet night and go to bed dreaming of its
characters as if they were your own friends and family.
Oddly enough, tracing
the border between the lie and the truth is frustrating in literary
criticism for the same reason that it is rewarding in literary art. In
criticism as in life, the attempt to separate the one from the other may
be necessary, but it can never quite succeed. In fiction, however, where
both the liars and the truth-tellers are made up, it can seem to succeed,
and on the page this simulated success is enough. Thus, a book like James
Park Sloan's ''Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography,'' which sought a real-life,
nonfiction sorting out of truth from fiction in that writer's life (and
prompted Begley's observation), can never be more than an honorable
failure. But a novel about a Polish Jew turning the horror of the
Holocaust to personal advantage could achieve a complete exposure, a
cathartic clarity, that would be depressing and exhilarating at once.
The falsification of
the self is a theme that Begley has now pursued through five novels
published over the past eight years, a quintet in which the first
protagonist is a defenseless boy and the fifth a hardened old man.
''Wartime Lies'' told the story of a Jewish boy and his aunt hiding from
the Nazis by passing as Polish Catholics. ''The Man Who Was Late'' was a
virtual sequel. Though the character bore a new name, he was a Jewish
refugee in the United States, wealthy and prominent but assimilated to the
point of self-alienation. The third in the series, ''As Max Saw It,'' was
a novel about homosexual masquerade and performance, about first passing
as straight and later competing as gay, but it was equally a novel of
midlife reassessment as two Harvard classmates met by chance in their
Each of these three
novels contained a pair of characters, one who was the impostor and
another who saw through him. The latter role was played in ''Wartime
Lies'' by the adult looking back on the Jewish child he was never allowed
to be. In ''The Man Who Was Late,'' Ben's story was pieced together after
his suicide by Jack, his old friend and executor. In ''As Max Saw It,''
Charlie's story was seen by Max. I mean to suggest no simple formula. In
any novel dealing with this kind of subject matter, it would seem that
someone must play this role.
This much granted,
however, a striking feature distinguishes Begley's fourth novel, ''About
Schmidt,'' and his new novel, ''Mistler's Exit,'' from the previous three.
In these two final novels of what I, for one, see as a set, Begley forces
the reader to play the role of the observer who sees through the impostor.
And in both of them, the protagonist is an elderly WASP plutocrat. Albert
Schmidt is a retired lawyer, recently widowed. Thomas Mistler is the
founder and C.E.O. of an advertising agency who has just learned he has
terminal cancer. ''About Schmidt,'' which has been praised for its black
humor, may be seen either as a dress rehearsal for ''Mistler's Exit'' or
as the scherzo before the grim Mistler finale. Notably, the Jewish subject
matter, never absent from the first four novels, is missing in the finale.
Mistler faces death in the postreligious, market-driven U.S.A. where, as
the saying goes, the only color that counts is the color of your money.
''Mistler's Exit'' has
the structure of a first-person narrative, but is told in the third
person. As in a first-person novel, we are in the protagonist's presence
from the first page to the last. Of every other character in the novel, we
know only what Mistler tells us. At no point is Begley's voice heard
expressing any opinion or any observation beyond Mistler's ken. When the
doctor gives him the bad news and Mistler fakes a business trip to Venice
to be alone for a while, we are with him in his hotel room and with him in
his mind, but any spontaneous sympathy we might feel for him is
short-circuited by the cold, sour, anonymous voice that reports on him.
That voice knows only Mistler, but it doesn't much like him, and as a
result neither do we.
On the surface, the
action in Venice consists largely of two sexual encounters. An
older-than-she-looks fashion photographer hoping for work from Mistler's
agency, and perhaps for something more from Mistler himself, manages to
talk her way into his Venice hotel room before he arrives. Mistler is
willingly enough seduced and soon begins to show her around Venice, but
his self-absorbed sarcasm about the religious content of his favorite
Titian disgusts her and brings their brief affair to a sudden and rather
ugly end. A chance encounter with a Harvard classmate in a sidewalk cafe
then leads Mistler to the Venice apartment of a Radcliffe girl he loved
from a distance 40 years earlier but never slept with. He would sleep with
her now, but after leading him on, she gently kisses him off. In the final
pages of the book, Mistler, an oarsman in his college years, purchases a
wherry at a Venice boathouse and muses about rowing out to sea. The last
line of the book is: ''This time he would not cheat.''
The memories that
interrupt the sexual action are often as erotically charged as the action
itself. And yet as shards of Mistler's family history begin to jut through
the sexual debris, it becomes apparent that the family's every key
decision has been determined not by love or even by lust but essentially
The great love of
Mistler's father's life was a Frenchwoman he met during World War II. When
Mistler was still in prep school, his father introduced him to ''Tante
Elisabeth,'' hoping his son could manage a grown-up response. He got more
than he bargained for. Mistler challenged him to marry Elisabeth and
divorce Mistler's mother, a woman they both hated. But this was not to be:
''There would be a scandal. I would have to step down as the head of the
''I could never live
like that,'' Mistler said at the time, but he proves himself his father's
son. At Harvard, after the elder Mistler has lost most of his money,
Mistler writes a novel and dreams of becoming a professional writer. He
could do it. He has talent, and on a trust fund from his mother's side of
the family, he can afford to give it a go. Somehow, though, advertising,
which was to have been just a secondary means to that literary end,
becomes primary and a means only to ever more means. Mistler matches and
surpasses his father's record in acquisition.
Mistler sees that there
is something compulsive about his avarice. His last act as head of his
firm is to swindle the old friend who is buying him out. When his
investment manager raises questions, Mistler faces him down: ''That's
right, thought Mistler, stick to your job and leave the unpleasant
questions to me. Such as: Why am I doing this?'' But he doesn't know why,
and neither do we.
THE bill of particulars
under the money heading could be lengthened, but so can the list of
headings. Whether the subject is art, religion, literature, fatherhood or
friendship, Begley has mined his novel with depth charges that he seems to
invite the reader to detonate beneath his own protagonist. The result is a
novel that is brilliantly, brutally countercathartic. Mistler frustrates
what Saul Bellow's Herzog called ''the dream of man's heart . . . that
life may complete itself in significant pattern. Some incomprehensible
way. Before death.'' Mistler exits unknown -- as real people so often do.
To his last breath, he will keep his lies inextricably mixed with his
truth. He wins. We lose.
Self-deception at any
point in a lifetime is like a dream in that the playwright and the
audience are one, and the action can only be carried out under a certain
anesthesia. That anesthesia, that strange numbness, has been the haunted
and haunting mood around all of Begley's previous work. But the theme of
self-deception at the end of life -- when everyman as playwright/audience
is pushed to his limit -- may be the supreme test for a novelist with this
of all obsessions. ''Mistler's Exit'' meets the test, bringing an
estimable set of novels to a new pinnacle of darkness.
Jack Miles is the
author of ''God: A Biography.''
Published: 09 - 20 -
1998 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 10
1998, New York Times
*Reprinted by permission of The New York Times