Death in Venice
MISTLER'S EXIT by Louis Begley, Alfred A. Knopf $22, 206 pages


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 50's.

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 by money.

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 bank.''

''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


Copyright 1998, New York Times   

*Reprinted by permission of The New York Times