An Ordinary Bigot
ABOUT SCHMIDT by Louis Begley, Alfred A. Knopf $23, 274 pages


September 22, 1996

Some of Western literature's most resonant works, including ''King Lear'' and Henry James's novel ''The Spoils of Poynton,'' concern the transfer of property from one generation to the next. The issues raised by inheritance -- the limits to love between parents and children, the fading but still formidable power of the parents, the almost inevitable ingratitude of the children as they pursue their own goals, the new alliances and potential betrayals involved in any marriage -- touch all of us, whether we have a kingdom or splendid British country house to pass on or only some precious, albeit worthless, family tchotchkes. In Louis Begley's fine new novel, ''About Schmidt,'' the property at issue is a house in the Hamptons, and although most readers might salivate at the prospect of owning such a house, inherited by Albert Schmidt from his wife's maiden aunt, his daughter -- wouldn't you know? -- would rather spend her weekends upstate, and her fiancÚ worries about the upkeep. Schmidt is a buttoned-up, emotionally deprived man who has recently lost his wife, Mary, on whom he depended for his social life. A meticulous corporate lawyer, known for drafting elegant contracts, he retired early in order to care for her in her final illness. Now he is lonely, adrift and at odds with his only child, Charlotte, who, in addition to having bewilderingly turned into a yuppie he can't completely like (she does public relations on behalf of tobacco companies), has announced that she will marry a man he completely dislikes, a partner in Schmidt's firm -- a nerd, a bankruptcy maven, a Jew. For yes, even though his best friend is Jewish and considers his anti-Semitism ''innocuous, one might almost say irrelevant,'' ''Schmidtie'' is an anti-Semite.

Mr. Begley is too fastidious to make Schmidt likable, as though to elicit sympathy for him would then be too easy. How much greater the literary accomplishment to make us pity, understand, even identify with someone we have permission to write off.

Mr. Begley, who is a lawyer as well as a novelist, made his stunning literary debut with ''Wartime Lies,'' a novel about a Jewish boy hiding from the Nazis, passing for Christian. This new novel could be called ''Peacetime Truths,'' not only for the way it touches on ''innocuous'' anti-Semitism but because its protagonist is ''an odd stickler for the truth,'' who, for example, feeling no affection for his prospective son-in-law, makes no pretense of affection in the slightest degree, even to the young man's mother. Whereas ''Wartime Lies'' explored duplicity and imposture, ''About Schmidt'' presents a determined search for accuracy in emotion, as the widower and retiree moves into a new phase of life, the last.

Much as he wants to think that he is acting out of generosity in transferring his life interest in the Bridgehampton house to his daughter as a wedding present, Schmidt has to admit to himself that it is done partly ''to avoid the duty I would feel to treat my married daughter and her husband as co-owners.'' So: the selfishness within generosity, the distaste mingled with parental love, the promiscuity that coexists with the deepest marital devotion. ''About Schmidt'' gets at them all.

Sometimes the truth-telling can be hard to take, like this, on women's aging: ''It seemed to Schmidt that loss of the ability to attract was an affliction as generalized among his female coevals as thinness of hair, the sclera and teeth turned yellow, sour breath, flaccidity or gigantism of breasts, midriffs gone soft and distended by wind, brown blotches and deltas of minute angry veins around the knee and on the calf, disastrous, swollen toes verging on deformity displayed in sandals or throbbing in the prison of black pumps. To tease Mary, he used to tell her what, in fact, he thought was the truth: that his own loss of libido, from the effects of which she was exempt . . . had less to do with his own aging than with the aging of the women around him.''

(It's a minor flaw in the novel that Schmidt, at 60, seems too young to be carrying on so about age, and too old -- the same goes for his Jewish film-maker pal and quondam college roommate -- to be so attractive to women in their 20's. If their young girlfriends exist to prove these men aren't as old as they think, it doesn't work. One geriophilic young woman per novel might be credible. Not two.)

Whatever you think of him, Schmidt is remarkable for his clarity of mind. Why, he asks himself, should he give up alcohol, tobacco, cheese, red meat and eggs, for the sake of a longevity whose pleasures were unknown? As it was, ''it seemed reasonable to stick to his agreeable, life-shortening habits, perhaps even to acquire new ones.'' In a crucial scene, Charlotte, on the telephone, distressed at feeling she has to reject both the wedding party and the house her father has been offering, attacks him, saying that according to her fiance, Schmidt's whole firm had considered him an anti-Semite. In a peacemaking effort, her mother-in-law-to-be, a psychiatrist, calls Schmidt to explain that Charlotte's inappropriate aggressive behavior had been caused by her guilt. But Schmidt only wants to know: did her aggressiveness consist of telling the truth or telling a lie? Did his partners really consider him anti-Semitic?

This book exists at a point where the dry probity of a certain high-WASP temperament and the dry secular spirit in Judaism meet. It resolutely refuses transcendence. The temperature never goes up. The pitch never varies. You never feel you are being manipulated into a falsely emotional response. You can trust it as you trust a well-wrought contract: it keeps its affect entirely under control. It never tries to mean more than it says -- in fact, tries strenuously not to. This, to me, is the great pleasure of reading Louis Begley. His exceptional literary intelligence is always in control, making me wonder if more novelists shouldn't develop the virtues of lawyers as writers: accuracy, economy, abjuring the language of emotion.

Quietly, the novel gains power as it continues. A deep underlying pessimism comes more often to the surface. ''All lives end badly,'' Schmidt believes, and if a certain couple seems happy, it's because their lives ''had not yet been broken. Their time would come.'' Ultimately, all books about inheritance are about Heraclitean flow. The river of life moves on. Things change. Poynton burns. The Hamptons aren't what they used to be. People we expect to die don't, and those we don't expect to die do. Wills reveal intentions we never suspected. Schmidt's new woman is a Puerto Rican waitress younger than his daughter. And so unpredictable is the current that things end well for him. The final events of the novel remind us, cleverly and wisely, that every older generation was once a younger generation, that every generation, no matter how loving or beloved, by its very existence poses problems for the generation, parental or filial, with which it is inextricably linked.

Consistently subtle and intelligent, this novel ends by getting under your skin despite the unlikability of its protagonist. You are left with the feeling of having found out the complex truth behind the impeccable facade of someone you might never notice if you met him at a party -- someone, on the other hand, you might just know or be, an ordinary person with ordinary problems, even if he does have a retirement income of some $330,000 a year.

Phyllis Rose has completed a memoir, ''The Year of Reading Proust.''

Published: 09 - 22 - 1996 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 13 *


Copyright 1996, New York Times   

*Reprinted by permission of the New York Times