Schmidt Steps Back

  • Louis Begley
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • 384 pp.

In Begley’s third Schmidt novel, Albert Schmidt returns to reflect on his past and look towards the future.

Reviewed by Harriet Douty Dwinell

Schmidt Steps Back is the third in what has become a Schmidt saga. The first, About Schmidt, burst upon the literary scene in 1996, an elegiac tale of a man emotionally adrift after the painful death of his wife Mary, a prominent book editor. Schmidt, Harvard College and Harvard Law, WASP, anti-Semite, had retired early at age 60 from his “white shoe” New York law firm, Wood & King, where he was a long-time partner. He sold his luxury NYC apartment and moved to Bridgehampton, on Long Island, to look after Mary in the spacious house bequeathed to her by her aunt.

What little life Schmidt has engineered for himself after Mary’s death collapses when his only child Charlotte, then 27, surely the least graceful, most ungrateful daughter since Lear’s Goneril and Regan, announces that she is marrying Jon Riker, a partner at Wood & King and a Jew. This unwelcome alliance will bring Schmidt into the orbit of Jon’s parents, Renata and Myron, whom Schmidt describes as people of different “backgrounds” and New York “psychoanalysts,” code words in Schmidt’s world for Jews.

Schmidt’s anti-Semitism — a major issue in all three novels — took my breath away when I first read About Schmidt in the politically correct 1990s. Later I learned that Begley, who published his first novel when he was 57 and matches Schmidt in such details as age, education and profession, is himself Jewish. Born Ludwik Begleiter in 1933, Begley grew up in Nazi Poland, where he and his mother survived by passing themselves off with false papers as Roman Catholics. (His father, taken away by the Russian army, was later reunited with his family.)

The ways in which Schmidt deals with the prospect of years stretching out ahead without his wife — including thoughts of suicide — propel this first Schmidt novel. Schmidt survives, buoyed by his friendship with the wildly successful filmmaker Gil Blackman, “the wonder-boy Jew from Brooklyn” and Schmidt’s Harvard College roommate — surely he and Gil were paired as roommates by their strong and enduring libidos — and his eventual relationship with Carrie, a 20-year-old, half Puerto Rican waitress in whose body and affection Schmidt finds redemption. But before Schmidt can feel secure in Carrie’s love, he has to fend off a doppelganger, an other self, who relentlessly pursues him and whom, in true mythic fashion, he must kill.

Schmidt Delivered (2000), like a proverbial middle child, can be overlooked as a subject in its own right but is, in fact, an indispensable tool for understanding Schmidt, Carrie and Schmidt’s deepening friendship with Gil. Set four or five years after About Schmidt (a left-brained person can go crazy trying to sort out dates), Schmidt Delivered introduces the larger-than-life Mike Mansour, a billionaire Egyptian Jew who takes Schmidt under his wing as a pet project and new best friend, giving Schmidt’s life a structure if not purpose by appointing him director of the Mansour Foundation, which consists of a series of Life Centers in European capital cities to promote democracy and the arts.

In addition, Begley deftly moves the domestic narrative forward, turning Carrie’s affections from Schmidt, 40 years her senior, to Jason, a young blond hunk who works for Mansour, thereby effectively retiring Schmidt’s “little guy” as far as she is concerned. The novel further sees the transformation of the beautiful Renata, Jon Riker’s mother, into the evil Renata, as Charlotte and Jon’s marriage teeters on the brink of dissolution. If About Schmidt seemed to be a novel complete in itself, Schmidt Delivered engagingly acts as a bridge. Its final sentence, a teaser, depicts Schmidt in Paris after a tour of the Life Centers, uncertain whether to press the buzzer next to the name of the widowed wife of Wood & King’s Paris office director.

Press he did, and now, 12 years later, we meet Alice Verplanck. Alice is to Schmidt Steps Back, Begley’s new novel, what billionaire Mike Mansour was to Schmidt Delivered, a new character who drives a new storyline while allowing Begley to further develop the narratives of his growing cast of characters.

Yet while much is the same, the new novel feels different. Spanning a 13-year period (though most action takes place in 1995-96), far longer than its forebears, the new novel is steeped in concrete historical events. The reader no longer has to figure out what happened when or how much time has elapsed. The story is still told by a detached narrator who filters events through Schmidt’s perspective, but the book is tightly driven by plot and centers more on Schmidt’s core emotions, signifying, perhaps, a growing emotional honesty on Schmidt’s part, an emergence from the fog caused by his wife’s painful death and his premature retirement.

The gentlemanly Schmidt acts brutishly toward Alice, hangs up on the Rikers, yelling “balls” and “fuck you,” all the while enduring heartbreaking treatment from his beloved daughter Charlotte. Toward the end he compares himself to Job. That he emerges with a future, however limited by advancing years, is a testament to the resiliency of human beings in this intelligent, literate and moving novel of late middle age.

Schmidt has called on Alice to offer his condolences after the death of her husband Tim, puzzled by the absence of an obituary in the Times and what seemed a studied silence at the offices of Wood & King. Schmidt is dazzled by Alice’s beauty at age 50 (he is 65), and sits rapt as she relates in short order her daughter’s death and her discovery of her husband’s homosexuality and eventual death as a result of AIDS. Schmidt and Alice fall into bed, and Schmidt falls madly in love.

Home again, he is like a teenager, placing call after call across the Atlantic, carefully timing his calls to catch Alice when she is likely to be in, for Alice, who is French and half Jewish, is an editor at a leading publishing house. Surprised at his difficulty in reaching her, he is at first nonplussed, and like a lovesick boy takes every opportunity to work her name into conversations just to hear himself pronounce it. Alice. But things are complicated, and Schmidt, forgiving of his own peccadilloes, especially his sexual peccadilloes, is unforgiving of those of others.

Life is no less complicated at home. While Carrie, Schmidt’s Hecate, his Goddess with three aspects, remains in his life as a daughter, not a former lover, she is pregnant, and no one knows whether the child is Schmidt’s or Jason’s, her now-husband. Meanwhile, daughter Charlotte, reunited with Jon, is also pregnant, and while this news brings joy, it also brings back into Schmidt’s life the money-grubbing Rikerses, son and mother, who demand huge financial commitments on the part of Schmidt for Little Myron, as the baby will be named, after Jon’s father. Carrie, too, is carrying a boy, and no matter who the father is, he will be named Little Albert, after Schmidt. Yet there are problems that bring Schmidt almost unbearable sorrow. At a low point, he reflects back to the time after wife Mary’s death, when he had contemplated suicide: “[H]e chose not to kill himself because, being well housed, well fed, and well clothed, he was not averse to being alive … In other words, he was swine.”

In New York on 9/11 for a board meeting of Mike Mansour’s Foundation, Schmidt reaches rock bottom when he realizes that he has no one to call, no place to go. He wanders aimlessly through New York, his footsteps stopping at a hospital to give blood, taking his place in line, treated kindly by others. He feels a concern for people he had previously despised. “The swine in Schmidt began a retreat.” He begins to count his blessings, and to realize the depth of the friendships he has. The portrayal of developing male friendships — especially between Schmidt and Gil, but also between Schmidt and Mike Mansour, and even Myron — is heart-warming.

And then, to add to this richness, amazingly, more than a decade since he had last seen her, there is a possibility for a relationship with Alice, a mature relationship of two aging adults (he is 78, she 63) coming together for however long, accepting each other for who they are. Schmidt has not come through the sorrows of the previous years cleansed and made new, as had seemed when he first loved Carrie in About Schmidt. He emerges a scarred warrior who has been wandering in the wilderness for most of the 13 years that pass in Schmidt Steps Back. In Paris to try to win Alice back, he catches sight of himself reflected in a shop window and, horrified, finds he looks like the doppelganger he thought he had slain in About Schmidt, a monstrous “hobo reeking of carrion,” and must slay that beast again, this time less dramatically.

No short description can begin to cover the complexity of Schmidt Steps Back, and injunctions against giving away storylines prevent me for exploring the deep emotion that is expressed in this novel. Earlier, Begley had been taken to task for not creating in Schmidt a “likeable” person. I say, let whoever is without sin cast the first stone. Begley has created complex human beings who have reached middle and late age with a full load of baggage, yet they are, on the whole, more good than bad, more giving than receiving.

Anyone who has read the first two Schmidt novels will want to read Schmidt Steps Back. The subtle updates are delicious, the plot compelling. The question is: Can a person come to Schmidt Steps Back without having read the earlier two? Has Begley presented enough back-story for the reader to understand and emotionally engage with the characters? I think so. Certainly, Begley has strewn large chunks of summary throughout the novel containing information that is indispensable to new, and helpful to former, readers. These workman-like chunks detract from the artistry of the new material, which otherwise is on full display.

Nevertheless, I feel one can begin with Schmidt Steps Back and work backwards. But no matter what the reading order, readers will want to read them all so they will be prepared for what I suspect will be a fourth Schmidt book, matching in number a similar literary saga, John Updike’s Rabbit series, the last called Rabbit at Rest. I hope that Louis Begley, who is roughly the same age as Schmidt, doesn’t make us wait another dozen years for it.

Harriet Douty Dwinell is a Washington freelance writer and director of the Editorial Board of The Independent.

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