Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Roger Gathman, Fri., Oct. 24, 2003
Shipwreckby Louis Begley
Knopf, 244 pp., $23
How's this Act 1 for all you budding beginning dramatists out there? Lights reveal two men in a bar (symbolically named Entre Deux Mondes). One, middle-aged and weary, invites the other to a drink. The first man, John North, has to tell "a story I have never told before."
Too corny? Subdeb Sartre? Second-rate Shepard? Well, this is how Louis Begley opens his new novel. The narrative, proper, is credited to North's unnamed listener. But North's voice dominates the thing. Before he tells his story, he characteristically prefaces it by revealing both that he is a famous and much belauded author, and that he has privately decided he is a "fraud." Thus, he can enjoy his stunning sincerity and preen at the same time. Be prepared for a lot of that. His story is about women and betrayal. North has sexually betrayed Lydia, his wife -- a prominent doctor -- by having an affair with Léa, a journalist for the French Vogue. Léa's gymnastics in bed -- or on the beach, or on the deck of the boat -- have been appreciated by many -- in fact, concurrently with North, she is carrying on small liaisons with a Nobel-winning physicist and an important banker. When she starts staking more of a claim on North's life than he is prepared for, she becomes trouble. You see, North loves his wife, and doesn't want her to find out.
Begley recently wrote a glowing preface to a reissue of The Other House, Henry James' least-known novel. James wrote it originally as a play, then novelized it. Begley is one of the few fans of the book, and writes that "James makes manifest in this very remarkable novel the overpowering force and ignominy of the sexual drive." Obviously Begley is after something like that here. He's even borrowed the theatricality of James' novel. But if this was the inspiration, it was not a fortunate one. One longs to dislodge the superfluous listener from the book, and consign the all too symbolic bar to the Dumpster. With North, Begley has given himself an interesting problem: How to create a central character whose problem is one of overwhelming bad faith? But in emphasizing this as a tale that is told, Begley emphasizes North's tone; and it is so self-satisfied, so blindly egotistical, that it clashes with the story of passion it is supposed to mediate. Then, there's Lydia's puzzling out-of-the-loop-ness -- is she dumb, or does she just not care?
Perhaps Begley should have taken warning from the critical reception given to The Other House. Even Leon Edel, James' all too faithful biographer, called it "unpleasant."