Begley, Louis

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Nationality: American (originally Polish: immigrated to the United States, 1948, granted U.S. citizenship, 1953). Born: Ludwik Begleiter, Stryj, 6 October 1933. Education: Harvard University, B.A. (summa cum laude) 1954, LL B (magna cum laude) 1959. Military Service: United States Army, 1954-56. Family: Married 1) Sally Higginson in 1956 (divorced 1970), two sons and one daughter; 2) Anne Muhlstein Dujarric de la Riviere in 1974. Career: Admitted to the Bar of New York State, 1961. Associate, 1959-67, and since 1968 partner, Debevoise & Plimpton, New York. Lecturer on legal topics in the People's Republic China, 1983, 1987, 1988, and 1989; senior visiting lecturer, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1985, 1986. Awards: Irish Times -Aer Lingus international fiction prize, 1991, Ernest Hemingway Foundation award and Prix Medicis Etrange, both in 1992, all for Wartime Lies; Harold U. Ribalow prize, 1992; Jeanette Schocken prize and American Academy of Arts and Letters literature award, both in 1995; Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung literature prize, 2000. Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres, 2000. Agent: Georges Borchardt, 136 East 57th Street, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A. Address: Debevoise & Plimpton, 875 3rd Avenue, Floor 25, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.



Wartime Lies. 1991.

The Man Who Was Late. 1993.

As Max Saw It. 1994.

About Schmidt. 1996.

Mistler's Exit. 1998.

Schmidt Delivered. 2000.


Film Adaptations:

About Schmidt, 2001.

Critical Studies:

"A Problem of Growth" by Janet Malcolm, in her The Purloined Clinic, 1992; "An Occupied Gentleman" by Joan Juliet Buck, in Vanity Fair, 56, February 1993, p. 72; "Childhood Lost: Children's Voices in Holocaust Literature" by Naomi B. Sokoloff, in Infant Tongues: The Voice of the Child in Literature, 1994; "The Lives of Louis Begley" by Hal Espen, in New Yorker, 30 May 1994 pp. 38-46; "Fiction in Review" by Jane Mendelsohn, in Yale Review, 83, January 1995, pp. 108-20; "Louis Begley: Trying to Make Sense of It" by Victoria N. Alexander, in Antioch Review, 55, Summer 1997, pp. 292-304; "Lost Time: Trauma and Belatedness in Louis Begley's The Man Who Was Late " by Allan Hepburn, in Contemporary Literature, 39(3), Fall 1998, pp. 380-404; "Louis Begley Joins the Firm" by Steven G. Kellman, in Hollins Critic, 36(3), June 1999, pp. 1-11.

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Although Louis Begley wrote short stories while a student at Harvard, publishing them in the Harvard Advocate, it was not until 1991 that he published his first novel, Wartime Lies, and became immediately well known as a Holocaust writer. Begley has since proved to be not merely a Holocaust survivor with one good book in him but a writer of considerable talent who produced no fewer than five novels in the last decade of the twentieth century.

When it appeared, Wartime Lies was widely acclaimed as autobiographical. The young hero Maciek and the writer shared the same birth year and were Polish Jews, and both survived in Poland by passing as Christians. Begley himself, however, has always played down the autobiographical element, stressing his need to invent, embellish, and thereby make an interesting and gripping story. His own recollected life would have made for a short and dull book, he insists. It might be added that the recollections of a preadolescent boy would be limited, if not, at times, suspect. There is, however, no doubt that Begley's experiences as a Jewish child who, with his resourceful mother, survived the Holocaust in Poland are essential to his literary work. The novel was nominated for, and received, numerous literary prizes.

In 1993, two years after the appearance of Wartime Lies , Begley's second novel appeared. The Man Who Was Late is about Ben, a Central European Jew who commits suicide, leaving his friend Jack to sift through notes, letters, and papers and use his own memories of Ben in order to make sense of a life that was clearly full of guilt, depression, loneliness, and regret. How Ben survived in Europe is never revealed. The novel is centered rather on Ben's inability to grasp happiness, enjoy relationships, and lead a meaningful life. As with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness , with which it has much in common, Begley's tale underscores the impossibility of truly knowing Ben through the ploy of mixing the two subjectivities of source: on the one hand, there is the information provided and left by Ben himself; on the other hand, there is the information recollected, arranged, and imagined by Jack.

Begley's other novels do not relate to the Holocaust; however, the role of justice and any concomitant rewards for how one leads one's life recurs as a theme in all Begley's work. Why did Maciek survive while others did not? What does one deserve for having led an honest and morally or socially good life? The simple answer is that we do not live in a world that is just or even ordered. We live rather in an irrational universe where human behavior is rewarded capriciously. To explain Begley's preoccupation by ascribing it to survivor's guilt is, however, simplistic. It is, perhaps, a response as much related to elements of existentialism as to anything else.

Begley is, then, not just a Holocaust writer but someone, like Primo Levi or Marga Minco , who used the experience of the Holocaust to embark on a literary career. His works contain links to that experience but are not wholly dependent on it. It is, however, striking that he seems to have come to literature only after producing his survivor account, which, not untypically for Holocaust survivors, he wrote half a century after his experiences.

—David Scrase

See the essay on Wartime Lies.