If I had not wandered into the New York City Opera thrift shop this fall, I probably would have never read Memories of a Marriage by Louis Begley. And that means that I might have never discovered Begley's mesmerizing fiction.
A retired partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, Begley writes about New York's moneyed class with stinging subtlety. Though he's often been compared to Louis Auchincloss, another lawyer famed for novels about the privileged set, Begley is, in my opinion, a much more powerful, nuanced and literary writer. (Think Edith Wharton mixed with John Updike and a dash of Ian McEwan).
After binge reading three of his other novels (About Schmidt, Shipwreck and The Man Who Was Late), my inner English major got the better of me, and I emailed Begley for an interview. With his very exuberant French bulldog by his side, Begley met with me at at his dimly lit Upper East Side apartment to chat about his literary and legal careers. Here are excerpts from our meeting and a subsequent phone conversation.
You're 83 now but you didn't come out with your first novel until 1991 when you were 57 when you were in the thick of your corporate practice at Debevoise. Were you secretly writing fiction on the side?
I was quite unsecretly practicing law until January 2004. I loved practicing law—taking up fights for clients and working with colleagues. But I had this other life. [When I was practicing,] I'd write on weekends. I still go to the office once a week and go to the firm's partnership lunch on Tuesdays.
Your most famous novel is arguably About Schmidt, which portrays a partner at a prestigious firm facing personal and professional extinction. It doesn't present a very kind view of the legal business. It portrays the law firm as a harsh place where younger partners are elbowing out older partners and cutting their pensions.
Happy families are not good subjects for novels, and happy law firms are even worse. But that was not my case. Like Schmidt, I cut my teeth on private placements. I also did private M&As, now known as private equity. I then converted myself into an international M&A lawyer, then did arbitrations. I was extremely active. I did not become obsolete like Schmidt.
About Schmidt addresses anti-Semitism in the higher echelons of New York society. The main character is anti-Semitic though he denies it. At the same time, however, he sponsors a Jewish associate (Jon Riker) for partnership.
The prejudices were rife at that time [1950s to 1960s], and it was remarkable that Schmidt was able to get Riker to partnership.
You are Jewish [Begley's acclaimed novel Wartime Lies recounts how he escaped the Holocaust as a child by passing as a Catholic in Poland]. Did you personally experience anti-Semitism after graduating from Harvard college and law school in the 1950's?
I didn't experience anti-Semitism but I did experience class differences. I didn't get asked to final clubs at Harvard not because of being Jewish but because I was poor.
What about anti-Semitism during your legal career? For instance, Alan Dershowitz, who graduated first in his class from Yale Law School in 1962, told me that he couldn't get a job at a white shoe law firm because he was Jewish.
I think you're beating a dead horse here. I was not an object of anti-Semitism. . . I don't know about Alan Dershowtiz. Maybe it had to do with Alan Dershowitz.
Are you religious at all?
No, I am a card-carrying atheist.
Let's turn to sex. You have a lot of it in your books. Some of it is quite graphic. Your characters seem to do it like rabbits. Why are they so driven by lust?
I like sex. I wasn't trying to write a treatise. Louis Auchincloss once told me he couldn't stand reading the sex in my books. He asked me, "why do you have to write about it?" My observation is that people are moved by sexual desire more than it's generally acknowledged. Sexual desire is more powerful than food or drink.
Even among lawyers? Aren't they too busy to engage in all that extracurricular activity?
Lawyers are people. I've seen lawyers in office romances, often very unsuitable ones. I've seen partners leave their good wives for young associates, receptionists. I think women lawyers do things that are not prudent or wise too. I don't think it takes a good deal of time.