- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2004

How does the craft of writing relate to the art of living? What do the stories we tell really mean? Are they true? Such questions underlie two very different new books.

Shipwreck by Louis Begley (Knopf, $23, 243 pages), who is the author of “About Schmidt” and other novels, presents an extended conversation between John North, a successful American writer, and someone he meets in a Parisian bar and invites to hear “a story I have never told before.” It is a sordid one, told in titillating detail by the narcissistic North.

On a previous visit to Paris, having just won a literary prize and landed a well-paid movie contract, married to a saintly woman he claims to love (and to have always been faithful to), North is smitten with lust for the young journalist who interviews him for French Vogue. He takes a room at the Ritz for the weekend and invites her to dinner there. Seducing the nubile Lea Morini turns out to be very satisfying and surprisingly easy, as is deceiving his wife, Lydia, who lives in New York and is busy with her own career in medical research.

North feels he has been split in two, that he is half devoted husband, half “an unserious man, besotted by this girl’s body and what she was willing to do with it.” Why, he wonders, can’t these two halves coexist? Surely he can continue to see Lea while making absolutely sure that his relationship with Lydia is undisturbed and she is shielded from pain or humiliation.

During long, rambling monologues over endless drinks, North describes how he has played with this classic, one might say archetypal, dilemma. He allows himself to see Lea when she comes to New York; he takes her to a Greek island where he had spent happy times as a child. Eventually, though, he tires of her. “Like certain other fine products of France,” he decides, “her charm didn’t travel well.” She becomes the thing he detests most, an annoyance and a bore.

North’s lengthy narration is not only about his double love life; it deals also with his work. Just prior to meeting Lea, he had had the unsettling experience of re-reading all of his books and finding that they don’t seem to him to be very good; they don’t have much to do with his real life. What he has enjoyed about writing, he finds, is not a process of ferreting out the truth of a character or situation; rather, it’s the sense of control that writing conveys.

North can make whatever he wants happen on the page and he can do it in solitude. The work suits his miserly spirit. But having tired of Lea, he cannot simply write her out of his story. Having chosen to confide in the nameless person in the bar, North feels compelled to tell the story truthfully; that telling, so unlike his writing, will give the story, he fears, a permanent shape over which he has no control.

Mr. Begley is an extremely skillful writer. This book, like “About Schmidt,” sparkles with astute observations of old-fashioned WASP culture and elite literary life (describing his own celebrity status, North says he was invited to a certain dinner party as a “special treat, a sort of human baked Alaska, except that they didn’t wait until it was time for dessert”). It is full of delicious Parisian detail: the Cafe Flore, rue Jacob, the bar of the Hotel Pont Royal, the Passerelle de Solferino are just some of the places mentioned.

Lydia and especially Lea are finely observed and astutely drawn women. But unlike Albert Schmidt, John North never becomes a sympathetic character. His dark night of the soul appalls without enlightening. His nameless confidant, who some reviewers have suggested represents his conscience, offers no insight, no solace, no opportunity for salvation. North’s expressions of guilt never quite ring true. Even in confession, North is more interested in revisiting his sexual exploits than in examining the aridity of his soul. It is with relief that one leaves him on the book’s last page.

Tobias Wolff’s Old School (Knopf, $22, 198 pages) is about writing too, but this time the focus is on the writer’s youth and formation. The year is 1960 and the nameless narrator is a senior at a boys’ prep school, a place that “if it [had] a snobbery it would confess to, this was its pride in being a literary place.” Well-known writers visit three times a year and senior boys compete for the honor of a private audience with the visiting author by submitting their own work, “poetry if the guest was a poet, fiction if a novelist.” The celebrity author selects the winning piece himself. Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway — the idol of all the boys — are the authors for the year in question.

The boys, their teachers and the writers themselves are vividly alive here and the way they all feel about literature is a central theme. The English master hates Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, disparaging “Howl” for being “sloppy and incoherent” though what he really hates is Ginsberg’s “vision of America as a butcher of souls.”

Robert Frost, asked if traditional forms aren’t a little inadequate to express “the modern consciousness,” gives a scathing response, talking of Achilles and Homer and ending with the pronouncement that “Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry — sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry. Does that answer your question?”

Reading Ayn Rand is a powerful but disturbing experience for the young narrator; her view of life seems to dismiss as unimportant people like his own parents. Worse, she disparages Hemingway, seeing in his work “everything that is wrong with the so-called literature of this country … Weak, defeated people … a hero with no — how shall we say this — no manhood. How fitting!”

“Old School“‘s protagonist is outspoken about his literary passions and about writing; but he harbors a secret. He is a scholarship student, a Midwestern boy whose home is both humble and sad, his mother having died the previous year. Even more humiliating and confusing, he has recently learned that, though he had been raised a Catholic, his father is Jewish. When and how he chooses to write about this secret changes the course of his senior year and of his life. How his truth-telling intersects another person’s secret creates the book’s rich, multi-layered finale.

Like John North (and, to some extent, like every writer), the narrator of “Old School” is both tantalized by and terrified of self-revelation. He covets the glory that goes with literary reputation; he admires the flamboyant Hemingway; but at the same time, he knows that the only good writing is work that on some level is honest and true. The boys, he realizes, never talk about who they really are. “We’d kept everything witty and cool, until the air between us was so ironized that to say anything in earnest would have been a breach of manners, even of trust.” Truth is the very thing the boys won’t allow.

“Old School” beautifully conveys the profound way literature can enrich one’s understanding of life. The book is jammed with literary references, with evidence of the insight brought by reading and the wisdom contained in stories. Indeed, the novel’s final page, referencing “surely the most beautiful words ever written or said,” is a breathtaking reminder not only of literature’s beauty but of the powerful, enduring truths that underlie the greatest books.

This is one not to miss.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

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