Most commentaries on books occur after they have been read. And they usually tend to focus on the meaning of the story, the way it is written, and perhaps other works by the author. Surely there must be other ways to review a work of literature.
As far as I can tell few reviews describe the reactions of the reader while the book is being read or how their reactions change as the story unfolds. In this way, a review becomes more of a recollection, an interpretation rather than a description of the reading experience itself.
A few years ago I read Louis Begley’s novel About Schmidt. I had admired Begley’s first two novels Wartime Lies and The Man Who Was Late and regularly looked forward to his next book. However, there must have been something about About Schmidt that troubled or annoyed me for I was led me to express my reactions while I was in the process of reading it. Here is what I wrote over the course of that period.
No one told me that one could not write about being lost in a fog.
I am reading Louis Begley's novel About Schmidt. There's nothing special about it. No romance. No real drama. Few, if any, heavy weight moral issues. Just a long, languorous chronicle of one man's last lap.
The man, Schmidt, well he is my age, a retired lawyer, who achieved some degree of fame and financial security. I think he did much love his wife. Schmidt graduated from Harvard, was a senior partner in a distinguished Manhattan law firm (Aren't all Manhattan law firm's distinguished?) had a large apartment on Park Avenue and a lovely family home in Southhampton on Long Island. All the usual upper crust stuff.
But Schmidt's wife has just died and so now he is at loose ends. Their only child, a daughter, is about to be married to a young man in the firm, a man who is Jewish and is not much appreciated by Schmidt. What father ever really likes the man who takes away his daughter?
He goes from day to day trying to find things to do. He sells the Park Avenue apartment, moves out to the Southhampton, but is not content there. So he decides to give his daughter the lovely family home on Long Island as a wedding gift.
The book works its way back to his past, where it lingers a while, dwelling on a few causal indiscretions.
Schmidt cannot go back to the office. His friends no longer belong to his club in the city. He doesn't golf. Doesn't seem to read much more than junk. He is not a happy man.
And as I read, page after page of this tale, I find it more and more enjoyable. I don't know why. Nothing is happening. He is going nowhere. Maybe that's the theme that keeps me going. It does ring a bell.
His life has changed. It is coming to an end. What is a man to do who loses so much, almost everything, in a relatively short span of time--his profession, his wife and his daughter? Is it time to close up shop or to make some effort to carve out a new life? Is one even possible?
But now I am growing weary with this story. Schmidt, whose life and personality had seemed so interesting has taken up with a woman. A woman without culture or refinement. A woman not much beyond 20. A woman who flaunts her body. Here we go again. His long days and endless nights of solitude are over. It also becomes clear he is a bit of an anti-Semite. But I will stick it out for a while, hoping he will get back on the track of existential despair.
And as I read further, I begin to see this tale in a new light. Schmidt continues his affair with the woman. It goes on and on. But where can it possibly go?
It is what it does to him that interests me. It turns him away from his world, his life, himself. It diverts him from the real dilemmas that he faces now. The woman leads him away from those issues-- issues whose resolution might enable him to extract whatever meaning is left in his life. It puts off the inevitable. The confrontation with himself, his days, his endless days until there are no more. It annoys me that Schmidt does not see this. And so the book has come alive for me again.
The story is over now. What a relief. The ending is unsatisfactory. All the questions remain unanswered. All the difficult problems sidestepped. He continues with the girl. I remind you that she was 20 and he was thrice that and then some. It is a mystery, a miracle. Yet, I seem to see it everywhere now.
She says she loves him deeply. That is very touching. He inherits another bundle from his stepmother and decides to move to her enormous home in Palm Beach. I was wondering if he might shoot himself.