Schmidt Steps Back

No such thing as graceful old age. F. Scott Fitzgerald

There are novels that you want to write about and then there are others that leave you mute. While I finished Schmidt Steps Back, Louis Begley’s latest tale in his the sad saga of Albert Schmidt, it did little to stir my vocabulary.

But Schmidt bears a certainly similarity to me. We are both relics, relics from ancient times, ancient ways, and ancient ways of ruminating. Schmidt is now a widower, lives on the beach in the Hamptons, but is no longer the lover of the wild, 20 year old Puerto Rican waitress, Carrie, and no longer employed at his high-class legal firm either. What is he do with his life?

“I am a lonely old man I need to think I can make myself useful.”

He does this by becoming the director of the ultra, ultra billionaire Mike Mansour’s foundation that has established a series of Life Centers in European capitals to promote democracy. This takes Schmidt to Europe, almost weekly it seems, where along with promoting democracy, he has a cascade of affairs, and finally a serious lover who works for a publishing company in Paris. At this point the novel picks up a little steam. There’s nothing like a love affair in Paris, is there?

Mr. Mike Mansour is, quite frankly, even more interesting than Mr. Albert Schmidt. Mansour, an Egyptian Jew, is among the 1 percent of the 1 percenters. How he made his percents is never mentioned. But he is loaded.

Need a private plane to take you to Europe, a five star hotel in which to stay, an apartment should you wish to stay longer, for reasons that have nothing to do with democracy, meals at Michelin 5 rose restaurants, a town car, you name it? Pas de probleme.

As usual, in these tales, the strained relationship Schmidt has with his daughter, Charlotte, gives the novel a much-needed zing. At times she displays a cruel and malicious streak. Most of the time she ignores him. Schmidt counsels, “All I can say is that, as a general rule, it is more likely than not that something will go serious wrong between a parent and child. It’s such a fraught relationship.”

He does his best to love her, forgive her, regardless of her rejections and he is always on the ready to help her, probably too much on the ready. Later Charlotte falls into a deep and prolonged depression, requiring care and treatment in a psychiatric hospital all of whose costs Schmidt gladly pays. Sadly, their relationship never has a chance to end peacefully.

Most of the final sections of Schmidt Steps Back depict the on again, off again relationship with Alice, the irresistible Alice in Paris. We learn in great detail about their almost daily sexual encounters. You’d think for a man of 78, his adolescent passions would diminish a bit. But no, not for Schmidt for whom these experiences seem to be far more important than “being useful.”

At the end, there is some consolation for Schmidt other than merely staying alive. However, I am sorry to report this did little to enrich my pleasure in reading about his past reversals and current tragedies. Pas de probleme. I turn at once to The Missing Shade of Blue by Jennie Erdal, a novel that from page one onward is a philosophical tour-de-force.