Authors: Louis Begley
More praise for
“[An] adroitly conceived variation on the novel of manners … The book’s singular achievement [is] to quietly nudge the novel of manners in a more provocative direction. He does this in part [by] rendering a superficially unlikeable protagonist with the same humanizing fullness other authors save for likable ones….
is] about the way we live now as reflected in the distorting funhouse mirror of the way we lived when everyone stayed on his side of the class divide.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“[Begley’s] textured portrait of bewildered Schmidt is a triumph of empathy and compassion…. He describes the ultra-rich, ultrasybaritic Hamptons scene with dry relish.”
And acclaim for
“Begley again demonstrates that he can reveal the complexities of society and personality with a clear eye and graceful style…. More than meets the requirements of graceful fiction.”
“Comical, tough, unsparing; it is as if Louis Auchincloss had exchanged the kid gloves for brass knuckles…. Interesting and nervy.”
—The Washington Post Book World
“Mesmerizing … Evocative … Begley has created a terribly funny, touching, infuriating, complex character…. [He] uses his intimate attunement to the language, habits, and assumptions of the upper class to reveal the tiny cracks in the system and to excavate the subtle cruelties and disarray that lie beneath the surface.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Witty … Begley has a flair for lies…. The book’s cultivated, assured tone makes its flashes of bitterness and anger all the more striking.”
Also by Louis Begley
AS MAX SAW IT
THE MAN WHO WAS LATE
Vedrò mentŕio sospiro
Felice il servo mio?
—LE NOZZE DI FIGARO
, it’s Schmidtie here. Hello hello. Yes, this is Schmidtie speaking.
He had knocked the telephone off his night table and was groping under the bed for the receiver. People shouldn’t be calling a retired gent before nine. Or was this some sort of bad news? Charlotte!
I hope this is not an inconvenient time.
The speaker’s voice was agreeably deep, with a mystifying rough intonation at the edge.
You don’t remember me.
Terribly sorry, I’m not good at recognizing voices.
Look, there’s no reason you should remember me, though people usually do remember my voice. I’m Michael Mansour. That’s right, in this country I pronounce “Man-sower,” not “Man-soor.” Anything to make it easy for the natives. We met yesterday, at the Blackmans’ party. You know who I am?
Now Schmidt had his bearings. Of course, the billionaire investor who backs Gil’s films. Egyptian, or something, but
lodged firmly toward the top of
magazine’s list of the richest tycoons in America.
Of course. I’ve read about you, more than once. The king of bottom fishers.
Ha! Ha! I like that—you made a pun, right? But that’s just how I make money. I’m a friend of Gil’s, he gave me your telephone number. I’d like you and your wife to come over for lunch on Saturday. My house, at one-thirty, unless you want to take a dip in the ocean before we start drinking. Gil says you’re his best friend. He’s told me what kind of lawyer you were. I’m sorry we never got to work together. Anyway, Gil’s friends are my friends. So you’ll come? Excuse me, you’re sure you remember meeting me? By the way, I’ve got a pool, too, if you don’t like the ocean.
Considering Mr. Mansour’s grandeur, this diffidence was touching.
Of course I remember, replied Schmidt, reaching for a high level of amiability. Elaine introduced us. Actually, the young woman I was with is my friend, not my wife. She’s not here just now. Could I call you after I’ve checked with her?
He was telling a white lie. Carrie was right there, resolutely asleep, her head buried under the pillow. It would take more than the three rings of the telephone and Schmidt’s talking sotto voce to Mr. Mansour to wake her when she was like that.
Your friend is gorgeous. Charming too. I figured she was your wife, and not your daughter, because she doesn’t look like you. Anyway, congratulations! I want you to bring her,
but come alone if she’s busy. I can always have you over together another time.
I’ll be in touch.
Having taken in the further news that Mr. Mansour was no longer to be found at his East Hampton residence, which he had abandoned to the more recent of his two wives, Schmidt wrote down the unlisted number. Not to worry, he would keep it to himself. Ah, the Crussel house on Flying Point Road in Water Mill? Yes, he knew how to find it all right. Yes, and find memories in that house as well, that the visit might endow with a new meaning not untinged with new bitterness, but he saw no point in mentioning that to Mr. Mansour so early in the morning.
The original owners of the house in question, Mr. and Mrs. Crussel, had been important clients of Wood & King, the firm where Schmidt had been a partner until he retired. A trusts and estates colleague, Murphy, took care of them, just as he watched over the modest affairs of Schmidt and his late wife, Mary, but Schmidt, who specialized in representing insurance companies in the loans they made, was usefully situated, in a manner of speaking, as the Crussels’ neighbor who knew them socially. It fell upon him, therefore, to be the firm’s unofficial emissary charged with maintaining and developing them as clients, through more frequent and more assiduous attendance at their lunches and dinners than would have otherwise been his style. Occasionally, as though leading a Great War charge
, he had gone so far in his devotion to professional duty as to propel a giggling and squealing
Olga Crussel into the surf and hold her up, with both hands, while she bobbed in the unthreatening breakers. These exploits established in the Crussel household his reputation for gallantry and limitless strength as a swimmer; they also gave the authority of revealed truth to his occasional, offhand assurances that his partner, Murphy, knew what he was doing and could be relied upon.
Schmidt was pleased to recall that the house, of which Mr. Mansour was now the owner, was one of the few subjects about which the Crussels had not asked his opinion. A prizewinning Brazilian architect, a friend of a niece of the Crussels, had designed it. He had come out with her for a Fourth of July weekend and stayed in the large clapboard cottage that then stood on the site and that had been the Crussels’ beach house ever since they came to the Hamptons. Sizing up the opportunity for new business—the large fortune, although discreet, was hardly unknown to connoisseurs of such matters—he made a rapid drawing of what he would, if the property were his, put in the place of their current dowdy home: a large, loosely flowing aquatic structure corresponding to Olga Crussel’s inner self, with reception rooms and decks for entertaining in full view of the ocean and Mecox Bay, between which this astonishing acreage was located. Olga took the bait. For a Swiss banker, whose family had been, since the days of Calvin, a pillar of Geneva’s patriciate, Jean Crussel was a prodigy of speed when he really wanted to make up his mind. Besides, he doted on his wife. The decision to go ahead was made on the spot, without so much as a call to Murphy or Schmidt or Olga’s pet decorator.
The cottage was torn down during one terrifying week, but construction of the new house dragged on. Getting it finished and moving in turned into the Crussels’ race against senility and death. The old couple won the first leg: before the platoon of round-the-clock keepers and nurses had to be brought in, they did have two years’ worth of showing off, at party after party, the Brazilian’s construction, which in Schmidt’s opinion—but perhaps he was unfair, having grown to like a good deal the unmourned old cottage—resembled nothing more than a motel crossed with an ocean liner a drunken skipper had carelessly run aground on the beach.
Jean and Olga were childless; the collateral heirs owned perfectly adequate summerhouses nearby and elsewhere. They put the property on the market and waited for years, unwilling, in the way of the very rich, to lower the asking price. That an even wealthier new man had at last put cash into the heirs’ pockets and, presumably, stood ready to pour more millions into this raped dune was bound to be a very good thing for the local contractors, and for tradesmen in New York, London, and Paris. Perhaps for the economy, worldwide. Schmidt imagined that Mr. Mansour had already excised various sly improvements Jean Crussel made as soon as the Brazilian, busy with commissions for other masterpieces, had turned his back: remote-control switches that made the venetian blinds in the bedrooms go up and down and devices that adjusted slats without human intervention in relation to the angle of the sun, aluminum ramps and no-slip surfaces positioned strategically inside the house and on the decks to prevent a fall that might shatter decalcified
bones, and the cabaret room with its circular dance floor on which Jean and Olga had daily practiced the tango and the paso doble under the surveillance of a teenage Arthur Murray instructress. He might have even put down a new deck at the shallow end of the pool to conceal the twin pink Jacuzzi tubs. That’s where the spider-thin husband and wife, sometimes in the company of other octogenarians, soaked naked, lifting their candid and blissful faces to the forenoon sun. The revolution in all of this, thought Schmidt, remained to be seen and admired.
Should he nudge Carrie and awaken her? He decided against it. Instead, he advanced his hand cautiously under the covers, ran it over her breast, felt for her armpit, which was moist from sleep, let it linger there while with his nose he ruffled the rush of her black curls on the pillow, and quietly got out of bed. It was a pity. Right now he could do it, without the help Carrie was willing to give him even while she groaned with impatience. Failure going to bed, a makeup session in the morning: both the symmetry and the thought that, if he did wake her, she might attribute the satisfactory situation to his bladder rather than to his libido, were discouraging. He put on his pants and shirt, waited to put on his shoes until he was on the stairs, squeezed four oranges so that Carrie could have her glass of juice right away if she came down before he returned, did not drink any himself because he preferred to have it with her at breakfast, and drove to the post office and then to the candy store, where, each morning when he was in Bridgehampton, ever since poor Mary and he had first started coming there, he picked
New York Times.
The remaining errand was to get croissants, an important change in Schmidt’s routine. Until Carrie decided, at the beginning of his long convalescence, that freshly baked croissants from Sesame, where her friend, formerly a fellow waitress at O’Henry’s, had begun to work, would boost his morale, despite their outrageous price, he had invariably eaten for breakfast one-half of a toasted English muffin spread thinly with bitter orange marmalade. The other half he saved for the next day. Without question, the new regime was a huge, habit-forming gastronomic improvement. It had also brought about frequent chance encounters with Gil Blackman, whose own morning addiction was to scones, and introduced Schmidt to a daily spectacle he thought was perfect material for one of those hard-edged or, as some would say, downright nasty movies Gil had been making.