three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
59-July-Aug-2012
By: 
Louis Begley
user_rating: 
0

748350.pngAmerican novelist Louis Begley won the 1992 PEN/Hemingway Award for his semiautobiographical account of the Nazi persecution of Polish Jews, Wartime Lies (1991), which, in its French translation, also won the Prix Medicis etranger. Schmidt Steps Back is Louis Begley's ninth novel and his third featuring retired attorney Albert Schmidt, after About Schmidt (1996) and Schmidt Delivered (2000).

The Story: It is late December 2008, and outspoken, irascible, 78-year-old Albert Schmidt (nicknamed "Schmidtie" by those who know him) has spent the last decade traveling the world, managing an international nonprofit organization, and chasing younger‚ much younger‚ women. Despite adventures worthy of a man half his age, however, Schmidtie is lonely, and as the New Year approaches, he makes plans to rekindle an old romance with the widow of a former colleague. Thirteen years earlier, Schmidtie fell in love with Parisian editor Alice Verplanck, but an impulsive act of jealousy and rage ended their budding affair. Now, as he prepares to see her again, he considers his past, the future, and the possibility of winning her back.
Knopf. 384 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780307700650

NYTimes Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Begley gets as close to Schmidt as a diarist, inhabiting this man who has been seasoned by a long life and yet somehow seems new this morning. We get so close to him in this intimately written book that he can be annoying, not unlike an uncle we'sve come to know all too well." Ron Carlson

Washington Times 4 of 5 Stars
"In part, it's [a page-turner] because Mr. Begley's record of the life of the very wealthy kindles the fascinated attention of the less blessed among us. The other reason that this novel holds the reader's attention is that while Schmidt is stepping back‚ onto the stage of life, rather than into the fray‚ he is also reflecting, often sharply and intelligently." Claire Hopley

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3.5 of 5 Stars
"I rather wish that Mr. Begley had treated [Schmidt's daughter] Charlotte and those close to her less cruelly than he does in order to help Schmidt figure out what he needs to do with his life. But I guess that's a minor quibble. If you'sre the sort who doesn'st tire of listening to wealthy characters make reservations at restaurants in the block between rue de Grenelle and rue de Varenne, this old, crotchety lawyer will actually make quite exciting company." Frank Nepa

Miami Herald 3 of 5 Stars
"Begley, like Joyce, is a master of the quotidian detail. Every call Schmidt gets, every conversation, every drink (and there are so many), every present, every trip to the airport, is dutifully recorded until, like an old married spouse, we long for a little privacy." Susan Salter Reynolds

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"The trouble with Schmidt as Begley invents him now is not that he is a wily bastard, taking advantage of life as best he can‚ not at all. And yet, as the novel grows in Begley's excellent intricacy, we are tempted to say, ‚ÄòPoor old Schmidtie, how could this be happening to him?'s" Earl Shorris

Wall Street Journal 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Schmidt is not a dull character, to be sure, but too often he feels like a contrived one. Mr. Begley assigns him various qualities, but they do not seem lived-through or fully convincing. There is no existential burden or profound tragedy here, merely the small saga of a dysfunctional man." Alexander Theroux

Critical Summary

"An oddly cheerful book" (Washington Times) despite a soft focus on old age and mortality, this third installment in the later life of Albert Schmidt deviates somewhat from the previous novels. Begley's darkly comic send-ups of the upper classes have given way to a more intimate‚ some might say just a little too exhaustive‚ portrayal of his elderly protagonist, but only the Wall Street Journal went so far as to describe Schmidt as artificial and unpersuasive. Begley's elegant prose, dry humor, and wry observations animate the narrative, which contains numerous details of life among the one percent for the voyeurs among us. "One cannot read one of the Schmidt novels without laughing," notes the San Francisco Chronicle. Returning readers will relish additional time spent with this amiable curmudgeon, though new ones may wish to start with About Schmidt.

The First in the Series

748361.pngAbout Schmidt (1996): Albert Schmidt, a successful, retired, and WASPish New York attorney who lives in an exclusive Long Island community, must deal with his daughter Charlotte's decision to marry a Jewish lawyer. He must also cope with the death of his wife and the Puerto Rican waitress who decides to take advantage of him.