With the elegance and mordant wit readers have come to expect of him, Louis Begley has created a magnificent story of how virtue may be rewarded.
BONUS: This edition includes an excerpt from Louis Begley's Memories of a Marriage.
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Read an Excerpt
Yes, 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 Forbes 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 à outrance, 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 on a more amusing scale, in full view of the ocean and Mecox Bay, between which this astonishing acreage was located. Nina 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 Nina 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 awake 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 up the 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.
Had Schmidt dared, he would have presented a treatment to him in writing: It's a few minutes short of nine o'clock. The Mercedes station wagons, Range Rovers, BMWs, and Jaguars have assembled on the gravel in front of Sesame's locked front door. Men with two days' growth of beard are kissing women wearing what would seem to be cotton nightshirts and flip-flops. These women have rushed here straight from bed, you can still smell it on them, before they brushed their teeth. Also a Toyota, which looks out of place. The fellow in it might as well be invisible. He doesn't kiss anybody and nobody greets him. In fact, he has parked off to the side, but he's in the way so he gets dirty looks. Imperceptibly, a line forms. At nine sharp the door opens. Easy does it. God help you if it looks as though you might want to cut in. This crowd would tear you limb from limb. They're into serious fun. Now not all the women are in nightgowns: they've been joined by others in riding clothes with no breasts and hair that looks as if it's been soaked in chlorine, women in sweat clothes so wet you think they've actually been running, and fat guys with tits and horn-rimmed bifocals in tennis whites who may or may not make it to the tennis court. Little girls got up like scaled-down sluts, with chipped lacquer on fingernails and toenails, whine about bagels. Tomatoes, two of which go at what the fruit stand one hundred yards down the road would charge for eight of the same size; little plastic containers, five dollars a pop, of oil and vinegar with salt and pepper settled at the bottom, just stir and pour this dressing over the tomatoes or the lettuce and arugula that are also available in little Baggies at one dollar per leaf; prebrowned sausages ready to eat as soon as they're warm (assuming a pair of hands can be found to put them into a frying pan and on the stove, otherwise don't bother, just serve them "at room temperature"); mineral water and fruit juice in bottles like champagne splits for consumption on the premises or in the waiting Range Rover. Wads of hundred-dollar bills. Give me three pounds of this, give me a quart of that. These commands are barked at the imperturbably polite boys and girls behind the counter, as though no mode of address other than the imperative exists. The boys and girls write it all down very neatly. A lanky old codger with blue eyes that have seen better days and a thin mouth diffidently picks two croissants from the basket. He hesitates. The purchase is too paltry. Should he just stuff them in the pocket of his cotton jacket and walk out, instead of bothering the help about a four-dollar transaction? Nuts, he won't shoplift, but he'll show respect. One of the bony women lets him back into the line. He lays the croissants on the counter, asks for fresh goat cheese from Vermont and, because he likes it and it's suitably expensive, a wedge of English blue.
But Schmidt doesn't write his version of Ali Baba's cave or tell his friend Gil about it. For all his bluff manner, Mr. Blackman is very sensitive. Schmidt fears that he might be offended by Schmidt's point of view on these morning proceedings in which they are both such regular participants.
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
1. Why won't Carrie marry Schmidt? Do you believe she loves him?
2. In the first chapter, Schmidt considers the scene at Sesame, the local grocery store. What does his vision reveal about his neighbors, and about him?
3. What do you make of Schmidt's anxieties preceding Charlotte's arrival? What worries him the most? Why isn't he more pleased that she is turning to him in her difficulties?
4. How do Charlotte and Carrie compare in Schmidt's mind? What is revealed about these two women as individuals in the way they treat each other?
5. What do you make of the way Schmidt is treated by his former law partner?
6. What does Schmidt remember about life with his parents? How does it color his relations with Charlotte?
7. What do you think of the arrangement Schmidt proposes for investing in Charlotte's business venture? Is Charlotte justified to be upset? Is one or the other to blame for letting money come between them? Compare Schmidt's reaction later to Carrie and Jason's business proposal. Is there a double standard at work? If so, why?
8. What kind of man is the billionaire Michael Mansour? Why is he so eager to be Schmidt's friend? What do they have in common? What does each value about the other? Why do you suppose Schmidt takes Mansour into his confidence?
9. Is Carrie guilty of bad behavior when she visits Mansour in New York City? How do you judge her relations with men other than Schmidt?
10. Why does Schmidt draft his letter of bequest? Do you think he is treating Charlotte fairly?
11. Schmidt resists following Mansour's advice about how to handle the conflict with Charlotte. Do you think Mansour'stactics make sense when applied to family relations?
12. How do you understand Renata's motivations in her lunch with Schmidt? What tactics does she employ and how effective are they? Is there a winner in this duel?
13. "Generosity begins and ends with gratifying the giver, " the novel tells us. Do you agree? Why does Mansour offer Schmidt the job as head of the Mansour Life Institute? Why does Schmidt hesitate? What does his initial reaction reveal about his view of human nature?
14. For what reasons did Schmidt as an undergraduate try to cheat the shop girl in Cambridge? Why does he now remember that story, and the one about Laverna Daly, whom he recruited and bedded as a young partner? How do these recollections inform his view of his son-in-law's behavior?
15. Do you think Mansour has encouraged Carrie and Jason's relationship? If so, how do you explain his motivations?
16. How does Schmidt react to Charlotte's reconciliation with Jon? How does he react to Jason and Carrie's coming together? What can we learn by comparing his reactions to these two developments? Where do they leave Schmidt?
17. In the last few chapters, what change occurs in the way Schmidt views Carrie? And what corresponding change do you detect in his view of himself? How would you describe the transformation his life undergoes?
18. What was your reaction to Schmidt's final meeting with Charlotte in the novel? How much has been resolved between them? In what ways have this father and daughter each found substitutes for the other?
19. In the conversation with Louis Begley preceding these questions, the author suggests the title may be understood in at least three ways and leaves it to the reader to decide. In what sense do you understand Schmidt to be delivered?
20. How do you imagine the life ahead of Schmidt?
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