'Schmidt Steps Back': The discreet charms of Louis Begley's bourgeoisie

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I have long thought that there are two sorts of people in the world: Those who like books with phrases such as "French bourgeoisie" in them and those who don't. I've always been the latter. And yet "Schmidt Steps Back" -- the latest Louis Begley novel chronicling the white-people problems of likable bigot Albert Schmidt -- is the rare story involving law firms, old people, nonprofit foundations, homes in the Hamptons and seemingly weekly flights back and forth to Europe that did not have me contemplate giving up reading in favor of "CSI: Miami" reruns

By Louis Begley
Knopf ($25.95).

For the uninitiated, this is Mr. Begley's third Schmidt (or "Schmidtie," as the character prefers to be called) novel, following 1996's "About Schmidt" and 2000's "Schmidt Delivered." (The first one was made into a movie starring Jack Nicholson in 2002, but, given the wide-ranging differences in character and setting, Alexander Payne's film was based on the book in name only. And not even really that: Schmidt's first name in the movie is Warren.)

"Schmidt Steps Back" begins on the last day of 2008, with the 78-year-old Schmidt, long retired from the prestigious New York law firm of Wood & King and currently serving as the head of his billionaire friend's international nonprofit organization, hopeful about the upcoming presidency of Barack Obama. He is even giddier about that day's arrival of "the incomparable Alice" -- Alice Verplanck, the widow of one of Schmidt's junior partners at W&K.

Shortly after Alice shows up at Schmidt's home in Bridgehampton (he splits his time between there and the Manhattan apartment that the foundation provides for him), the story shifts back in time 13 years to Schmidt, on business in Europe, dropping in on Alice in France to express his condolences on her husband's recent passing. (The husband, Tim, had overseen W&K's Paris office.)

Alice drops a bombshell about her life with Tim that Schmidt, whom Alice calls "an adorable old-fashioned square," has trouble reconciling with the image that he has of his former protege from his time in New York. Nevertheless, Schmidt and Alice -- 15 years his junior -- soon embark on an affair. Schmidt declares his love immediately, but Alice is more noncommittal. While seeming to enjoy their interludes, Alice does things like invite along to lunch Serge Popov, her colleague at a Paris publishing house. Schmidt despises the Bulgarian-born Popov, whom he first crossed paths with during their undergraduate days at Harvard decades earlier. And when the true nature of Alice's relationship with Popov is ultimately revealed to him, Schmidt, to his lasting regret, lashes out at Alice in a way that keeps the two of them apart for years.

Will he win Alice back? Well, we kind of know that he does, given how the story begins. But watching how he gets there, and how he also, often tenderly, attempts to mend his ever-strained relationship with pregnant daughter Charlotte, is the book's charm. (Schmidt is also dealing with the pregnancy of Carrie, the early-20s Puerto Rican waitress with whom he was romantically involved for two years. Carrie, with Schmidt's blessing, has left him for another man, but the baby's paternity is still unknown. Schmidt often laments the loneliness and desperate sadness of his life after the passing of his longtime wife Mary, but, trust me, I've seen lonelier and sadder.)

In a passage about halfway through the book, Charlotte's psychiatrist mother-in-law -- whom Schmidt also hates -- tells him in a phone conversation that rather than challenge the criticisms that Charlotte has of him and his actions, he should instead engage in a serious self-examination that would surely benefit his emotional equilibrium. Schmidt, of course, shouts a profanity at her and then hangs up. But while he would certainly never admit to taking this woman up on her advice, well, let's just say that Schmidt steps back.

I rather wish that Mr. Begley had treated 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're the sort who doesn't 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, a lawyer, lives in Shadyside (fnepa@aol.com).


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