Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Authors
Books
Features
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

  • Shipwreck
  • Written by Louis Begley
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780345464095
  • Our Price: $13.95
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Shipwreck

Buy now from Random House

  • Shipwreck
  • Written by Louis Begley
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780307416636
  • Our Price: $9.99
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Shipwreck

Shipwreck

    Select a Format:
  • Book
  • eBook

Written by Louis BegleyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Louis Begley

eBook

List Price: $9.99

eBook

On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-307-41663-6
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
Shipwreck Cover

Bookmark,
Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - Shipwreck
  • Email this page - Shipwreck
  • Print this page - Shipwreck
ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PRAISE PRAISE
READER'S GUIDE READER'S GUIDE
This book has no tags.
You can add some at Library Thing.
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A mesmerizing novel of deception and betrayal from the acclaimed author of Wartime Lies and About Schmidt.
John North, a prize-winning American writer, is suddenly beset by dark suspicions about the real value of his work. Over endless hours and bottles of whiskey consumed in a mysterious café called L’Entre Deux Mondes, he recounts, in counterpoint to his doubts, the one story he has never told before, perhaps the only important one he will ever tell. North’s chosen interlocutor–who could be his doppelgänger–is transfixed by the revelations and becomes the narrator of North’s tale.

North has always been faithful to his wife, Lydia, but when one of his novels achieves a special success, he allows himself a dalliance with Léa, a starstruck young journalist. Coolly planning to make sure that his life with Lydia will not be disturbed, North is taken off guard when Léa becomes obsessed with him and he with her elaborate erotic games. As the hypnotic and serpentine confession unfurls, we gradually discover the extraordinary lengths to which North has gone to indulge a powerful desire for self-destruction.
Shipwreck is a daring parable of the contradictory impulses that can rend a single soul–narcissism and self-loathing, refinement and lust.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

I was smoking a cigarette at the bar, an empty glass before me, wondering whether I should have another or leave, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. A rather deep, pleasant voice said, Let me treat you to a whiskey. I don't like drinking alone. I bet you don't either.

There was no reason to refuse. It wasn't as though I were expected elsewhere. I nodded and followed him to a table. Seeing a waiter lounge unoccupied within hailing distance, he ordered a bottle of whiskey, ice, and soda water. We were served with surly efficiency. With a sigh of what I took to be satisfaction, he crossed and recrossed the ankles of the long, thin legs stretched out before him, and looked about. I too once more took in the flickering lights, the grouping of shadows at other tables, and the murmur of voices. After a moment, he broke the silence: I should introduce myself. North. I am John North.

I bowed slightly and reciprocated the politeness.

Abruptly, he spoke again, this man so like me in appearance and demeanor, from the crown of his neatly barbered head to the tips of his brogues, well worn but beautifully polished.

Listen, he said. Listen. I will tell you a story I have never told before. If you hear me out, you will see why. I would have been a fool to tell it. With you, somehow I feel secure. Call it instinct or impulse or fate--your choice. Besides, could it possibly matter what I say to you over a pleasant drink here, at L'Entre Deux Mondes?

Something in what he had said or had failed to say must have amused him hugely. He laughed to the point of tears. It was a moment before he got hold of himself and was able to continue. Is not this benighted place the perfect no-man's-land? he asked.

I made no comment.

Well, speak up, said North, with a touch of irritation. Can it possibly matter what I say to you here?

I am by nature shy and uncommunicative. This intimacy that nothing justified and that I had done nothing to encourage put me on my guard. At the same time, I did not wish to rebuff out of hand what might turn out to be a harmless conversational gambit. It seemed best to say nothing.

North nodded, perhaps to indicate that in the end my silence didn't matter either. I suppose it will strike you as droll, he said, that my story should begin at a cafe. A cafe in Paris that you may know. By the way, are you familiar with my work? I mean my novels.

Seeing what was no doubt my blank expression, he laughed and said, Don't worry, I much prefer honesty to polite lies I see through immediately. It doesn't matter, please don't protest. I will simply assume that you haven't read a word of mine. Take it on faith though that for many years I have been a writer of considerable literary reputation and reasonable commercial success. When this story begins, my then most recent novel, The Anthill, had been out for a little over six months, having been published in the States in the fall of the previous year. The French translation had just appeared. It was displayed in the windows of most bookstores in Paris, and you could find it even at the newsstands at Roissy and Orly, which normally carry only French best-sellers and foreign trash. I have always had the same publisher in France. He published The Anthill and all my earlier novels. His name is Xavier Roche, and over the years he has become a friend. I was in Paris at his invitation. It wasn't exactly a book tour. Nothing of real importance in literary life happens in the French provinces anyway. Rather, the idea was to spend a week or so in Paris and be interviewed by print journalists. If I was very lucky, I would appear on Apostrophes, a television show about books that has a huge influence on sales, as well as literary opinion. But that didn't happen. Mind you, I had some things going for me. All my novels were available in French, I have always had good reviews in France, and my spoken French is almost native, altogether an unusual profile for an American writer. Xavier hoped to exploit these advantages, especially since he had nothing by a "name" French author to bring out that year.

So it happened that I found myself in May, on a gray afternoon of the sort that makes you want to curl up and go to sleep, at the cafe Flore, being interviewed by a young woman for a feature on me to appear in French Vogue. No, I'm not that kind of novelist, I assure you; but when there is a "peg" they can use, the glossies sometimes do profiles of serious writers, and even run a competent review. What was the peg here? My modest celebrity in the States and in France, the various storied adventures of my parents, who in their day cut a wide swath here and there, and especially in Paris, and the fact that I had lived in Paris myself. Whatever the reason, the article had been assigned, and there was a possibility that American and British Vogue would pick it up in translation. A photo session was to follow directly. When the journalist--I really mean to say the girl, since I couldn't help thinking of her as such, not because she was juvenile, I guessed her age was somewhere between twenty-five and thirty, probably closer to thirty, but because something in her looks and in her chipper professional manner made me think of the "girl reporter" type in movies of the 1940s. Anyway, when the girl asked whether I would like to have a cup of coffee while the photographer and his assistant set up, I accepted. I was pleased with the interview. She had read my work carefully and also knew much of what had been written about me. Her questions were intelligent.

As soon as I said yes, she led me to a table on the other side of the cafe away from where we had sat during the interview. I supposed that she wanted to avoid our being disturbed by the photographer. Or overheard.

Thank you for everything, she said. For your books and this interview. You were really eloquent. The new book is wonderful. I think it will be very well received.

The coffee and the scotch I had ordered for myself presented a distraction that allowed me not to answer right away. I drank the coffee quickly, while it was scalding hot, which is my habit, and asked for another. Then I worked on my drink, stirring the ice cubes in the glass. Of course, I knew I had been eloquent. She might as well have said brilliant. And the prospects for my book? At home, the reviews in the newspapers and magazines that count had been favorable, leaving aside the few cranks who always go after me for personal or ideological reasons. There had been some raves as well. All the same, in a split second, the girl had soured my mood. It wasn't only my ingrained dread of optimism and premature congratulations, although there is much to be said for this particular superstition, one of many that I am mostly proud of. For instance, when we drive from the city to our place on Long Island, near the property of my wife's parents, I always plead with her not to tell me, before we have as much as crossed the Triborough Bridge, that the traffic is moving well. Without exception, every time she says it, immediately we get stuck in a jam behind an overturned truck or the like. It's guaranteed. No, it wasn't what the girl had said that bothered me. She spoke the inevitable truth: The Anthill would get good reviews followed by anemic sales. But Xavier couldn't blame me or my book for that. It's simply the fate of ninety-nine percent of translated novels in the French market. I knew the roots of my sudden disquiet. They were different and sank deeper than her well-meant comment, way down to a discovery I had made recently while Lydia--my wife--was away in Hawaii, attending a congress on kidney disease in infants and very young children, a subject on which she is a great authority.

I was alone in New York and idle. The new project I had in mind was too unformed for me to start writing. At most, I could have taken notes on what I might do later, but I didn't, taking notes and making outlines being forms of activity I ordinarily eschew. I didn't especially want to see friends, and I was too impatient--nervous, really--to do any serious reading. Usually I welcome this state of wary inertia into which my mind drifts between books. It makes me receptive to impressions that I would otherwise miss or seize incompletely, and yet these are the very impressions that later nourish my work. So it was without my having intended it, by accident--but I think it was the sort of inevitable accident that waits for you--that I found myself sitting in judgment on my novels. I had been to a movie I found annoying because of a cruel streak that ran through it, rather at odds with the banal and fundamentally cheerful plot. The screenwriter or the director had spoiled it by putting on airs. Afterward, I had a plate of pasta at the only restaurant in my neighborhood that serves real food after eleven. My first thought, when I got home, was to go straight to bed. But I was too tense and irritated, so I poured myself a drink and took it into the library. There are things you do only when you are alone. I sauntered over to the shelves reserved for the first editions of my novels and their translations and stroked the familiar spines. Then, as though under a compulsion I was unable to resist, I took down first the new book and later all the others and looked at certain passages. I was to remain in my armchair the whole night and the next day, and most of the night that followed, with hardly any pause, although I suspected that I had a fever. I reread my production. At a certain point, entire sentences I had written seemed to disintegrate like figures in a kaleidoscope when you turn the tube, only my words did not regroup and coalesce as new wonders of color and design. They lay on the page like so many vulgar, odious pieces of shattered glass. The conclusion I reached came down to this: none of my books, neither the new novel nor any I had written before, was very good. Certainly, none possessed the literary merit that critical opinion ascribed to them. Not even my second novel, the one that won all the prizes and was said to confirm my standing as an important novelist. No, they all belonged to the same dreary breed of unneeded books. Novels that are not embarrassingly bad but lead you to wonder why the author had bothered. Unless, of course, he had only a small ambition: to earn a modest sum of money and short-lived renown. You can see how these feelings, unknown to the girl, had turned her innocent bit of flattery into a faux pas.

North refilled our glasses and looked at me brightly. There is a reason, he said, for telling you about this somber little epiphany, although in itself it may not interest you. It's a part of the setting. Without it, you might not be able to judge fairly what followed.

I mumbled assent. The whiskeys I had drunk had induced in me a sort of hypnagogic state. Time no longer mattered.

And what should one think of a man who writes such books, he continued, where does he belong if not to the race of trimmers, men who live without infamy and without praise, envious of any other fate?

He did not wait for me to answer this question, which I took anyway to be rhetorical. Instead, he resumed his monologue: Always be alert among such men to their capacity for envy, even if it's not center stage! Actually, trimmers of my kind do get praise, but it's never enough. There is always old Joe or old Max who got more and better praise although he is less deserving. Yes, it came upon me painfully that I had wasted my time writing the stuff. Those enthusiastic reviews that had greeted my new novel in the American and English press, and still continued to straggle in from the odd magazines, the praise that had made me blush with pleasure and had delighted Lydia, should have reddened me with shame. Sitting there with the girl at the Flore, thinking about my discovery, I recalled especially the review faxed by my agent, which I had read at breakfast that very day. Somehow, I had misled, in fact duped, the reviewer who wrote it, an astute and immensely scrupulous woman whom I admire, duped her, like so many of her colleagues, into finding in my work qualities that I, with my eyes newly open, knowing my work as only the author can, every sentence and paragraph, could certify were entirely absent. Such articles, which moved my agent, my editor, and my writer friends to telephone or write with congratulations, didn't they in the end serve only to enlarge the con game? And now this girl, with her chatter, and the profile with which I was brazenly collaborating, was going to add to the scandal, and to the vast accumulation of my shame.

North paused, evidently upset. He rubbed his eyes. The gesture seemed to be a tic of which he was aware. After a while he continued.

I had drunk my baby whiskey, so I asked the girl if she would reconsider and join me while I had a second larger drink. No, but she would have another coffee. She wanted to continue reviewing her notes. That was all right with me; no is no. Meanwhile, since she had really launched me into orbit, I continued my own review of my monstrous predicament. There was no doubt that I had become a novelist honestly, thinking there was a world of stories in my head waiting to be told, and that I knew how to tell them. Writing novels had become my trade when I was very young, straight out of college; my only trade. I was qualified to do nothing else: not to sell insurance or manage a restaurant or trade commodities futures or perform any of the other tasks requiring no hard physical labor but still deemed useful and worth paying for. Only a preposterous public recantation could purge the fraud. I knew of one writer who had so rejected his work, but the disavowal had coincided in his case with his new conviction, almost religious in nature, that he had found a different way to write that was worthy. I had nothing like that up my sleeve. Perhaps the only honorable solution was to scrap the book I had just begun and forever after keep my peace.


From the Hardcover edition.
Louis Begley|Author Q&A

About Louis Begley

Louis Begley - Shipwreck

Photo © Bettina Straus

Louis Begley lives in New York City. His previous novels are Wartime Lies, The Man Who Was Late, As Max Saw It, About Schimdt, Mistler’s Exit, Schmidt Delivered, and Shipwreck.

Author Q&A

A CONVERSATION WITH LOUIS BEGLEY
Donald Hall has published twenty books of poetry. His short
stories are collected in
Willow Temple (2003). Forthcoming is
a memoir,
The Best Day the Worst Day, about his late wife,
Jane Kenyon, and a selection of his poetry from 1950 to the
present.

Donald Hall: The first thing to notice, the first thing to astonish, is the form of the novel—John North’s monologue over three days to a nameless listener. “I made no comment,” the listener tells us. “It seemed best to say nothing.” In one of his few references to himself, he speaks of John North as “this man so like me in appearance, in demeanor.” Maybe he notes class and education only, but it raises the thought that North is in effect talking to himself. Did you have any such notions?

Louis Begley: It is possible that North is talking to himself. Small pieces of stage business, however, point in the other direction. Occasionally, the mostly silent ostensible narrator says something and bestirs himself to do certain things. He drinks, he eats, he accompanies North to the toilet. More important, he observes North and reports on him. None of this, I agree in advance, is conclusive. It could be that North and I are enjoying a private joke. A reason to think that North is not alone that I find persuasive is the tension of the narrative. I think it comes from North’s always addressing someone who is in fact right across the table from him, rather than speaking to the abstraction called a Reader.

DH: Did the monologue form occasion special dif.culties in the writing?

LB: It didn’t. I had no hesitation about the form. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was very much in my mind; it could not be dislodged. I wanted the tale to be told by a compulsive talker, one of those obnoxious people whom at first you can’t get to shut up, and later would gladly pay if only they kept going.

DH: In the Paris Reviewinterview, done while you were writing Shipwreck, you talk about beginning a novel with a “clear image of the protagonist and of the protagonist’s predicament,”
and of knowing “how the predicament will resolve itself.” Did you know how Shipwreck would end?

LB: Yes. As I may have said in the Paris Review conversation, I had the ending so clearly in mind that I wrote it out before I started on the beginning. Such changes as I made later in the
ending had to do with the geography of Martha’s Vineyard, the exact place where North’s ship would be wrecked, and, of course, the use of words.There must have been eight or ten printed drafts with nothing but word changes. And between those printed versions I was constantly changing words on the screen of my laptop. But nothing of substance was altered.

DH: While being interviewed by Léa at the beginning of the novel, John North talks about how a novelist uses “tales and anecdotes told to him by others. When he is dining out, for instance, like Henry James.” Was there such a seed for Shipwreck? Do you remember how the novel began and how it grew? With Loss, John North “had a pretty good draft”of the last scene in his book “before I started the first chapter.” Did you ever do such a thing?

LB: I am sorry to report that I did not get the idea of Shipwreck dining out. Its germ was a thought that came to me in Venice, I believe shortly after I had .nished Schmidt Delivered and before I
started Mistler’s Exit. I wanted to try to write a thriller about a married young man with children who decides he must get rid of an intrusive mistress who is threatening the tranquility of his family. Of course, he wants to commit a perfect crime so that he can live happily ever after. That aspect of the transaction is not, in his opinion, dif.cult to work out. The real problem is that he genuinely likes his mistress, and therefore, he wants to make sure that he doesn’t frighten her or cause her
pain. I had a solution to that problem as well, but I didn’t get around to testing it because I turned instead to Mistler’s Exit. But, when Mistler’s Exit was done, the old thriller idea rose up in a new shape, that of a crime that may not be a crime at all, at the root of which is the very complicated relationship between North and his mistress, Léa. So it is true that, like North when he was writing Loss, I had the last scene in hand when I got to work.

DH: North’s monologue takes place at a bar called L’Entre Deux Mondes. The name of the establishment seizes me. I found myself giving Shipwreck an alternative title: Between
Two Worlds
. I seem to take the name of the establishment as being descriptive of the novel. Do you see any such possibility?

LB: You are exactly right. Where the narration takes place is a mystery, and I intended it to be such. At one point it occurred to me that L’Entre Deux Mondes could be a quiet corner of an insane asylum.

DH: I do not confuse Louis Begley with John North, but I wonder if your feelings as a novelist jibe with his. He does not want to pick one of his novels as best because “one can’t say that sort of thing about a book any more than about children.” You say something similar about your own work in a Paris Review interview. When John North writes a novel that makes use of memories, he tells us, writing the novel exorcises these memories. Has such a phenomenon happened to you?

LB: North’s views about the craft of the novel are ones I find it easy to accept and occasionally to put forward as my own. I do not agree, however, that using memories in a novel exorcises them. For instance, writing Wartime Lies did not have the cathartic or curative effect of relieving me of nightmares about World War II in Poland, or my inability to watch scenes of violence on television or on a motion-picture screen, or my ghastly fear of other humans. I am not particularly afraid of dangers associated with the elements or airplane or automobile accidents or other threats that do not have in them the component of human malice directed at me. By contrast, the thought of what other men may choose to do to me puts me in a state of panic.

DH: John North undergoes an epiphany about his works: “none possessed the literary merit that critical opinion ascribed to them.” Does not every good writer undergo such notions? Have you?

LB: I certainly have. But I never reach a secure feeling of satisfaction about my work in the first place. I don’t stop questioning it, even if, when I do a reading from one of my novels, a particular passage strikes me as well written, or amusing, or even engrossing. Indeed, I think it’s a miracle when a reader, or a friend, or a reviewer tells me that what I have written is good.

DH: “I don’t teach creative writing,” says John North. Can you imagine doing such a thing?

LB: I am not sure that it can be done. Of course, people who want to write fiction can be taught
grammar, punctuation, and rudiments of style, by which I mean such matters as that the structure of sentences has to be varied, that one must avoid using the same word over and over when adequate synonyms exist unless the repetition is intentional, and that one must beware of malapropisms and metaphors that are dead on arrival. And one can be told that one needs to carry the reader along by the strength of the narrative. But will such precepts do any good to students who do not have an innate love for words and talent for using them? Or the willpower required if one is going to police what one has written? I doubt it. But it may be that I have never been taught by a really good teacher of creative writing.

DH: Henry James had a way with proper names. May Bartram is the warmer one, John Marcher considerably cooler. What of John North’s name?

LB: Yes, North is a cold name and should be taken as something of a signal.

DH: You and John Updike were members of the same class at Harvard. You were editor of a literary magazine, the Harvard Advocate, and he of the humorous Harvard Lampoon. I
believe that you both took writing courses with Albert Guerard. Did you know each other?

LB: I don’t remember John’s having been in the class taught by Albert Guerard that I attended. At one time I thought he was already in the more advanced class taught by Archibald
MacLeish. However, it turns out that neither of us made it to that summit of creative writing.
John and I did know each other at that time, but I do not believe that we knew each other well. We became friends about four years later, when he had moved to Ipswich and I was in my first year of Harvard Law School.

DH: In an account of your work as a lawyer, in the New Yorker profile of you, you are described as excellently combative, highly successful as a negotiator. Is there a way in which your fiction provides another outlet for, oh, competitiveness?

LB: I am not competitive as a novelist, perhaps because I know that the only writers I would care to take on would knock me out of the ring. They are the usual group: Proust, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Kafka. Given such ambition, it’s best that I keep a low profile. It is in fact possible that writing .ction has liberated me from the need to be at the head of the class.

DH: The New Yorker writer, speaking of your .ction after Wartime Lies, says that “it’s as though Begley had decided to explore every negative possibility of his grown up existence, to see where the wrong turns would have lead.” Can you see some of your fictions as counterautobiographical?

LB: Hal Espen’s observation is profound, and, perhaps for that reason, I am not sure I understand it completely. To the extent that I do grasp his intention, I would say that I am very bhard in my novels on protagonists who could be my doubles but, of course, aren’t.

DH: Your second novel came out two years after your first, your third novel one year later. The fourth, fifth, and sixth came two years apart. Only Shipwreck occasioned a three-year
gap between publications. Was it more difficult? Did it take more drafting? Was the rest of your life getting in the way?

LB: I think that what held me back was the cumulative weight of legal work—I was extraordinarily busy as a lawyer when I was writing Shipwreck—and the sort of duties one accumulates as one publishes books, for instance writing articles and essays that some magazine or newspaper has commissioned, giving an occasional speech, correcting translations of novels as they are bought for publication in a language I know, or giving an occasional reading to promote my work and, very important to me, coming in contact with readers. Before one has published a couple of books, one is not asked to do such things. Indeed, one has no opportunity to undertake them.
Of course, every hour spent on these “paraliterary” pursuits is an hour that one hasn’t devoted to one’s work as a novelist.

DH: You wrote your first novel, Wartime Lies, when you received a four-month sabbatical from your law firm. You had written no fiction in the decades after college. At some point, did you expect to? Were you waiting for sufficient time?

LB: Out of modesty or superstitious fear, I did my utmost to keep thoughts of writing .ction out of my head. People occasionally asked why I didn’t try to write. I had a stock answer that was on a certain level truthful: I have no time. There is, of course, another truth: Time can always be
found if one wants to write and dares to. The long delay was fortunate, because evidently I needed to mature in various ways before undertaking to write about my experiences during World War II. I am certain that I would have made a hash of it if I had tried to do it before I was so ready for Wartime Lies that the novel could and did force itself on me.

DH: You have said that after you wrote your second novel, you discovered that you liked writing. Is it possible to say what you like about it?

LB: Letting a character grow inside me, and getting to understand him and his dilemma, is great fun. More unbeatable fun comes in telling the character’s story and providing the setting for it. The best fun of all is to discover as I write the crowd of observations and jokes stored somewhere in my head that I had not known about before I came to use them. North says something quite similar in the course of his fateful interview with Lea.

DH: Now that you have largely retired from the law, and writing is no longer a matter for weekends and vacations, do you
find yourself changing in your attitude toward writing? I can imagine feeling freed; I can imagine feeling terrified. The Paris Review interviewer asked you about your life after law, when you would be able to devote yourself to writing, and you remarked that it would depend “entirely on
whether there is water left in the well.” Does there appear to be water left in the well?

LB: How well you understand me! I think it is fabulous, too good to be true, that I can now take
as much time as I like or need to write a novel—a task for which there is no deadline, because I would not dream of getting a contract for a novel I haven’t completed to the point of its being ready, in my judgment, to be published. But I am afraid of not being able to put my time to good use, precisely because there is no water left in the well, or, equally possible and even more terrifying, because my intellectual power will lag. Is there water left in the well? I hope so and will soon find out as I try to make progress on what should be my eighth novel.

Praise

Praise

“Fascinating . . . Absolutely riveting . . . The suspense . . . swells like a tsunami . . . A first-rate read.”
–Joyce Cohen, People (three stars out of four)

“Mesmerizing . . . Hypnotic . . . Intensely readable and even soul-shaking . . . Shipwreck is at once a classic, even Jamesian novel of character and a highly erotic, very grown-up modern thriller–in other words, another triumph for Louis Begley.”
–Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

“Begley is a major talent . . . He is totally in command here, and we can only marvel at his portraiture . . . Shipwreck is a novel of skill, insight, and authority.”
–Roger Harris, Sunday Star-Ledger (Newark)

“Dazzling . . . So enthralling that the temptation is to let a thousand glowing adjectives bloom . . . Will pin readers to their chair right up to the final page . . . The ending is a tour de force.”
–Mameve Medwed, Boston Globe

“Compellingly and compulsively told . . . [North’s] obsessive self-awareness, like a mirror, catches our attention and holds it fast.”
–Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times





From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. John North has been faithful to his wife. Why does he suddenly turn adulterer?

2. Considering John North’s obsession with Léa, are you skeptical of his love for his wife?

3. May North’s resentment of Lydia’s family provide a motive for his betrayal of Lydia? Or does North obsess about Léa because he has decided that his own work is without value?

4. From what you know of John North’s parents, can you imagine his upbringing? How has it affected his character?

5. John North will not accompany Lydia to Japan. Why? What is the effect on his marriage?

6. Will John North and Lydia live happily forever after?

7. Despite his conviction that his novels are without literary merit, North works with great concentration on his subsequent novel, Loss. Does this give the lie to his self-deprecation?

8. Throughout the book, there are foreshadowings. John North tells a story from Daniel Deronda: Gwendolyn does not throw the rope to the drowning Grandcourt, deliberately withholding
it. “I cannot tell you the resonance of this scene within me.” In another place, he tells Léa that if Lydia finds out, “I believe I will kill you”—and “I will kill you if you come near Lydia.” Did you expect something like the conclusion?

9. “I had fallen in love,” says John North after his first erotic encounter with Léa. Is he in love?

10. John North has no friends to play squash with. Does he have friends?

11. After John North abandons Léa to the sea, he rolls the dice on his own drowning. Is his gamble in character?

12. Is Léa dead?

13. Will Bunny Frank’s “obituary envy” alter John North’s feelings about the Frank family?

14. John North tells his listener, in the novel’s last line, “You know more about me now than anyone else alive.” Does this sentence in effect end the novel?

15. Imagine the rest of John North’s life.

16. As a little boy evading Nazis in Poland, Louis Begley had to think ahead, planning every move. His prose style has been called lapidary. Can we associate this quality with the watchfulness and deliberation that he had to practice as a child?


Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: