Interview with Louis
A Jewish native of Poland, Louis Begley was born Ludwik Begleiter in 1933. Eight
years later, his father, a physician, was impressed into service in the Russian
Army. Soon thereafter, his paternal grandparents were shot to death in a forest
outside his hometown of Stryj, and he and his mother began using false papers
that identified them as Catholic Poles, in order to escape the same fate. The
family reunited in 1945, and emigrated to the United States in 1947, settling in
New York City. After graduating from Erasmus Hall High School, the younger
Begleiter -- now known as Louis Begley -- graduated summa cum laude from Harvard
University in 1954; he served in the U.S. Army before graduating from Harvard Law
School, magna cum laude, and joining the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton. A
partner and chairman of his firmÕs international law practice, he has a special
interest in multinational joint ventures, representing clients in the United
States as well as Europe, Asia and Australia.
Wartime Lies, Begley's first novel, was nominated for the 1991 National Book
Award and the National Book Critics' Circle Award, and was awarded major literary
prizes including The Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize, the Prix
Medicis Étranger and the PEN/Ernest Hemingway First Fiction Award.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Richard Eder called the novel "a
wondrous work and picaresque story. Begley tells it beautifully...with haunting
grace and austerity." In the New York Times, Judith Grossman described
Begley's account of suffering and survival as "masterful,'" adding that the
resolution of the novel is "faithful to the dark ironies of Maciek's fate, which
it is Louis Begley's great achievement to have confronted and sustained." In a
1992 essay for The New York Times Book Review, Begley addressed the
question of memory and identity, declaring, "I am unwilling to separate incidents
in my book that may be said to have happened to me or that I have witnessed from
those I have imagined."
Begley has published two other highly acclaimed novels Ñ The Man Who Was
Late and As Max Saw It Ñ and is currently working on a fourth novel.
Have you always been a writer?
I've not been a writer of fiction all my life. I wrote fiction and some poetry
when I was a boy and an adolescent, but I stopped at the end of my junior year in
college. But I was a writer during those years lost to fiction, because lawyers
of my sort spend a great deal of every day, in fact, writing. Only, one writes
other things: letters of advice, memoranda, law briefs, contracts, documents
designed to bind people to each other or to convince people of this or that. So
I've never not been
Have you always been interested in literature?
There wasn't any time that I can remember when I wasnÕt interested in reading.
When I was a little child, I was read to, things that were very good -- there was
good childrenÕs literature in Poland, and my mother read very well. I learned how
to read fluently myself by the time I was five or six. My childhood was not
exactly a normal childhood because of the war in Europe, and so I went to school
very little: I went for one year to what might be described as the first grade,
and then I did not go to school again until I went to the first year of the
"gimnazjum," which is comparable to high school. So there was a long period when
reading was my principal occupation, my central pleasure. Writing little stories
and poems came as part of learning. I was tutored during the war -- both a
teacher and my mother tutored me -- and I would be asked to write various things,
and in this way I became accustomed to composition.
When I finally began to go to school continuously, after I arrived in the United
States, it turned out that, while I was a good student in all subjects, I seemed
to do best in English. I was encouraged to write stories, which I did. Then I
went to Harvard College and took writing courses until I had a revelation that I
had absolutely nothing to say in my writing. I did not write poetry again, and
did not write any fiction until 1989.
How was it that you decided to become a lawyer?
Like many young people who suddenly find that they have to earn their living, I
had to ask myself, How are you going to do it? I was then in the United States
Army and it was perfectly clear to me that I did not want to become a
professional soldier. And I did not want to become a physician, which was what my
father was, because I'm not much drawn to being with sick people. I had very
little imagination about jobs, I thought I had no commercial instincts, and I had
not yet become a good cook, so it came to me that a perfectly plausible
profession was being a lawyer. It was all the more plausible since I knew nothing
about what lawyers do.
So was it a happy revelation?
It turned out to be. I have enjoyed my profession enormously and continue to
enjoy it, and I think I'm good at it. I like legal writing, and making sure it's
put together in a way that is both effective in conveying what one wants to say
and aesthetically pleasing.
How did you initially conceive of Wartime Lies?
I did not quite conceive of it. I had written what became the introduction and
part of the first chapter, but at the time I had imagined that it would be much
more a book about my father than a book about the Second World War. And then I
went on a sabbatical leave in 1989 and dusted off those pages, and I thought they
were good pages. But, as I read them, it became obvious to me that they were
leading in a different direction: I had to ask myself how one would have become a
man, after having been a boy of the sort I had been. The question of what had
happened to the father of that boy, how his life had been bent by the war years,
was one I decided I would deal with at some later time, if ever. This was not
completely logical; they were not choices that I can very well explain; it was
simply that I had a strong feeling that I had found the direction I wanted to go
Then I thought about the shape of the book, because I don't believe in automatic
writing. I can't write without knowing what is going to be on the next page. I
rewrote the pages I already had and continued every day, keeping the shape of the
book in mind, until the first draft of the novel was written.
Why did you decide to utilize two narrators for Wartime
That's the whole point of the book. It's a meditation by a man who
survived the war and has arrived at a form of accommodation with life,
and at the same time has never made peace with the past and what his
childhood had been. It was a reasonable choice, though, to tell about
the childhood with the voice of the young boy; I thought it was the
purest way of telling his story. But it would have been meaningless
without the framework of a grown man looking back at the beginning, or
the same man, or perhaps the author, looking back on the boy.
How did you go about creating the character of "Maciek"?
"Maciek" is "Maciek" because of the old song. I was haunted by the
willingness of that little "Maciek" to sing and dance his heart out as
long as the music plays. It seemed to me a good metaphor for the boy in
my book. He was neither particularly good, nor particularly simple, nor
a particularly easy child. Sexuality is a very strong component of
childhood, and I wondered what would be the effect of living in close
quarters with someone like "Tania". I wondered what degree of
introspection and self-examination would be part of the childhood of a
boy who was not, even at the beginning, a very simple child.
"Tania" is an idealization of things observed. She is a heroine, and
she is made of my dreams, as is the grandfather.
To me, the grandfather was also a hero. Even though it was recounted at
several removes, his death was for me one of the most horrifying
moments in the novel.
For me, too. I wept when I wrote those pages.
To what extent were you interested in writing about a family in
I wasn't. I was very much interested in the relationship between the
little boy and his aunt -- the mutual dependence, how a little boy
meets with a woman's overblown physical magnetism, how one becomes a
partner in the struggle to survive. I was interested in dominance, and
resistance to dominance, and how a child's character is bent in a
certain direction because of the influence of an adult. Then, in the
case of the grandfather, I was interested in the phenomenon of the pure
love of a child for an older person, a love which is without
constraints -- the movement of the heart toward someone who is
admirable and good. The grandfather is a splendid fellow. The fact
that I was a recent grandfather myself -- my grandson was born two
years before I began to write Wartime Lies, and my granddaughter
was born in July of 1989, the year the novel was written -- had a
little something to do with my interest in the relationship between a
child and his grandfather.
The narrator says in the opening pages of the book that he avoids
novels about the Holocaust. Do you avoid novels about the Holocaust as
Do you think there is a literature of the Holocaust?
I really don't know. I don't consider myself to be part of that. I
think that the classification of books is very much a matter of what
label booksellers put on a bookshelf -- gardening books, self-help
books, whatever. I am very skeptical about categories. I think that my
book is about a little boy and some people around him who lived in
Poland from 1933 to 1945. That's what it is about. It is not a
How did you choose the title of the novel?
Actually, I intended to call the book The Education of a
Monster, but my family wouldnÕt let me. They said it wasn't a title
that would sell a book.
Writing about Wartime Lies, many reviewers have averred that
by the end of the novel "Maciek's" life has been so blighted that he is
something less than human -- a view that doesn't correspond at all with
my reading of the book. What seems important to me about the title you
ultimately chose is the word "Wartime," not the word "Lies."
That's precisely right.
What, in your view, are an author's obligations to his or her
I have an obligation to myself, which is to write as well as I can, and
never to depart from the truth. And the truth is not an
autobiographical truth, which interviewers are usually after, but an
emotional truth. My obligation is not to tell things that aren't right
from my perspective and experience -- not to tell things that I've
simply invented in order to fill pages. I've never done it and I never
will. What I write comes out of some crucible inside me. And I never,
never want to write a bad sentence, if I can help it.
Readers who want to know more about some of the works that have
helped shaped Louis Begley's writing life are encouraged to seek out
the poems and novels of these authors:
Honoré de Balzac
Books By Louis Begley:
Wartime Lies (1991)
Man Who Was Late (1993)
As Max Saw It (1994)