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From the National Book Foundation Archives
Interview with Louis Begley

1991 Finalist of the National Book Award for Fiction: Wartime Lies

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 writing.

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 in.

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 Lies?
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.

And "Tania"?
"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 Wartime Lies?
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 well?
Yes.

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 Holocaust book.

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 readers?
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:
Dante Alighieri
Marcel Proust
Honoré de Balzac
Henry James
Gustave Flaubert
Anthony Trollope
Anthony Powell
Henryk Sienkiewicz
Adam Mickiewicz

Books By Louis Begley:
Wartime Lies (1991)
Man Who Was Late (1993)
As Max Saw It (1994)

-- Interview by Diane Osen





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