Mistler's Exit

Mistler's Exit

by Louis Begley

View All Available Formats & Editions

Thomas Mistler has always thought himself "a happy man, as the world goes." A scion of old money, he made his own fortune in advertising and is now poised to sell the company he founded for a fabulous price. But when a medical examination reveals the presence in his liver of a fatal intruder, "preposterously, unmistakably, he begins to rejoice," with a feeling of


Thomas Mistler has always thought himself "a happy man, as the world goes." A scion of old money, he made his own fortune in advertising and is now poised to sell the company he founded for a fabulous price. But when a medical examination reveals the presence in his liver of a fatal intruder, "preposterously, unmistakably, he begins to rejoice," with a feeling of having been set free. But free from what?

He will seek the answer surreptitiously, without revealing his illness to his family, during a last reprieve, a moment of grace in "the one place on earth where nothing irritates him." But amidst the surreal beauties of Venice, he finds bitterness and chaos as he allows himself to drift for the first time. His halfhearted efforts to seize the day and its present pleasures--first with a striving young photographer and later with a love of his youth who never loved him--cannot compete with his need to commune with the living and the dead that crowd his life: his father and uncle, pillars of the Establishment, sources of the "genetic puritanism" he has never tried to resist; his son, Sam, whose love he has only barely salvaged; his wife, once perfectly "beautiful and suitable," now humiliated by him and half-scorned. And the one woman who embodies everything he might have wished for, a woman he "never had and never lost."

Deeply poignant yet mordantly funny, Mistler's Exit brilliantly discloses the pleasures and miseries of having it all. A masterly revelation of the complexities of the heart.

BONUS: This edition includes an excerpt from Louis Begley's Memories of a Marriage.

Editorial Reviews

Dan Cryer
. . . This is an art that calls to mind Louis Auchincloss' upper-crust characters, Paul Auster's defiantly unsentimental voice and Alice Munro's vivid, nonsense storytelling. Begley marshals all these elements. . . and forges a fiction altogether his own. -- Newsday
Gabriel Brownstein
Begley probes with intelligence and skill. -- Boston Sunday Globe
Thomas Hines
A stunning achievement. . . Begley has created a terribly funny, touching, infuriating, and complex character in Schmidt, whose self-deceptions and imprisonment by his own worldview stand not only as a devastating portrait of a disappearing world but also sound a strangely evocative cautionary tale. . . We are chagrined that the telling detail, the crystalline prose, has to end. -- Los Angeles Times
Jack Miles
Whether the subject is art, religion, literature, fatherhood or friendship, Begley has mined his novel with depth charges that he seems to invite the reader to detonate beneath his own protagonist. The result is a novel that is brillantly, brutally countercathartic. -- The New York Times
Vanessa V. Friedman
There is a compellingly austere, cut-glass clarity to the book. -- Entertainment Weekly
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
There is perhaps no more worldly novelist writing today than Begley: worldly in his attention to class, wealth and sex, but most of all in his attention to pleasure in the face of death. So when his latest protagonist, Thomas Mistler, ruthless captain of a huge advertising firm, learns that he has cancer of the liver, he decides not to fight it and not to tell his wife or son about it immediately but, instead, to go to Venice, "the one place on earth where nothing irritated him," on a clandestine solo vacation. There he has--as Begley heroes do--a series of disquieting sexual adventures (in this case parodies of the erotic epiphany of Thomas Mann's Aschenbach), which bring home to us, if not to Mistler, his essential loneliness. In certain ways, this slim novel seems a pendant sketch to Begley's recent masterpiece, About Schmidt, another study of an aging, philandering gentleman's failures to connect. But this sketch presents enigmas of its own. Begley's dialogue, always highly starched, now sounds epistolary, as if carried on at a distance of miles and days. His hero's luxurious solipsism calls to mind not just Begley's constant great familiars (among them Mann, Jouve, Proust, James, Ford Madox Ford and Nabokov) but the random glamour of an Antonioni film, in which characters appear like emanations, free of the normal exigencies of plot. Even amid the palazzos and great churches of his vividly conjured Venice, Begley displays the bitter moral intelligence, the fear of emptiness, that has distinguished his late, extraordinary career from the start. Once again he has created a sinister, highly ambiguous protagonist in a haunting, ambivalent work of art.
Library Journal
A Madison Avenue executive wraps up his life with a visit to Venice. From the author of About Schmidt (LJ 6/15/96).
Kirkus Reviews
Begley's fifth (About Schmidt, 1996; As Max Saw It, 1994) is the tale of a master of finance, advertising, actually, who faces terminal cancer with the same stiff upper lip and commanding refinement that led him through his not- always-appealing life. Diagnosed with cancer that leaves him about half a year to go, Thomas Mistler heads into the final few months of his life in panic? despair? fear? None of the above, thank you. This man who has gotten, taken, one might say, all he's wanted from life isn't going to stop living the same way now. He'll tell all to his dutiful but unloved wife Clara, but not just yet, and the same for his much-loved but distant son and only child, Sam, 36. There'll be time later for final moments, but it's essential first that the sale of Mistler's firm, already underway, not be jeopardized by news of his illness. Still, on the other hand, maybe Mistler does need to be alone and think a little: so, with a few practical lies to Clara and Sam, business abroad, delays, he's off to his favorite city of Venice, 'the one place on earth where nothing irritated him.' Not quite true, though, since unexpected sex with a girl he'd met only once, at a New York dinner party, ends up turning him cruelly pompous and giving her the push, so he's alone to appreciate the great art, food, and wines ('There were so many reds he had never drunk') of the ancient city. But even then, he'll bump into an old Harvard classmate, through him into another one, who this time, we're led to believe, is the one great (uncaptured) passion of his life, for whom he buys an exquisite antique glass candelabra, impressing even the glass-dealer with his knowledge, taste,refinement, and discretion. The chronicling of a patrician life from the inside: sometimes gripping, often familiar, much of the time with airs.

From the Publisher
"Magnificent . . . A Death in Venice for our time."
—San Francisco Chronicle

—The Boston Sunday Globe

—Los Angeles Times

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sold by:
Random House
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

I understand, said Mistler.
Really, there was no need to rush the conversation. The waiting room was empty. Bill Hurley had become Mistler?s family doctor fifteen years earlier, succeeding to the practice of an uncle, who died on the tennis court of a ruptured aneurism upon double-faulting in the fourth game of the fourth set of his club?s senior doubles championship, when the score was forty?love. By now, he was also a friend. The secretary had specifically asked Mistler to stop by toward the end of the afternoon, when Dr. Hurley would be through with other patients. Just the same, as soon as Mistler arrived, she began to apologize, because the doctor was running late.
Don?t worry, he told her. For once, I don?t mind waiting.
That was the truth. An interval of empty time seemed vastly preferable to what would follow. In fact, if there was a reason to hurry, once Mistler had reluctantly abandoned a two-year-old issue of Glamour and found himself in Hurley?s office, the place where Hurley interrogated and decreed, the reluctant flesh having been poked and kneaded into yielding its secrets in the adjoining cubicle that housed the examination table and a reliable scale, the only piece of Hurley?s equipment Mistler was fond of, it had to be that the place was so ugly. With its stacks of manila envelopes containing, Mistler supposed, X rays and EKG tapes, apparently untouched since the time of Hurley?s uncle (if indeed either the uncle or the nephew had ever examined their contents, which Mistler was not ready to take for granted), the fake antique desk, small enough to fit in a college dormitory room, cluttered with pharmaceutical company doodads, and, on the walls, prints of ducks alongside diplomas that traced Hurley?s progress from his New Jersey prep school through the last board certification, this room spoke of indifference and small economies. One would not have tolerated such a thing in any other high-priced service business. Did it ever occur to doctors to have discussions that broke the patient?s heart outside the office, over a cup of coffee, or a drink, if they were unwilling to spend money on furniture? One could, after all, with a minimum of skill, maneuver the patient into paying the check, or bury the disbursement in the statement as a stool test or the like. Most lawyers Mistler dealt with would have considered either a lead-pipe cinch.
Apparently, there was nothing further Bill Hurley intended to say without being prompted. It was up to Mistler.
All right. How much time do I have?
For what?
Before I die, of course. What else could I mean?
You could mean before we get to work. As Mel Klein told you, it may be possible to deal with this thing surgically. Right away. It?s a primary cancer. That?s the good news. Then, provided all goes well, you may also have treatment. That will be up to Mel. Ultimately, you would wait for a graft. They do become available.
But he also said that Dr. Steele thought the odds for this sort of operation weren?t good. Have you or Dr. Klein or Dr. Steele changed your minds?
No. The growth is large and it may have spread. Dave Steele can?t be sure until he opens you up.
And if it has spread?
He?ll sew you up and we?ll do our best to keep you comfortable.
In the hospital?
At first. And probably at the end as well. Hurley?s face remained cheerful.
I think I?ll pass. Can you make a guess about how long I have if I do nothing? I?d also like to know how bad it?s going to be.
It all depends on what is really going on inside you. If the problem is still local, but you have no treatment, not even radiation to shrink the growth, perhaps half a year. Perhaps less. Of that time, the next couple of months should be only annoying. No worse than that. You?ll become more tired and more anemic, and you?ll lose weight. Later, you?ll be in the war zone, especially if other organs are colonized. Every day, this will become a stronger possibility. But even without surgery, X rays and chemo could buy you time. You?d want to talk to Mel about that. Of course, if there is already general involvement, all bets are off. These things don?t run on time, like Mussolini?s trains. Heh! Heh! You know that.
But surely you will arrange matters so that I don?t make it into the war zone as you put it. I count on that.
If you mean to suggest that I?ll kill you, I can tell you right now I won?t. I am here to treat patients. Of course, it?s your right to refuse treatment. You will get all the medication you need for pain, but don?t kid yourself. There comes a point at which medication can?t do the job.
Is that any worse than what will happen if I have the operation and the treatment?
There is a chance that the growth hasn?t spread and can be taken out. Then, with treatment and luck, you could lead a normal life?especially if you get a graft. Otherwise, you?re right, the outcome will be much the same.
Except that I will have had the operation and the treatment and everything that comes with it. I think I?ll leave matters as they are. If you could just prescribe whatever you think works best to give me a boost?vitamins, wild ginseng, tonics. I imagine that?s possible.
Hurley scribbled busily. Here, he said, these may do some good and certainly won?t do any harm. Then he gave Mistler the manly but affectionate look he normally reserved for telling him to cut down on red wine and shellfish, if he didn?t want another gout attack, and, of course, on cigars, and continued: You shouldn?t take that sort of decision before you talk it through with Clara and Sam. If you make the effort to fight, and bring them into it, they will find it easier to accept the outcome. It?s extremely hard to watch a husband and father pass away?especially when it might be much sooner than necessary?because he has decided to die without letting his doctors treat him.
But it?s not me making the decision to die this way and at this time?in fact quite a bit sooner than I expected. His Majesty Mistler?s body made that choice. I am only deciding how I will spend the next few months. If I can help it, it won?t be on hospital gurneys attached to machines that make noises like something out of a science fiction film. I don?t believe Clara or Sam would like that either.
You?d be astonished. The whole world loves a fighter, your family included.
I?ve done my share of fighting, Bill. Believe me. Maybe that?s why I am so sure that now is the time to surrender. Unconditionally!
You did promise you would bring Clara in.
Mistler took note of Hurley?s increasing annoyance.
And so I will. Just give me a little time. Let her have a couple of carefree weeks. There is nothing to participate in, after all, not right away.
After that, he managed a nice smile and shook Hurley?s hand.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

Louis Begley lives in New York City. His previous novels are Wartime Lies, The Man Who Was Late, As Max Saw It, and About Schmidt.

From the Hardcover edition.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >