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5.0 2
by Louis Begley

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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


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.

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

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

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
In Shipwreck, Mr. Begley displays his perverse gift for riveting attention despite the unsympathetic, unyielding nature of the man he describes. Although there is an essential banality to the story he tells here, the reader is apt to be hooked. This has less to do with how the novel's plot will play out ("Such an energetic young person! She seems very fond of you," says Lydia, finally encountering Lea in the latter's "Fatal Attraction" mode) than with the book's piercing view of literary life. — Janet Maslin
The New York Times Book Review
There is a stowaway, like Conrad's secret sharer, aboard almost any work of fiction: the author's person, reflected and deflected in one or more of the principal characters. Having evoked the growled contradictions, raffishly engrossing, of his lawyer character, Begley has now, in Shipwreck, done something equivalent, though more brittle, for the protagonist as writer.—Richard Eder
The Washington Post
Certainly, 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
The New Yorker
A happily middle-aged novelist of some repute wakes up one morning, decides his work is worthless (oh, those writers!), and immediately becomes embroiled with a young Frenchwoman who turns out to be both phenomenally demanding and, as things spiral downward, exceedingly difficult to shake. Havoc ensues—wild messages left on answering machines, illicit trysts in the Vineyard, a possible cooling off of his rich wife’s affection. This predictable, curiously prurient tale—Begley’s athletic bedroom scenes seem not so much experienced by the narrator as peered at by the reader—is dished up, over many hours, to an anonymous listener in a bar, apparently as a kind of Ancient Mariner Blue Plate special.
Publishers Weekly
The moral disintegration of a man consumed by lust is the narrative frame of Begley's haunting new novel. Since the man, John North, is a celebrated author of literary novels, the subtext concerns the nature of the creative process. North tells his story to the nameless narrator in a series of monologues. In Paris after the publication of his new novel, North is interviewed by a young Vogue writer, L a Morini, who later comes on to him in a blatant fashion. Although he has never been unfaithful to Lydia, the wife he adores-though she is a busy research physician, she selflessly caters to his demands-North persuades himself that a brief fling with L a will revivify his work. Struggling with creative self-doubt, North also confesses to faults of selfishness, egotism, resentment and envy of Lydia's family, who are Jewish and wealthy, as compared to his own parents, who are old-guard Protestants. With scenes set in Paris, Martha's Vineyard, the Greek island of Spetsai, East Hampton and Hollywood, Begley enters Louis Auchincloss territory (although with sexual details that Auchincloss would never dream of), and proves himself an astute observer of different social classes and the minute variations in their behavior invisible to those outside the inner circle. But it's the meticulously revealed psychology of a man who doesn't like himself (yet believes that he's superior to most people) that propels the narrative here, as North surrenders to his prurient desire, while vowing that Lydia will never learn of his betrayal. L a proves predatory in her pursuit, however, and the story's sense of dread and suspense mount as events move to a mesmerizing conclusion. Yet Begley ends the novel on a note of ambiguity, leading the reader to speculate whether the narrator is perhaps North's alter ego, and the entire story a brilliant exposition of the way authors can use the material of their lives to create brilliant fiction. 4-city author tour. (Sept. 25) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this unnerving work, celebrated American novelist John North stumbles into a bar and begins telling a hapless customer a story he has never revealed to anyone before. North has had a crisis, suddenly suspecting that his work is no good, which may be why he is susceptible to the charms of the young French journalist who interviews him in Paris. Though North has always been deeply devoted to too-good-to-be-true wife Lydia, a medical researcher from a rich and distinguished family, he becomes totally caught up in Lia's kinky sex games. When she threatens to upend the perfect balance between North and his wife, he must act. The novel is both riveting and slightly off-putting; North is not the most ingratiating character, the sexual obsession wears, and one does start to wonder what all this has to do with North's ostensible doubts about his writing, an intriguing issue that somehow gets lost. At the powerful closing, however, one can finally conclude that novelists are indeed an amoral bunch and that North's greatest story is his edgy, suspect life. Recommended for most collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/03.]-Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A precious account of an American writer's love affair with a young Frenchwoman. John North is someone who has pretty much achieved everything he could hope for in life. Happily married to a renowned New York physician, John is a well-regarded novelist with plenty of money, an extensive circle of friends (in America and abroad), a nice apartment in Manhattan, and a weekend house in East Hampton. He's sophisticated, respected, and serious-in other words, a stuffed shirt. And he knows it, too. In Paris to promote the French translation of one of his books, John is so overwhelmed by the burden of his persona that he accosts a perfect stranger in a café one night and proceeds to tell him the true story of his life. His rambling confession soon focuses on Lea Morini, a Parisian journalist and artist who interviewed him during another book tour. Young, exquisite, and emotionally ambiguous, Lea is the mistress of a prominent French banker and has several lovers besides. She soon adds John to her list, and the two proceed to carry on a now-and-then affair on both sides of the Atlantic that's exciting for John but promises no great trauma at first. Eventually, however, Lea becomes more and more possessive of John, telephoning him constantly and making excuses to see him whenever she's in the US. This becomes more than John wanted or hoped for, but his vanity (flattered by the admiration of a young beauty) won't let him break away, and the course of their relations progresses inevitably to the point where catastrophe is inescapable. And once the crisis comes, and John survives it, he finds himself driven to confess. Overworked to the point of caricature: Like Woody Allen, Begley (Mistler's Exit,1998, etc.) sets his scenes largely by dropping names (here a party at the New Yorker, there an appearance on Apostrophes), but his characters never become credible in their own right. The story ends up feeling stagy and faked.
From the Publisher
“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

Product Details

Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt


By Louis Begley


Copyright © 2003 Louis Begley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1400040981

Chapter One

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.


Excerpted from Shipwreck by Louis Begley Copyright © 2003 by Louis Begley
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

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

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Shipwreck 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was just reading the order of the phenix.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you ship Harry and Hermione this is the place for you!