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 © Copyright 2004 by Louis Begley. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 243 pages
- Publisher: Ballantine Books
- ISBN-10: 0345464095
- ISBN-13: 9780345464095