Thursday, October 21, 2004

About Schmidt

(Louis Begley, 1996)

I haven't seen the Jack Nicholson film of the same name and am unlikely to: although I understand he makes a fine Schmidt, the film is a complete re-write. Schmidt is facing up to life after retirment from the law firm which gave him a certain power, after the death of his wife and in the face of his daughter's (Charlotte) marriage to Jon, a young Jewish lawyer who was Schmidt's protege. He is brought face to face with the fact that while he has an enormous house he can bequeath to Charlotte and Jon, he has no meaningful relationship with his own daughter and has been demonised in his law firm as a scary old anti-semite. Wierdly, the author in interviews has disclaimed any intent to write about Jewishness and yet my bookgroup saw it as one of the dominant themes.

I have to say that there are problems in attributing Scmidt's lack of warmth for Jon (it isn't even as strong as dislike) to the fact that he is a jew. Partly it simply reflects his lack of warmth for anyone - he is undiscriminating in his inability to be affectionate (and how affectionate do you expect near retired commercial lawyers to get anyway?) - but it has a lot more to do with their lack of any kind of shared interests or values: Schmidt is an atheist, he despises Jon's lack of interest in anything intellectual or cultural (Jon has apparently never read a book in his life), his focus on money and material well-being (a bit rich, given Schmidt's worries about the house and contents although, to be fair, he does want to give most to Charlotte), his desire to live in the Hamptons and Schmidt doesn't agree with the choices Jon makes as a laywer - bankruptcy litigation.

Begley's stated intent was to write about the lack of connection Schmidt has: his only friend is an equally old fellow, Jewish as it happens. But unlike other lifelong friendships , where people just pop in and out of each other's life, here it is almost by appointment only. In fact, that is how Schmidt mediates many of his communications - rather than talk to Jon, he'd talk through his secretary (and would have liked to have still been in work so that "my people can talk with your people"). You begin to wonder about his choice of wife - Mary did not like being touched, let alone enjoy any kind of sexual activity (there are a couple of pretty off scenes where she's asleep and Schmidt has his hand up her skirt, trying to provoke a reaction). And yet, there were affairs - most one nighters not needing any kind of involvement, but there was the extended thing with the housemaid and is, at the time of the story, an unfolding relationship with the unbelievably young and beautiful Carrie, who he meets at the local diner/restaurant. Of course, being well under half his age and with a companion of sorts of her own, this will never be a full blown connection and you just know its not going to end well for Schmidt.

So, it is too simplistic to see the book as any kind of polemic, it is too reflective and Schmidt willingly faces up to the crap in his life, examines them, tries to accept the truth of what he is told about being an anti-semitic ogre, tries to do his best. He is too complex a character to dismiss as his daugher has, and I think that might be one of the major points of the novel: that while people will have some disagreeable characteristic, it is both wrong and dangerous to simply regard that characteristic as the entirety.

There is a sequel, Schmidt Delivered, which I have not read. I do know it involves Schmidt going off to Florida with Carrie and her man (who becomes Schmidt's nurse and handyman) and that as an old man, he finds it had to hold on to Carrie.

Pop Matters Review
NY Times Review
Author Interview


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