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Waiting for death in Venice

Louis Begley's writing is smooth and taut, and his new novel is deftly crafted.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 20, 1998

At a time when many critically acclaimed books such as Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon and Richard Powers' Gain are stuffed with information, much of it arcane and tedious, Louis Begley's Mistler's Exit comes as a refreshing relief. Begley's slim novel, his fifth, is serious and accessible, not to mention, terribly funny.

The plot is, well, almost conventional. Thomas Mistler, a married, wealthy, middle-aged man, who was "born with a silver spoon firmly in his mouth," learns that he is dying of cancer. He goes to Venice for a week alone, a city he has loved since his youth, with a "longing to find something he couldn't quite define."

So far, so good. A dying man slips away from his family to return to a special place and to fulfill an indescribable need. The problem is Mistler is actually relieved and invigorated by the certainty of his approaching death. This twist turns the novel into a page-turner, with the reader gathering the clues to answer the insidious question: Why?

Begley's prose style is smooth and straightforward. He keeps the pace of the novel crisp by making his descriptive passages short and precise. He manages to convey the power of place and mood without lingering, a knack he carries over into his ability to characterize in curt, painfully witty lines. This taut style plays well against the plot, with its inherent emotions, by maintaining tension and buttressing the novel from gaudy confessionalism.

Through the book Begley shifts effortlessly in time, creating a pastiche of Mistler's life and character. A character that is in many ways disturbing, but certainly not unfamiliar. Mistler is the president of a successful advertising agency, and his pride rests on the secret, half-truthful notion that he is a self-made man. He is also unethical, a liar and a womanizer. But while it is easy to dislike Mistler, to the novel's credit it is hard to hate him, because Begley provides enough depth of character to make him very human. We even come to recognize parts of him in ourselves.

In the end, the novel never does directly address why Mistler is so ready for death. But it does give us several avenues to consider. One is that Mistler's soul is worn thin. His moral compass points mostly toward power and financial acumen. He appears an experiment in humanism gone dreadfully wrong. Being born into a wealthy family, he was afforded an Ivy League education and is well versed in the arts. In fact, at one time in his youth he dreamed of becoming a novelist. He loves Venice greatly for its physical beauty and abundance of masterpieces. But strangely, he doesn't make a connection between these works of art and his own inner life.

To show how little Mistler has learned from life, Begley places him in situations reminiscent of ones he faced as a young man. It is a splendid technique. His actions in these instances demonstrate that Mistler is a man who has spent his obsessions foolishly and who is, perhaps, tired of himself.

Mistler's Exit can be read on many levels: as a morality tale, an absurd mystery or a critique of personal faith. In any case, it is engaging, and it reminds the reader that if life is anything, it is one's own.

Robert Gerdes is on the Times staff.

Louis Begley's writing is smooth and taut, and his new novel is deftly crafted.


By Louis Begley

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