Thursday, 1 December 2011
Old School - Tobias Wolff
There are not many better books about writing than this. The narrator goes to a boarding school where writing is taken very seriously. During his final year Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemmingway all accept invitations to visit the school for readings. The final year students compete for a one on one meeting by submitting some of their own writing. The narrator is one of the " boys who aced their English classes and submitted work to the school lit mag and hung around with other book-drunk boys." He is one of the editorial team on the school's literary magazine Troubadour.
The book is about truth and lies, loyalty and betrayal and much else besides. It is both wise and funny. It is unusual in Wolff's canon in that it is a novel that covers the period between his two memoirs, This Boy's Life and In Pharoah's Army. Indeed towards the end of This Boy's Life Wolff tells us how he faked supporting letters from his teachers to help him get a scholarship to the exclusive Hill School.
His early experiences of the school seem positive, even if he feels compelled to keep his own status as a scholarship student secret, something the school allows. He keeps his Jewish heritage hidden from all, including the headmaster, even when it might have helped him.
The staff of the school seem to be driven by decency. There are attempts to raise the number of scholarships and to break down the colour bar. The boys intuit a moral code without it ever having to be outlined. Loyalty is, as ever in school, important, but still subject to question. When discussing William Faulkner's Barn Burning they "are taken in hand by a tall, brooding man with a distinguished limp who involves you and a roomful of other boys in the consideration of what it means to be a son. The loyalty that is your duty and your worth and your problem. The goodness of loyalty and its difficulties and snares, how loyalty might also become betrayal - of the self and the world outside the circle of blood." Indeed, throughout the book, a type of literary criticism acts as a sounding board for the challenges faced by the narrator.
One of the rules in the school, the result of a fire years before, is that students caught smoking are immediately expelled. This doesn't stop smoking, but drives it underground. I wondered if his smoking habit reflected an unconscious desire on the part of the narrator to be revealed. Hiding his habit echoed his secrecy about his true self, a secrecy which seems to have extended to hiding himself from himself. "Crazy as I was for cigarettes, my true addiction was to the desperate, all-or-nothing struggle to maintain a habit in the face of unceasing official vigilance."
The first writer to visit is Robert Frost, who is an old school friend of the headmaster, and is far more to his taste than the contemporaneous Beats - "the Ginsberg / Ferlinghetti crime family." The headmaster tells of how his life was changed by reading a book of Frosts and warns the students that "a true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life." The whole visit of Frost is described very convincingly and there is also a lesson on writing, and reading, one of the many scattered throughout. "In print, under his great name, they [Frost's poems] had the look of inevitability; in his voice you caught the hesitation and perplexity behind them, the sound of a man brooding them into being." We are getting Wolff the teacher as well as hte student. (He teaches creative writing)
Heading home for Christmas in his final term he buys a copy of The Fountainhead as Ayn Rand is to be the next visiting writer, to the consternation of some. The narrator's initial disdain turns quickly to a sort of worship. He rereads the book, identifying himself with the couple at the books center and feeling more and more distant from the Grandparents who he spends his holiday with. He judges them. "This, I decided, this sadistic dullness, this excruciating compulsion to please, was how you ended up after a lifetime of getting A's in obedience school."
He feels that the book will help take his writing to the next level. "I wasn't writing, but that didn't trouble me - I knew I could deliver my story when the time came. What I was doing was tanking up on self certainty, transfusing Roark's arrogant, steely spirit into my own. And as I read the book I could feel it happen, my sense of originality and power swelling as my mouth resumed its tightness of contempt."
He is finall unable to submit anything when he falls victim to a virulent strain of the 'flu and ends up being on the edge of death. However, although he misses her reading he sneaks out to the afters, where he hears Rand's (low) opinion of other writers, including Hemmingway (the narrator asked her opinion of Hemmingway). "There is one, she said. I am interested in the novels of Mr. Mickey Spillane. His metaphysic is perhaps rather instinctive but quite sound nevertheless. .... Mike knows evil from good and destroys it without hesitation or regret." At this point I thought of my introduction to Wolff, which was the short story Hunters in the Snow, in which two hunters shoot a third who they think has gone mad - he hasn't. Their certainty that they are doing the right thing is a result of perspective. This "metaphysic" I felt, was not going to be one that Wolff appreciated.
Indeed, both his sickness and the help he got during it and the experience of meeting Rand changes the opinion of the narrator. "Everyone was troubled, nobody measured up, and I began to think that the true failure lay in Ayn Rand's grasp of human reality."
He goes back to reading Hemmingway, and finds him far different to Rand, who he can no longer read. "I judged him, but I also understood that he'd allowed me to, and this was chastening. Knowing that readers like me would see him in Nick, he had given us a vision of spiritual muddle and exhaustion almost embarrassing in its intimacy. The truth of these stories didn't come as a set of theories. You felt it on the back of your neck." Will his appreciation of Hemmingway help him to write more revealingly about himself.
When it turns out that Hemmingway himself is lined up as the next visiting writer he feels that he must win this time. He finds a story in another school's magazine and it inspires him: "The whole thing came from the truthful diary I'd never kept..." Did he find his own way of revealing himself? - Read and find out.
Even after his school days are over he hasn't fully got over hiding himself. He lives life with a sense of how it will look on future dust jacket bios, while not writing very much. However, this too changes: "A more truthful dust-jacket sketch would say that the author, after much floundering, went to college and worked like the drones he'd once despised, kept reasonable hours, learned to be alone in a room, learned to throw stuff out, learned to keep gnawing at the same bone until it cracked." What a wonderful way of describing the life of a writer.
And while the narrator finds himself in writing, the writer of the piece which inspired him to reveal his hidden identity doesn't. She gives it up and when he makes contact with her years later he tries to get her to write more.
"You should keep writing.
Mmm, don't think so. Too frivolous. Know what I mean? It just cuts you off and makes you selfish and doesn't really do any good.
This actually shocked me. We know what is sacred to us when we recoil from impiety, and Susan's casual desertion of her gift had exactly that force."
This is a book that respects the sacramental nature of writing and the truths that only fiction can tell.