Thursday, December 29, 2011

the last book I read

Old School by Tobias Wolff.

Our unnamned narrator is a student at a prestigious American public school - or, rather, what the Americans would call a private school, since their rules for naming these things follow more rational rules than ours do. Among the traditional values common to all such institutions - honour, loyalty, tradition, wearing ridiculously long scarves, belting out the school song every once in a while - this particular school has an especially strong literary tradition, and their status allows them to snare some pretty heavy literary names to visit the school and judge the writing contest that precedes each visit. The prize is a personal private audience with the writer, so competition is fierce.

As the book opens in late 1960 we're in the run-up to the visit of venerable poet Robert Frost, and the writing contest is in full swing. Our narrator, despite being one of the school's central literary clique and heavily involved with the production of the school's literary magazine, doesn't win this one, and nor does he win the one that follows it, a rather more controversial visit involving Ayn Rand. However, it is revealed that the next visit will be from none other than Ernest Hemingway, who just happens to be the narrator's literary idol.

So the stakes have been raised? But how to win? What to write? The narrator is convinced that something more soul-baring than his previous efforts is required, perhaps addressing his discomfort over his Jewish ancestry, something he has worked hard to conceal during his time at the school. Inspiration proves elusive until one day, while trawling the magazine archives in the school library, he comes across a story written for the magazine of a nearby girls' school a few years before which seems to express his feelings perfectly. Perhaps just a few tweaks, a change of narrator gender here, a change of name there.....

Things play out pretty much as you might have expected them to from this point: the narrator submits the thinly-concealed copy as his own work, it wins the contest, the meeting with Hemingway is arranged, but then at the eleventh hour the subterfuge is discovered and the narrator is expelled and sent home in disgrace. It's presumably of little consolation to him that (it now being mid-1961) Hemingway never attends the event anyway, preferring instead to shoot himself in the face with a shotgun.

And so we move on beyond the narrator's school days - bundled straight from school onto a train back to the family home he disembarks in New York and does various menial jobs there while trying to establish himself as a writer. Eventually succeeding in this, and having re-established his link with the school's alumni network, he is eventually invited by the school's new headmaster (who was a young teacher while the narrator was there) to be the visiting writer at the school's next event. Ah, the irony, the wheel, full circle, etc. etc., you get the idea.

The boarding-school coming-of-age thing is a well-used literary trope, so it's hard to read a book like this without some preconceptions; in particular it's hard to get through even the first half-dozen pages without replaying several scenes from Peter Weir's 1989 film Dead Poets Society in your head, though the book does have the considerable advantage of not featuring Robin Williams.

It's all beautifully written, and some of the set pieces are excellent - Wolff has great fun satirising Ayn Rand's loony worldview in the section recounting her visit, for instance - but it almost feels like three or four short stories (Wolff's more usual literary medium) linked together and padded out to novel length. I liked it, and the teenage boys coming of age in the hothouse environment of a boarding school is a classic literary setting (though I suspect in reality there's rather more furious wanking than portrayed here), but because of that you've got to do something pretty startling to stand out from all the other novels, films, etc. covering the same ground.

As an aside, while I hadn't read any of Tobias Wolff's work before (he's probably most famous for his autobiographical work This Boy's Life, which was made into a film in 1993), I have read The Age Of Consent by his elder brother Geoffrey Wolff, which is a different sort of beast altogether, a queasy tale of sexual abuse and suicide, but well worth reading.

No comments: