Old School – Tobias Wolff

11 May 2009
Chapters 1-3
Ok, so why isn’t this Dead Poets Society? Apart from the fact that I hated that film and I don’t hate this…. It isn’t about a charismatic teacher, it’s about bright, self-regarding boys in a school like the one in the movie who are – if we’re to believe the first-person narrator – fixated on literature. The main plot thread of these first three chapters is an impending visit – then the visit itself – by Robert Frost. And, the school being the elitist meritocracy it is, the custom is that the only student who gets to spend time alone with the great man has to win a writing competition. The narrator thinks he’s in with a chance, and agonises for weeks over his poem. But in Chapter 3 there’s an undeserving winner: Frost rewards a piece of sentimental nonsense because he believes – or pretends to believe – that it’s a clever satire on his own style. (Later he believes – or pretends to believe – that a young teacher spouting the modernist line about free verse is a pupil. Frost the wily old fox, I guess.)

It isn’t only about a comfortable existence in an ivory tower. Inevitably (I suppose) the school is a microcosm of the USA at the moment when Kennedy became president. Social class and issues of, for instance, some boys’ Jewishness (including the narrator’s) are ignored as a rather self-conscious point of honour. There are certainties, like Hemingway’s unassailable position as the apogee of good style – but there are ambiguities as well: the boys aren’t sure about the winds of change represented by Ginsberg, or the teacher who espouses modernism (and is squelched by Frost for his trouble)…. There are proudly solid friendships and loyalties between the boys – but there’s also the unsettling presence of a woman, the increasingly bored wife of the same teacher. And what is success in this place anyway? It seems to have been defined by a headmaster who looks back on a personal golden age but is no acme of perfection…. However comfortable the world of the school is, a third of the way through this short novel, you get the feeling it isn’t going to stay that way.

18 May
Chapters 4-6
How should we live? What is right? Two questions that aren’t quite asked in these chapters, but feel as though they’re hanging in the air. They appear, inevitably in this book, via the medium of the narrator’s obsession with literature… but literature and real life are beginning to blur.

Chapters 4 and 5 are to do with Ayn Rand, the next unfeasibly famous (or, in this case, infamous) visitor from the head’s literary address book. Should I be ashamed to admit that I’ve never read anything she’s written? Whatever. The narrator picks up one of her novels expecting to be unimpressed – and is immediately swirled away in admiration of this strange writer’s unsentimental truthfulness. The overwrought dark nights of the soul, in which characters combatively force their wills on to an unheeding society, sound like D H Lawrence – and it all hits the 17-year-old as a revelation just as Lawrence often does. He has a dark night – or fortnight, or three weeks – of his own: instead of getting on with his competition piece he re-reads The Fountainhead two, three times, leaving aside his own writing until the last possible minute. Then he catches the flu and is in serious danger as the deadline passes.

Again – and I suppose this is Wolff’s wry joke – the winner is a boy who seems entirely to mistake the author’s purpose. But never mind that. The key scene comes when the narrator leaves his sickbed and attends the writer’s Q&A session. She’s a monster. The individualism that had seemed so alluring in the novel is an amoral – or frankly anti-moral – black hole. Well before the end of the evening the narrator has moved on, and it’s like growing up. Wolff has used the writing of Ayn Rand as a kind of metaphor of the self-regarding cynicism of adolescence. Our hero has tried it out and very quickly found it wanting. Literature as moral growth. Leavis would love it.

Before the end of the chapter he’s going back to his first love: Hemingway. Rand had been dismissive when he’d asked her a question about him, and now he decides that what makes Hemingway great is his openness to the imperfections of what our narrator thinks of as real life. And Hemingway’s characters inhabit a recognisable society, not some imaginary arena paced about by monstrous egos. And guess who’s going to be the next visiting writer?

What on earth is our boy to do? Chapter 6 is the most tortured yet, as he obsessively types and re-types copies of the great man’s greatest stories. All around he can hear his rivals typing and typing. And all around there’s also the sense of something coming to an end. Two boys are expelled for adult vices – sex and smoking – and another nearly is for the unacceptably un-boyish crime of flaunting his atheism. This is their last term, and the narrator’s fraught days and nights of not writing are made worse by a kind of self-knowledge: all his time at the school he’s put on an act – so that when Bill, the only boy who could ever have been a true friend, seems to offer him the chance to pull away the mask – he keeps the mask firmly in place. Of course he does. And the deadline is tomorrow morning….

We see how far he is from the honesty he admires so much in his hero when, from a big pile of other schools’ literary magazines, he finds a story and… copies it. Before he decides to do this, I found myself complaining at the preposterous way the story he finds so precisely mirrors his own life: scholarship kid from a poor urban one-parent family carefully manipulates people (family and friends) to keep afloat a highly comfortable new-found lifestyle. All he has to do is change the gender of the narrator and a few other details. But it’s ridiculous to complain. We’re not supposed to be taking any of this as the literal truth: Wolff is making literature and the cult of great writing do a lot of work, and the discovery of a story whose unlikely aptness Wolff openly acknowledges is, I suppose, about to open up a moral can of worms. The narrator, in his overwrought state, sees the story he has discovered as his chance to reveal who he really is. So how can his use of it in the competition be anything but truthful?

Ha. He’s doomed, obviously. His university place, the respect of his teachers, his peers, the younger kids…. Oh dear. By making literature the metaphor for so much else in this novel, Wolff has neatly given himself the opportunity to cover his main character in blame. In the literary world, is there any greater sin than plagiarism? (Of course, he might get away with it and win the competition – but then he’ll have a lifetime to regret the way he achieved his hour of literary delight. Either way, he’s Faust, and we all know what happened to him.)

4 June
Chapter 7
In fact, Wolff gets it all over with in this chapter. For a few pages the narrator basks in glory as ‘his‘ story wins hands-down. Even Hemingway seems impressed in an edited interview he’s done over the phone with a teacher. At one point the narrator assures us that he regards the story as entirely his own – so when he’s called into the Star Chamber of the Dean’s office he doesn’t understand what the problem is. (It might be hard to believe, but hey.) The assembled masters soon tell him, and his fall from grace is as swift as Satan’s in Paradise Lost. He’s on a train before the end of the afternoon. The narrator doesn’t dwell on his feelings; we have to be content with a description of how the familiar sounds of the school are the sounds of reality about to call him back, surely, from the nightmare.

Mr Ramsay – the teacher with the bored wife, the modernist who had received the put-down from Robert Frost, is kind to him as he drives him to the station. We realise what has been hinted at before: in the complacent old school corridors Ramsay knows things are changing – and that the narrator’s life is not at an end. Elsewhere in the chapter (or it could be on the first page of the next chapter, which I had a quick look at) we find out that Hemingway is dead. So it goes. It’ll be Kennedy next.

What’s going on? As usual, Wolff is making literature stand for a lot. There’s no doubt that the narrator got it horribly wrong, by any normal standards of behaviour: his teachers find it hard to believe what he did, and his father dismisses the idea point-blank. As I see it, the boy’s mistake is as much to do with the status of the text as anything else. For him the story, as we saw in the previous chapter, is the truth. For months he’s had no voice of his own, obsessively reading when he should be drafting his own work, or simply copying Hemingway word for word. When he finds a story that matches his own life, it becomes his. Except… everybody else in the world judges a story by its style, by the words used and the order they are used in. For the narrator, bizarrely, the text has disappeared altogether. Now, this is his story. Idiot.

Except… Bill, his not-quite friend, is furious: he thinks the narrator has stolen his story – the one he’s never admitted to, just as the narrator has never admitted his own to Bill. They were both nearly ready in Chapter 6, but not ready enough. Honesty? Don’t make me laugh – and that’s why, in the end (not that we’re anywhere near the end yet) we find this narrator wanting. He might recognise truth, but he doesn’t recognise honesty when he falls over it. So he falls a long way. As we guessed in Chapter 6, his bright future is now dust and ashes.

6 June
Chapter 8 to the end
Blimey. Seems I took my eye off the ball during Chapter 7 – because a character who disappeared almost unnoticed carries the last section entirely. Or maybe it isn’t my fault: all through the novel Dean Makepeace has only made occasional appearances and when he mysteriously absents himself during the boy’s expulsion meeting I hardly noticed. So, when Wolff makes the last 25 or 30 pages focus entirely on the Dean’s story… well, it’s a bit bemusing. I’ll come back to that.

Once Wolff has got his narrator out of the school there’s a lurching change of pace: instead of pages spent on a single night’s agonising, we get the narrator’s whole life in a few hundred words. And, reader… in spite of us never having seen him write a thing during his school days, guess what he’s become now. He’s a famous enough writer to be invited back to his old school. What larks – except Wolff gives us absolutely no reason to believe a word of it. He’s gone through the series of requisite lowlife jobs, he’s – wait for it – fought in Vietnam, he’s… well, he’s a writer now, so get over it.

But then, before going to Vietnam in order – as we are never told in so many words – to discover his recalcitrant muse, we get the best episode in the book: he writes to, and then sees, the girl who wrote ‘his’ story. Now in her 20s, she is as mature and sorted-out as he is gauche and, still, dishonest. Like all the other writers we hear from in the novel, she misunderstands what he did: she assumes he used her story as a dig at Hemingway, fooling the old drunk into thinking it could only have come out of a male sensibility. (Wolff is having at least two jokes here: one is against his earnest young narrator, still monumentally impressed and moved by a story its writer no longer has any interest in, and the other is against the cult of Hemingway, adding to the pastiche of his later ramblings we read in the ‘interview’ in Chapter 7.)

I said it was an impressive episode, and I’ve made it sound like a series of literary in-jokes. So which is it? A bit of both, now I think about it. There’s the best joke of all: Susan, the writer of the original story, has never written a thing since, says outright that stories never change anything, and that she’s training to become a doctor, someone who can make a difference. Whoa…. After everything Wolff has made literature stand for he’s now pouring shit all over it. But we also get further confirmation of the narrator’s – what? – weakness in comparison with her. He’s still presenting a false self, lets her think that yes, he did plagiarise it as a joke. This guy’s a moral worm.

Ok. But that’s the end of his story. Fast forward several decades to the successful author being invited to appear at the old school. Is he still a moral worm? In finding his own voice, has he actually gone through some kind of moral schooling? Don’t ask, because Wolff allows the question to fade away as, indeed, the narrator fades away. He accidentally meets Ramsay, now the school’s headmaster, and the last 25 pages consist of the story he tells about Makepeace. Hmm. I said the narrator fades away. I meant he disappears. His status as a writer becomes arbitrary, no more than a convenient hook to hang the final chapters on. It’s the least satisfying aspect of the whole book, because it means the moral journey never reaches any kind of conclusion.

Instead we’re presented with a different moral conundrum, which only sheds light on the narrator’s behaviour while he was still a boy. Dean Makepeace leaves the school because he recognises that a boy is being expelled for something he himself is guilty of: he gains kudos from a false story. For decades he has allowed everyone to believe that he knows Hemingway personally. He has never claimed this, but he has never denied it either. Ramsay piles on the Mr Chips details, having us believe that teaching had always been the most important thing in Makepeace’s life. What a sacrifice: it’s a decision with real moral weight behind it.

Except…the impact of all this gets lost, and I was left wondering whether Wolff means it to, or whether it happens accidentally. First, it could be suggested that Makepeace might be a bit embarrassed that Hemingway is going to arrive at the school in a few days’ time, so it might be a good idea to make himself scarce. (Wolff glosses over this, but the idea is definitely hovering.) And after a year he goes back to the school anyway, and the final sentence of the novel is a quotation from the Bible about the return of the Prodigal Son.

So is Wolff saying to us that none of it amounts to a hill of beans? Big gestures are no more than that, gestures, just as stories are only stories…. Dunno. But it seems surprising that after literature has been made so much of in the first seven chapters that Wolff can apparently reduce it, and the questions it raises, to nothing much. Should our narrator accept the invitation back to the school that threw him out? He’s refused in the past, but now, oh, what the hell. This time he accepts, but by this time all the moral urgency of the novel’s early chapters has disappeared. If the chapters based in the school are about the painful process of gaining moral maturity, the last section seems to suggest we should be pragmatic, as Ramsay the fundraising headmaster has become, and stop worrying. Seems. But whether that’s what Wolff intended I have no idea.

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One Response to Old School – Tobias Wolff

  1. Mitchell Peterson says:

    I like how you described the last few chapters, as I could never fully understand them. Wolff left it very bland, and I hated that; the ambiguity of the situation just irritated me. I read crime and punishment along with this book, and much rather preferred crime and punishment’s whopping 600 pages to this strange turn in the novel.

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