When I heard that the non-structured book group had chosen Old School for its October read, I decided it was time to pick up the book that one of its members, Frances of NonSuch Book, had kindly sent me. She didn’t tell me that it was such a beautiful book – I’m talking physical object here – goodness, how my heart leapt when I saw the deckled edges! (That’s a big deal on this side of the Atlantic – I wonder why UK publishers eschew them. Is it a cost thing?)
Anyway now that my heart rate has settled, let’s talk about the contents.
I would have loved the opportunity to attend the prep school that is the setting for many reasons. It’s in New England (one day I will go there, in Autumn, my favourite season) but more importantly the curriculum is designed to instill a love of literature and a desire to write. Every term a famous writer is invited as guest speaker and one pupil, the winner of a writing competition, is granted a private audience. With an opportunity to speak with literary luminaries such as Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway, the competition is taken seriously.
We see that through the eyes of the adolescent narrator. As the prize of each author is announced, he reads and peruses on the works of that author. Not having read Robert Frost or Ayn Rand, I felt at a disadvantage. Nevertheless there were plenty of comments on the works of Hemingway and others that I could appreciate.
Yet the effect of all these stories was to make me feel not Caesar’s power, but his fear of Ovid. And why would Caesar fear Ovid, except for knowing that neither his divinity nor all his legions could protect him from a good line of poetry.
The narrator competes, or tries to. He grapples with writer’s block, and in one case, works himself into a fever in pursuit of his art. Finally a story flows naturally – interestingly it is his own and thus more honest than anything he has written before either in competition or even “his” novel. The fallout, however, changes his life forever.
This raises the following questions. How autobiographical should fiction be? Should one divorce the writing from the man? Indeed how autobiographical is this novel and do the considerations of the fictional author in any way reflect those of the real one? I am particularly intrigued by the feverish reading of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and the less than complimentary depiction of the woman in person.
While literature forms the backbone of this novel, it is not the only theme. Adolescence, disaffection with one’s origins and one’s parents, a growing affection for the opposite sex, surrogate parental relationships between pupil and teacher, indeed between teacher and school are all interwoven into the narrative. So too the issues of class – the narrator is not from the privileged background of the other students. And he is Jewish, although he keeps that hidden (which I found quite surprising).
The simplicity of the narrative – clear, realistic and honest – belies the thematic complexity. It’ s not a difficult read at all yet there is quite a lot to ponder particularly on the subject of honour. For who exactly is the prodigal son? The pupil, the teacher, the author?
This was my first Tobias Wolff. I was impressed though not so convinced by the sections after the narrator has left the school. I felt a loss of impetus and focus though not enough to spoil the novel as a whole. Wolff is better known as a short story writer – I shall have to give those a try. Before or after The Fountainhead – now there’s a question. What do you think?
Other thoughts from the non-structured book group: