Saturday, November 1, 2008

Ventriloquism, fractals, and the dying gasps of Camelot (Books - Old School by Tobias Wolff)

Tobias Wolff's Old School is a literature lover's dream. I am about three-quarters of the way through this wonderful novel after only a single sitting. It is set at a fancy boys' prep school in 1960, right after the election of JFK. It is narrated retrospectively from the point of view of a former scholarship student and aspiring writer. His school frequently invites famous writers as guest speakers. It gives talented upper-classmen the opportunity to compete for one meeting with the guest by submitting their own writing, which will be judged by the writer.
If the school had a snobbery it would confess to, this was its pride in being a literary place...Dean Makepiece had been a friend of Hemmingway's during World War I and was said to have served as the model for Jake's fishing buddy Bill in The Sun Also Rises. The other English masters carried themselves as if they too were intimates of Hemmingway, and also of Shakespeare and Hawthorne and Donne. These men seemed to us a kind of chivalric order. Even boys without bookish hopes aped their careless style of dress and the ritual swordplay of their speech. And at the headmaster's monthly teas I was struck by the way other masters floated at the fringe of their circle, as if warming themselves at a fire.

How did they command such deference - English teachers? Compared to the men who taught physics or biology, what did they really know of the world? It seemed to me, and not only to me, that they knew exactly what was most worth knowing. Unlike our math and science teachers, who modestly stuck to their subjects, they tended to be polymaths. Adept as they were at dissection, they would never leave a poem or a novel strewn about in pieces like some butchered frog reeking of formaldehyde. They'd stitch it back together with history and psychology, philosophy, religion, and even, on occassion, science. Without pandering to yoru presumed desire to identify with the hero of a story, they made you feel that what mattered to the writer had consequence for you, too.

With his preferences clearly stated, Wolff has set the stage for not only a story about the forming of young souls, but also for some enjoyable literary ventriloquism - first in the writing of the young contestants and later in the spoken words of the visitng writers, all actual literary giants - Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and, although I haven't gotten to that part yet, Ernest Hemmingway.

Here he writes as Bill White, the narrator's roommate - a Jewish student trying to pass for gentile - and his competition for meeting poet Robert Frost. White has already written most of a novel:
Have to take my hat off to you, said Montague. Tricky bit of tradecraft, given the circumstances. Storm blowing the damned tent down, and the geaters into the liquor. I shan't forget it.

Not al all, not at all, said Dr. Coates. The merest intern could have done as well - probably better.

I shan't forget it, Montague repeated. I'm forever in your debt, he added coldly.

Aren't we all, said Ashley, pouring herself another scotch. She stared at the falling snow. Whatever would we do withouth the good doctor's services?

You bitch, said Montague. You perfectly beautiful bitch.

As our narrator observes

... Bill was a contender. His characters were stiled but he had confidence and his storeis were eventful and closely detailed... Bill's talent was particularity. How the snow creaked underfoot on a very cold clear day, or what the low white sun looked like though a tangle of black branches. The tackiness of a just-oiled rifle stock, the tearing sound of a bored woman brushing out her long hair in front of a fire. Everything in his work was particular and true except the people.

Wolff gets obvious pleasure in this novel from role playing as different sorts of writers in this book, and then discussing everything from the mechanics to the value of such writing. But better than that, he wholly integrates those discussions into the larger intention of the book, which (at this point) seems to be a discussion of the value of literature in general and the coming-of-age of young literary minds and spirits in a changing world.

In a particularly enjoyable section of the novel, the winner of the Robert Frost competition is a surprise, having written a slavish immitation of their guest and entitled it First Frost. In it, a farmer contemplates death as au tumn approaches. While the students closest to the young poet know the poem to be a naive aping, Frost interprets it as a roguish take-off on himself. This perpetuates a discussion between two of them as to whether the meaning of a piece of writing is contained in the writer's intentions or the reader's interpretation:
George's poem isn't that bad, I said, if you read it a certain way.
As a take-off, you mean.
Right, as a take-off.
But it isn't a take-off.
It could be. That's how Frost read it.
But it isn't. And you know that.
It doesn't matter what I know.
It doesn't. Let's say you find a bottle. You're walking on the beach and you find George's poem in a bottle. You don't know anything about the person who wrote it, you just have the poem. You'd probably read it as a take-off.

Frost's visit occassions the asking of a provocative question by one faculty member as to:
...whether such a rigidly formal arrangement of language is adequate to express the modern consciousness. That is, should form give way to more spontaneous modes of expression, event at the cost of a certain disorder?

Modern consciousness, Frost said. What's that?

Ah! Good question, sir. Well - very roughly speaking, I would describe it as the mind's response to industrialization, the saturation propaganda of governments and advertisers, two world wars, the concentration camps, the dimming of faith by science, and of course the constant threat of nuclear anihilation. surely these things have had an effect on us. Surely they have changed our thinking.

Surely nothing. Frost stared down at Mr. Ramsey.

If this had been the Last Judgment, Mr. Ramsey and his modern consciousness would've been in for a hot time of it. He couldn't have looked more alone, standing there.

Don't tell me about science, Frost said. I'm something of a scientist myself. Bet you didn't know that. Botany. You boys know what tropism is, it's what makes a plant grow toward the light. You don't have to chase down a fly to get rid of it - you just darken the room, leave a crack of light in a window, and out he goes. Works every time. We all have that instinct, that aspiration. Science can't - what was your word? dim? science can't dim that. All science can do is turn out the false lights so the true light can get us home.

Mr. Ramsey began to say something, but Frost kep t going.

So don't tell me about science, and don't tell me about war. I lost my nearest friend in the one they call the Great War. So did Achilles lose his friend in war, and Homer did no injustice to his grief by writing about it in dactylic hexameters. There've always been wars, and they've always been as foul as we could make them. It is very fine and pleasant to think ourselves the most put upon folk in history - but then everyone has thought that from the beginning. It makes a grand excuse for all manner of laziness.

But about my friend. I wrote a poem for him. I still write poems for him. Would you honor your own friend by putting words down anyhow, just as they come to you - with no thought for the sound they make, the meaning of their sound, the sound of their meaning? Would that give a true account of the loss?

Frost had been looking right at Mr. Ramsey as he spoke. Now he broke off and let him eyes roam over the room.

I am thinking of Achilles' grief, he said. That famous, terrible, frief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Maybe it only really exists in form. Form is everything. Without it you've got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry - sincere, maybe, for what that's worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief and grievances are for petitions, not poetry.
If I may butt in here. First, the question itself, is full of such wonderful assumptions - many of us would have our own, perhaps somewhat different list 48 years later, and would have as many questions about how the tension between form and content would address the issues on our mind today. On the one hand Frost's answer is beautiful, an ode to form, but one might say it is a defensive ode. That Frost, the old poet, was a man of yesteryear in the year that JFK took the office of president (even though he spoke at the innauguration) and that the work of Ginsburg or Kenneth Koch or Frank O'Hara were not free of form, nor was there an absence of thought given to the relationship between sound and meaning. But Frost could not see this new form as form, so different was it from what he was used to. It's like the structures observed in nature which we initially could only see as chaotic, but which higher mathematics now describes as a recursive pattern it has called a fractal. And this speaks to the even larger picture Wolff is painting not just of form and content in literature, but in our lives. He was writing in an age when the superiority of the prep school and Harvard, the good ol' boy network, segregation, rituals of debutante balls - familiar forms - were having to give way to new forms. And this struggle isn't over yet.

I really admire how the smaller discussion of writing and its value, and the amusement of the way Wolff asumes the characters of Frost and, later, Ayn Rand, combine with the larger mission of observing a changing world - hearing the dying gasps of Camelot. I have a bit further to go, but I am finding the marriage of the writing and the observations on an individual character and a societal level really satisfying. I have a full day of school work before me, but I hope to finish Old School before the weekend is out.


Katherine said...

This is such a wonderful book, isn't it? And Wolff's memoir This Boy's Life is a book that I still remember, a decade after reading it.

Ted said...

Katherine - I'm loving it. I will have to add his memoir to my list.