Old School by Tobias Wolff
In Tobias Wolff's Old School, a writer reminisces about his time spent at an all-boys' school in 1960s New England and the much-prided literary competition that led to his downfall. The poet Robert Frost is the first of three celebrated authors to visit the school and his presence raises a question over the validity of the more formal literary tradition versus the modern consciousness in light of two world wars. The novel is peppered with such weighty literary enquiries. Then Ayn Rand's dramatic appearance provokes an examination of whether one can separate the writer from his or her work, a hotly contested area of modern theory. Then Hemingway arrives. There has been no writer before or since who so quintissentially embraces the merger between man and writer. Some say it is impossible to distinguish a Hemingway hero from the man himself.
And so Wolff, a writer who is lauded for his own memoir fiction, executes a poised examination of what it means to be a writer. What could have been a dry and academic undertaking comes alive under this assured storyteller's pen. I say pen, because there is a timeless quality to Wolff's charged, lean prose which is reminiscent of Fitzgerald, Salinger and Hemingway himself. There is something deeply personal about his subject matter as he explores the relationships between aspiring and accomplished writer, master and pupil, and father and son. Just as we must reject our parents' wisdom as adolescents so must we question society's scribes. His comparison is touching and inspiring. This is a writer who feels deeply about his craft.
One of the principal premises of the novel regards how actions, whether spoken, written or silent, can be interpreted in a myriad of ways often at variance to our intent. In a novel which questions the concept of honour, the gap between our intent, our actions and their interpretation looms large. When writing anything for the edification of others, this danger doubles because we have two subjective acts competing with one another.Through the three writing competitions in the book, Wolff illustrates this point dramatically. The boy who wins an audience with Frost is horrified when his hero wrongly believes he has parodied his poetry. Ayn Rand reads a story about a race of superior space-age cows who wreak revenge on humanity when they see their brethren slain and sees it as a challenge against the 'collectivist orthodoxy'. She leaves in disgust when her anointed winner innocently asks for her standpoint on vegetarianism - his personal bete noir. And an act of plagiarism by the narrator is interpreted as a despicable and dishonourable deed when it is truly a feat of bravery. The writer reveals his true self for the first time. His story just happens to be written by someone else.
Misunderstandings, omissions and misinformation infect Wolff's story, casting doubt on the very notion of honour, the foundation on which the Old School is built. Consider the master so bothered by his sins of omission that he does the honourable thing and leaves only to discover that honour offers no solace and so humbly returns. Whilst shunning a cosy ending, Wolff ultimately offers up a tale of redemption and a defence of the writer's profession because, for all its faults and chasm for error, writing is the one tool we have to truly explore and debunk our own and others' perceptions. Some truths shine through:
Why did you lie to me?
I always thought I told the truth
Why did you lie to me?
Because the truth lies like nothing else and I love the truth
Mark Strand, Elegy for My Father
As a postscript, this review is merely my interpretation and there are a myriad of others out there; the one thing they should share though is a heartfelt recommendation that anyone who has ever remotely dabbled in writing read this book.