on 23 June 2004
Like Wolff's other books, Old School can be read in a day or so thanks to its triple virtues of brevity, readability and moreishness.
I am convinced that it's as much memoir as fiction, since the nameless narrator fits Wolff in age (at high school in 1960) and goes on to fight in Vietnam. The book therefore fits in chronogically, very neatly between the end of This Boy's Life and the beginning of In Pharaoh's Army. Several of the early set pieces, too, have the ring of truth in that they're neither outlandish nor neat enough to be exclusive hand-tooled fiction. But that's not to say it isn't well written, which it is - perfectly - and of which the first paragraph should be evidence enough:
"Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election. It tells you something about our school that the prospect of his arrival cooked up more interest than the contest between Nixon and Kennedy, which for most of us was no contest at all. Nixon was a straight arrow and a scold. If he'd been one of us we would have glued his shoes to the floor. Kennedy, though - here was a warrior, an ironist, terse and unhysterical. He had his clothes under control. His wife was a fox. And he read and wrote books, one of which, Why England Slept, was required reading in my honors history seminar. We recognised Kennedy; we could still see in him the boy who would have been a favorite here, roguish and literate, and with that almost formal insouciance that both enacted and discounted the fact of his class."
The opening line refers to the meat of the book - visiting writers come to the school, and one boy will get to have a private audience with him or her. This boy is the one who writes the best story, to be judged by the esteemed visitor. Here is where the book becomes more obviously fictional and inventive, with a straightish plot involving plagiarism and dishonour. It is also where Wolff is at his best, in the scenes where Frost and later Ayn Rand visit the school, and in the build-up to the visit by the great white shark of boy's own American literature, Ernest Hemingway, the narrator's literary idol. Wolff has great fun at the expense of Randy Ann's (to almost anagrammatize her) swivel-eyed right-of-Hitler madness, and puts in Frost's mouth an eloquent rebuttal to a questioner who demands agreement that formal rhyme and rhythm in verse is inadequate in the face of 'modern consciousness', beaten and blustered as it is by war and angst:
"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 the 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 [that word again: a theme in Old School] your 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?
"I am thinking of Achilles' grief. That famous, terrible grief. 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."
And there you have it. A short book which is a breeze to read and which is filled with things that you will keep coming back to (I'm damn near tempted to start it again right now). What are you waiting for?
In this homage to literature, the literary life, and the power of literature to influence a reader's life, Tobias Wolff focuses his attention on a small New England prep school in 1960, a school in which students live and breathe "the writing life." The headmaster has studied with Robert Frost, and the Dean is thought to have been a friend of Ernest Hemingway during World War I. To the boys, the English Department is "a kind of chivalric order," where they practice the "ritual swordplay of their speech."
For these students, the highlights of the school year are the three-times-a-year appearances of literary luminaries. When a writer visits, one boy has the opportunity to have a private audience with him, an honor for which the boys contend in vigorously competitive writing contests. The speaker/narrator, a scholarship student, is desperate to win an audience: "My aspirations were mystical," he says. "I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems." As various writers--Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and finally, everyone's idol, Ernest Hemingway--are scheduled to appear at the school, the reader observes the growth of the boys, especially the speaker, as they are influenced by and react to the contest, to each other, to the visiting writers, and to the writers' speeches. In the contest to meet Hemingway, the novel reaches its peak, and in a shocking way, the speaker's life changes forever.
Wolff's novel is most remarkable for its point of view and for its conciseness. We never know what the speaker looks like or even his name, since it is through his eyes that the entire novel is filtered. He is interested in poems and short stories and philosophy and writing, all of which he talks about in detail, not in the observation of his surroundings. The limited setting of a New England prep school expands as the speaker ages and moves from school to the crueler outside world, and in later chapters, in which we see him as a mature writer, we also see how he uses some of his school experiences in his fiction, some of which appears within this novel.
Old School is a novel which students of writing will treasure--for its revelations of what it means to be a writer, its insights into the thinking of a perceptive teenager who is both idealistic and pragmatic, its irony, and its remarkable narrative voice. The themes are beautifully realized, and not one word is wasted or rings false. Though Wolff says that "No true account can be given of how or why you become a writer," he comes as close here to illustrating that process as in any other novel I've ever read about the writing life. Mary Whipple
on 29 January 2006
This book is too short. 195 pages of sheer joy, not nearly enough! Part of the way through, I found myself doing something I remember doing all the time as a kid – clocking how much of the book was left, and thinking: "No, please let it last longer!" I honestly can't remember the last time I felt like that, but this one had me smiling all the way through. I didn't want it to end, it's just too delicious for words … but I'll have a go.
On the back cover its says: "Think Dead Poets' Society crossed with The Catcher in the Rye". Well, not exactly. The adolescent narrator isn't Holden Caulfield, he's not cracking up; and the school isn't the philistine institution of DPS, quite the contrary. Set in 1960-61, this school has a literary tradition that it's extremely proud of, and its boys are actively encouraged both to read widely and to write themselves. To this end, prestigious writers are invited to the school three times a year and on each occasion a competition is held. The boys are invited to submit a piece of their own writing and the winner receives a private audience with the visitor. This honour is coveted more than just about anything else in the life of the school. The story's narrator is one of a number of hopeful young writers at the school, and in his final term the visiting author is to be his hero, Ernest Hemingway.
This novel delivers all the sweet seriousness and passion of youth. It gives you full-blooded aspiration not yet blunted by bitter experience, though you know this is just around the corner. With the arrival of each writer, expectations are confronted head-on by the living, breathing person suddenly in their midst: in the case of Robert Frost, expectations are awesomely exceeded; in the case of Ayn Rand, they are dashed in the most splendidly awful and brilliantly funny chapter in the book (for my money). This is a novel about the power of reading, and about writing itself. As the story unfolds, the young narrator slowly comes to realise that if he is to be the real thing as a writer he must find the courage to accept, and speak of, his own life openly and with brutal honesty.
I've not read Tobias Wolff before. This man's the business: precise, elegant, and a pleasure to read through and through. A review in the inside cover says: "Some readers may wish to turn from the last page to the first and begin again." I agree. Pure gold!
I was drawn to this book after reading some excellent reviews and the fact that it has been described as "Dead Poets' Society meets Catcher in the Rye" i knew this was one i had to read.
Old School is set at a prestigious American school for boys during the 1960's and describes the rivalry which emerges among the classmates as they compete against one another to win literary regocnition for their writing and the chance to meet a celebrated writer. Only one writer visits the school each term and only one boy can win the competition to privately meet with the author. The sense of competition really escalates, however, when it is announced that the last writer to visit, during the final term before graduation will be Ernest Hemmingway.
I found the initial chapters of this book, while beautifully written, a little slow and the plot a little weak, however, once i reached the half way point things became a lot more interesting. The descriptions of the boys relationships with one another and the descriptions of their dorms as well as the touching relationships which emerge between them and certain teachers were reminiscent of 'Catcher in the Rye'.
For me the final chapters in which the narrator describes his early adult life, after leaving school are the most effective as the novel really comes into its own and has some lengthy but insightful character descriptions which can be quite moving.
I think this novel is really successful in capturing a certain time and place in recent history and is a great read for anyone who loves adolescent fiction, in a distinguished academic setting, with some interesting literary references... well worth a look!
on 21 March 2016
Although the writing isn't as poetic as I prefer, it effectively captures moments of beauty and displays genuine sensitivity. It is the writing of a master of the craft.
It may be described as 'coming of age' but moved me coming to it as an adult. Interesting thoughts on the nature of fiction, literary criticism, taste
I read it very quickly because the story is compelling, but must admit that after the key events, the tension slackened somewhat. I found one of the later plot twists slightly unconvincing. Otherwise, a work of art I would recommend to anyone aged 13+.
on 30 December 2009
Set in the early 1960s, the old school of the title is a prestigious American boys school, for its time relatively liberal in many of its values but snobbish in its approach to, particularly, literature. The narrator is a scholarship boy who carefully conceals this aspect of his background, along with his Jewishness. The central thrust of the plot is the literary competitions focussed on the termly visit of a famous writer - an ageing Robert Frost, a combative Ayn Rand and, as the novel moves smoothly towards its climax, an advice-dispensing Ernest Hemmingway. The boys produce poems or short stories to be judged by the eminent termly guest, with the winner granted an hour's private audience in the headmaster's study or garden.
Within this framework, Wolff fashions a sensitive and witty novel - an evocation of time and place and a society on the edge of convulsive change, the beautiful and cloistered security of a privileged and cut-off subculture, thoughtful reflections on major literary debates and controversies, - and all in a most clear and compelling writing style. The latter, whilst never abstruse and erudite, nor overloaded with poetics, creates a beautiful reading experience - thoughtful, celebratory and elegant.
In this way, Wolff alludes to issues that particularly foxed me as a teenage student - the detection of authenticity in literature, the battle between artifice and experience, the primal human need for narrative. By showing us readers how such matters translate into, and can be unobtrusively embedded within, superb story telling, Wolf throws aside arid and self-serving debates while at the same time brilliantly illustrating why they persist in occupying critics and more seriously-inclined readers.
Had this book actually been available in the period in which it is set, I might well have been able to sign up for and enjoy higher level study of literature. A wonderful book, one to eke out by daily rationing, whilst fighting the intense temptation to devour it in one sitting.
on 19 April 2014
Well worth a read. Very atmospheric, great characterization and a convincing plot - I was really not expecting the final twist. Also the denouement was well done, very ironic. Not a great work of literature but very craftsman-like and understated. I will read more of this author's work.
on 13 May 2012
Tobias Wolff has for some time been one of my favourite contemporary writers, so I was looking forward to this, his first attempt at writing a bigger fictional story.
The novel is set at an American boarding school for boys around 1960. Wolff's own years at a similar school take up very little space in his famous memoirs "This Boy's Life", and for good reasons it seems. According to Wolff's portrayal in this novel the environment is infinitely uninteresting. The students are either shallow and snobbish in all their over-protected immaturity, or in other ways plain unsympathetic. None of them like each other, no surprise. The teachers - pretty much all obsessed with literature on a formal level - are a bunch of wimps who have made a career out of something they don't really understand but nevertheless can make a very comfortable living from, unlike the people who actually create literature. It's a wonderful world.
However, the unnamed narrator has a different background than most of his fellow students. Like Wolff himself, he comes from a far less privileged family and is a "scholarship-boy". You would think that his position as an outsider looking in would make for an interesting dramatic plot with a lot of tension (for instance, will he burn this place down or will he blow it up?). Unfortunately, it isn't utilised to any noticeable extent. Instead, the plot is centered on some short story competitions among the students. Enticing at times, I admit, but not exactly earth-shattering.
Technically, the novel has several problems:
1. The narrator simply doesn't write as well as the real Tobias Wolff does. For instance, he is too obsessed with showing off his vocabulary, and as a result the often praised lucidity gets somewhat lost. There is a point in that, of course, but also an obvious drawback, to put it mildly.
2. Parts of the novel could have been structured better. For example, when the narrator suddenly goes on an academic rant about Ernest Hemingway it leaves the reader rather baffled, until it turns out that the famous author is actually about to visit the school. Clearly, things are told in the wrong order there. And another example: the novel actually ends on page 175, but then it carries on for 25 more pages with a long, pointless and rather irrelevant story about what happened to the dean of the school after he chucked his job in around the time when the narrator got caught in the act. Very strange, and not very Hemingway to say the least.
3. When the Hemingway-obsessed narrator fails to finish in time a short story for the competition that could win him a meeting with the great man, it hardly seems to bother him at all. He just wakes up at the very last moment and decides to plagiarise a short story he finds in a school news paper from a girl's school, changing a few things around. Despite the close communication between these schools, who for instance send each other their news papers (that's how he got hold of the girl's story), it doesn't occur to him for a moment that he might be caught, or even that he is doing something wrong. Nor does he feel bad about having cheated when Hemingway himself chooses the story as a winner. The fact that he is thrown out of the school less than a month before his final exams has practically not effect on him either, which is all rather peculiar since were haven't been given any other impressions of him being either semi-retarded or some kind of a sociopath - in fact, he is constantly rambling on about the wonders of Hemingway's demands for truthfulness.
Some of these problems deal with the old issue of plausibility in the text and could have been solved in various simple ways if the novel had been properly edited, but even that wouldn't take care of the big problem here, which is that the author keeps his cards too close to his chest. It's fine to use Hemingway-ish understatement and keep nine tenth of the iceberg hidden from the reader, but keeping 99 pct hidden is just too much. Yes, there IS an ironic undercurrent which mocks these hideous upper-class bores for their snobbish academic obsession with literature (apart from the girl, who later turns out to be a rebel). There IS a creature in there somewhere who wants to swing an axe at all these people, who in fact don't really understand literature but are afraid of it, so they try to turn it into a methodical science. In that way there is a whole world of critique hiding under the surface of this story, but it is simply buried too deep because the author doesn't have the courage to bite the hand that feeds him. You only have to skim the 5-star reviews here to see how many readers take this book as a tribute to the wonderful world of academic book lovers and boarding schools in days gone by!
Considering that Tobias Wolff is today a professor of creative writing at Stanford University in California, you can easily understand his dilemma. To write the kind of novel that seems to be lurking under the surface here, he could end up deeply insulting his employers, colleagues, students, some readers, and even put a big question mark over his own professional importance as a teacher of something that can't be taught, certainly not to people at the age of young students, as Wolff is most certainly intelligent enough to be fully aware (otherwise he can try to count how many published writers have come out of his courses over the years). Fair enough, I suppose - we all have to put food on the table, and making a full-time career out of publishing short story collections and memoirs at a rate of one per decade is not particularly realistic. But did he really have to go as far as to dedicate this novel: "For my teachers"? The wolf has clearly forgotten where it came from.
If a writer hasn't got the guts to tell a certain story completely honestly and truthfully, he shouldn't write it at all. That is what Hemingway taught us, and what Wolff keeps reminding everyone throughout this novel - in fact, it is probably its main theme. A shame he didn't listen to himself.
The idea of august public schools steeped in history, tradition and prestige would seem more suited to a story set in Great Britain. But America's private schools are an element of its class stratified, oligarchial society. What ends in the Upper East Side begins in the wilds of New England in one of the region's top private schools. This world is ruthlessly and earnestly protrayed in this moving story of life in one of these elite academies.
The story revolves around a group of literary minded students who intend to break into the vaunted and gilded world of literature and writing. The school promotes their interest by inviting famous writers, and offering the tantilising prize of a private audience to the student who writes the best story. The competition is intense, but when the school announces that the next author to speak will be Hemingway, the rivalry threatens to destroy the delicate fabric of the school.
This is a story that opens up a secret world, of precocious youth, ambition and status. It is a world more usually represented by tales of Oxford colleges, or reminiscent of the Dead Poets' Society. In the end the story becomes a morality tale, a warning against blind ambition and unbending tradition. The world of the old school dies, both literally with expulsion, suicide and exile, and metaphorically with the dawning of a new, truly egalitarian age. It is subtly and beautifully told, and a delight to read.
on 20 March 2011
I echo the many other positive reviews. The vignettes of student writing, especially, are pitch perfect. My contribution is to speculate about the genesis of the book. Is it, as I hope, really a vehicle for mocking the ridiculous (if sinister) Ayn Rand? In 2004, when the book was written, Rand's "Atlas Shrugged", was apparently on the bedside table of every neo-con from Cheney down. Did its renewed fame remind Wolff of an early infatuation and disillusion? Did this prompt him to write the brilliant Rand assassination scene? This alone would make the book for me, but in fact it is only the cherry on the cake - the rest is equally enjoyable. Why not 5 stars? I was disorientated by the last chapter - does it reflect another episode from Wolff's school years which he wanted to get off his chest? I've no idea, but, to me, it didn't really seem to fit.