- Paperback: 208 pages
- Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (7 Feb. 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0747574650
- ISBN-13: 978-0747574651
- Product Dimensions: 13.1 x 1.4 x 19.6 cm
- Average Customer Review: 28 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 253,041 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Old School Paperback – 7 Feb 2005
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"An absolute classic. a great work of literary criticism as well as a beautiful memoir and a brilliant novel" -- Paul Morley, Newsnight Review
A wonderful, subtle novel -- Geoff Dyer, Books of the Year, Daily Telegraph
I liked Toby Wolffs Old School a droll, brilliantly achieved evocation of literary competitiveness and self-delusion -- Ian McEwan, Guardian Books of the Year
Think Dead Poets Society crossed with The Catcher in the Rye ... a beautifully crafted all-American coming-of-age tale -- Esquire
At one prestigious American public school, the boys like to emphasise their democratic ideals - the only acknowledged snobbery is literary snobbery. Once a term, a big name from the literary world visits and a contest takes place. The boys have to submit a piece of writing and the winner receives a private audience with the visitor. But then it is announced that Hemingway, the boys' hero, is coming to the school. The competition intensifies, and the morals the school and the boys pride themselves on - honour, loyalty and friendship - are crumbling under the strain. Only time will tell who will win and what it will cost them.See all Product description
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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+.
If I have any complaint, it is that the end of the book seems a little too short and not enough time is given to exploring the world of the adult narrator. Or maybe this is because I just didn't want it to end...?
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.
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