Discover more from Kyle on Kyle
Kyle on Old School by Tobias Wolff
A fragile vision preserved, a dream of a memory conveyed.
The protagonist of Tobias Wolff’s shrewdly—and at times devastatingly—observed first novel is a boy at an elite prep school in 1960. He is an outsider who has learned to mimic the negligent manner of his more privileged classmates. Like many of them, he wants more than anything on earth to become a writer. But to do that he must first learn to tell the truth about himself.
That’s the blurb on Amazon, anyway.
After I finish a book it takes some time to wrap my head around exactly what it is. “It's not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it,” Roger Ebert taunts me from beyond. Well, Ebert, most famous film critic, in behalf of those of us addicted to the how, who get drunk nightly on that aroma, I wanna say there is real misery in turning that last page, waking from a vivid dream, abandoned to just the feelings of the thing—the how. It is entirely disorienting. Off-compass from my life, sure, but also from the comfort of plot—that what.
Hours or weeks can pass in that curious afterglow. It can be beautiful and sedating, but also a barrier from relaying all that is learned and feels urgent to relay from the book. And stone-faced friends, who are again being subject to a fantasy that happened in my mind, experiences that altogether were not on the page, nod the conversation along in abject friend-some duty.
I’m not a punisher. I do self work. I write it out. I try to capture it. It’s lonely work, to attempt to graft the details of a fantasy more tangibly into your life. It feels silly, futile, to try to preserve it, or find a single other person to discuss it with.
In resignation I turn to reviews.
“Tobias Wolff lands a fatal blow to the artifice of academia and the frailty of honor,” someone probably said. “Ah, jeez, that's it,” I probably said as I registered the plot for the very first time. It happens this way. I seem to be a person who needs more reading to explain my reading.
Don’t read the reviews, some people say. Go in clean, they say. And I usually do. I’m happy to read a book on a single recommendation. I’ll know soon enough if it’s for me. But when the book is over, what is a review if not the book enduring. A sequel! Some say “critics are cowards! Let’s see them have a try!” But, those woozy off a fresh hit of how know there is an end to every good book. And critics, Ebert, have something to write about that.
“The life that produces writing can’t be written about,” says Wolff in a passage frequently highlighted by 301 other Kindle readers. In a sense, so also, writing cannot be written about. Writing can only be read.
And to that end, “it’s not what a review is about, it’s how it’s about it.”
Emily says we take the butterfly and dunk it in preservatives and pin it to a board next to moths of similar size. She and I hardly read the same books at the same time, but we bear with each other’s revelations and non-sequiturs and conversation intrusions in the wake of a recently finished book. We do it with tenderness, with weary resignation against the precedent set by good teachers and good classrooms, good critiques, and long tired nights in those formative learning years. Years in academia, or, put another way, years in devotion to the canon. The works that reviewers decided we should keep. A place where those reviewers, those tour managers, book an extension of Shakespeare (or whatever) onto the minds of a new generation.
It’s hard for Emily to mention the late Brandie Siegfried, the beloved professor who taught her Shakespeare (while we’re on the topic), without crying. And recently, as her graduate school Mills is bought up by Northeastern and gets transformed from a renowned women-only liberal arts school into something else, she grieves suddenly, as the news comes in. For her, the loss of Mills, while not physically lost, is a rupture in a crucial life-giving artery—a resource she thought she’d return to for poetry readings, concerts and performances, or dream upon dreams, maybe a place where she would have returned to teach.
There’s a pedagogical lineage, clearer than biology, between those who are born-again and those who are birthing. When it takes, when that affection is secured for books or the liberal arts, or maybe even the institution, those initiated become more than just craftsmen. They link arm-in-arm in committee, surrounding and protecting those in the act of becoming. And in that act you’ve got something unique to much of the world. Remove the notions of class, elitism, or critique, and you’ve got the chance for a rare, very real, example of “how it’s about.”
If that description feels true to your experience, you don’t need to know what makes Old School so masterful. It’s clear from the start that Wolff sees the world in generous magnificence, abundant with seers and helpers, and himself as just a lucky stow-away. “…someday I’d write something about my days at the school,” he says near the end of the book, reflecting on the messiness of the story behind him and his prolonged fear to revisit the school, “and needed to guard my fragile vision of the place. Memory is a dream to begin with, and what I had was a dream of memory, not to be put to the test.”
It’s a cutting comment, one that stands in contrast to the Wolff you experience throughout the book: a man whose life is not a special memory to be guarded, but a blank template ready to have the form of a great writer pressed onto it. Throughout his preparatory school days, young Wolff is hungry to give “the what” of his life up to the stories of the great writers that came before him.
He wants a writer's life. Specifically, Ernest Hemingway’s life.
The protagonist, presumed to be Wolff, just days before graduation, wins a short story contest and a walk alone with Hemingway in the headmaster’s garden. The entirety of the book has set us up for this victory. In the excitement that follows the news of his winning, young Wolff envisions the bond he and Hemingway will have—a connection that transcends words and lives in winks and eye-rolls. More than just admire Hemingway, Wolff has come to believe they are twin souls about to be reunited.
His peers and mentors confirm this belief. They knew all along that Wolff was special. This award winning business, this story which Hemingway has himself selected, only confirms what they already knew.
Well, for most. Wolff's roommate Bill feels the story has been plagiarized, that details have been stolen (spoiler: he is right). Bill isn’t accusing Wolff of lazy theft (spoiler: he has lazy thefted), rather Bill believes that the perspective isn’t a truthful one. “Okay, so you’ve taken an interest in this person’s situation. So you’ve imagined what it’s like. Bully for you. (…) That was my story, you fucking leech.”
“I didn’t have a lot of adjusting to do,” says Wolff, earlier, while in the act of sincere, rueful, plagiarizing, “These thoughts were my thoughts, this life my own. (…) Anyone who read this story would know who I was.”
In a sense, both are right. Wolff is learning what it’s like to see yourself in the how it is of great writing, and Bill has voiced the familiar self possession of what a writing is about.
As I pin this butterfly to a board, I find the details, the taxonomy, so unfamiliar. Sure, I went to school, I even went to a private college. But the rest, to my experience, is unfamiliar territory. And yet, these thoughts were my thoughts. That story was my story (you fucking leech!).
In Old School we find a fragile vision preserved, a dream of a memory conveyed. Wolff honors his life by writing something so natural to the stage of the mind, so preserved in its tenderness and human-ness that it carries on in the life of its new readers. It’s the care which translates (long ahead of its “fatal blow to the frailty of honor”).
Somehow it’s Robert Frost (or the Robert Frost of Wolff’s memory) who sums it up, the reason for why this book, why this story, why this amount of care. When Frost is pressed about the legitimacy of The Beats and if his fragile, preservative, approach to poetry matters against the brute force of liberation, expressionism, and improv, he says, “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?”
Well, Frost, Ebert, I do wonder if anything honorable can be yet more honored. If anything written can be yet more written. Movies are one thing, but it’s pretty bold to comment on a show that has a new cast, stage, and audience every time it performs.
So, in resignation here is my review: Old School is a rare butterfly. I’m better by it, improved by having it. I am certain it has changed me, somehow made me kinder in ways that can’t be justified in scrutiny of it. The life that produces writing can’t be written about, and no review by some Kyle can substitute for the experience of (please, dear reader) just reading. Call me when you’re done. I’d love to hear the details of your vivid dream.