Author Wolff shares the gift of the Fall
Editor’s Note: Tobias Wolff will give a reading on Saturday, Feb. 5, at Paepcke Auditorium at 5 p.m. His reading is part of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation Winter Words Series. Tickets are $20 and are available at the Wheeler Box Office, at the door or by calling 925-3122.Near the end of Tobias Wolff’s recent novel “Old School,” the narrator, trying to explain how he went from high school flunk-out to prize-winning author, comments, “the life that produces writing can’t be written about.” It’s a strange thing to read in a book by Wolff. As an author, Wolff has made his living and reputation doing precisely that – writing about himself, and how he became a writer. He is best known for two stunning memoirs: “This Boy’s Life,” about growing up a conflicted youth in Washington state, and “In Pharaoh’s Army,” about his battles as a soldier in Vietnam and as a son at home.As Wolff has shown, the writer’s life can indeed be written about. What Wolff means is that the writer’s life, any life for that matter, can’t be written about accurately. Human motives are furtive, the self largely unknowable, the world a strange and fleeting place. It is Wolff’s embrace of this ambiguity – first in his two memoirs and now in this latest quasi-autobiographical novel – that makes him such a great writer.
In a way, “Old School” takes over where “This Boy’s Life” leaves off – with the narrator/writer leaving his impoverished roots to enter an elite New England boarding school. That it ends where “In Pharaoh’s Army” begins – with the narrator/writer on his way to Vietnam – suggests that “Old School” can be read as the second installment of a three-part memoir, the completion of Wolff’s portrait of the artist as a young man. Like everything that Wolff writes, however, you can never be sure. Literature doesn’t trade in certainties.”I was pretty clear to call the other two memoirs and this one a novel,” Wolff said from his home in California on Wednesday. “Certainly the book covers some of the moral and psychological landscape between ‘This Boy’s Life’ and ‘In Pharaoh’s Army,’ but the line is meant to be blurred.”Wolff’s aversion to certainty means that he leaves an awful lot out of his books. It’s also why he is so often compared to Hemingway. His characters rarely offer explanations or motives; those that are offered seem evasive and unsatisfactory. His language is demotic; his descriptions barely sketches. In true Hemingway fashion, he relies on the tip of his iceberg to nudge us along, only occasionally giving us glimpses of the depth of his understanding. “I’m always happy to be compared to Hemingway,” Wolff said. “I don’t bridle much at these sort of things, although I do feel like I’m my own writer.”
“Old School” is a campus novel, set in the remote and pristine world of the elite boarding school, where young men live together in a sort of prelapsarian bliss. Like in other campus novels before it, the book plays out the myth of the Fall – young men are drawn to temptation, the purity of their world is destroyed or shown to be a sham, and confusion and despair follow. (One thinks most famously of John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace,” in which the Fall is played out literally by a character’s fatal plunge from a campus tree.)What’s new in “Old School” is that Wolff takes on this Eden myth, arguing that the fall from the symbolic garden, the expulsion from the school’s ivy gates, is a sorrowful but necessary step in the growth of the narrator into a true writer – and fully conscious human being. When we first meet him, the narrator is an aspiring young man who wants more than anything to gain a permanent place at the table of great writers – that immovable feast, to play on Hemingway’s phrase. Along with the other boys in the school, he feverishly enters school literary contests, the winners of which get private audiences with visiting authors (Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Hemingway himself all sign up).Yet as Wolff has demonstrated in his own work, great writing tackles real life – writers thrive not on certainty but confusion, not on what we know but on what we don’t. Anything produced by the narrator within the ordered, lofty world of the campus will ultimately be flawed. The narrator, who wants more than anything to be a writer, cannot be so initiated until he leaves Eden.
Which is, inevitably, exactly what happens. The narrator’s expulsion from the school, the fantastic reason for which won’t be given away here, turns out to be a godsend; it marks his graduation into the realm of literature. Late in the book, looking back on his time at the boarding school, the narrator has an epiphany:It is the nature of literature to behave like the fallen world it contemplated, this dusky ground where subterfuge reigns and certainty is folly.There is something large and important at stake here, although Wolff with his terse style would never admit it, a belief in the redemptive powers of literature in a flawed and confusing world. Adam and Eve should be thanked. When hand in hand they took their sad, solitary way from Eden, it was also a moment of great release, an initiation into the rich, flawed world of actual life. That world is occasionally made still, even beautiful, by our portraits, our writings, of it. That is the job of the writer.”The narrator absolutely needs to fall to become a writer,” Wolff said in Wednesday’s interview. “This book is the gift of the Fall. All books are, I suppose.”Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.
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