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Old School by Tobias Wolff — book review

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“A true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life.”

Old School presents its readers with a concise exploration of the complexities of writing and interpretation. Tobias Wolff exerts exquisite control over his prose, evoking through his sparse yet vivid language the rarefied world in which his unmanned narrator moves in. Wolff brings to life the youth of the days past and their strive for artistic recognition, capturing the various undercurrents that are at play in their exclusive school.

“[T]he almost physical attraction to privilege, the resolve to be near it at any cost: sycophancy, lies, self-suppression, the masking of ambitions and desires, the slow cowardly burn of resentment toward those for whose favor you have falsified yourself. ”

What seems at first to be an idyllic environment reveals itself as a place for competitiveness since, as our narrator himself points out, “if the school had a snobbery it would confess to, this was its pride in being a literary place”. Most students, our protagonist included, guard their writing efforts with suspicion, and are wary of criticism. The winner of the literary contest held by their school is awarded with a one-on-one meeting with famous writers (Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Hemingway all make an appearance in Old School).

“I never thought about making connections. My aspirations were mystical. I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems, hands that had touched the hands of other writers. I wanted to be anointed.”

The protagonist of this novel has mythologised this ‘audience’, attributing to this meeting a sense of sublimity and viewing the writers he admires through the eyes of a disciple. Yet, his grappling with his ‘voice’ and is often influenced by the writing of those he reveres. His desire to win the competition leads to fraying relationships with his roommate, friends, and to a certain extent his relatives.

“For years now I had hidden my family in calculated silences and vague hints and dodges, suggesting another family in its place. The untruth of my position had given me an obscure, chronic sense of embarrassment, yet since I hadn’t outright lied I could still blind myself to its cause. Unacknowledged shame enters the world as anger; I naturally turned mine against the snobbery of others.”

Additionally our narrator is struggling with self-knowledge. Having taken pains to project a certain image of himself, his own class-consciousness alienates him from other students. Soon, his blindsided determination to win tests his already strained relationships and sees him rejecting truth in favour of self-deception.
The narrator’s undoing is not easy to read. Yet, his narration retains this ambivalent quality that I found quite enthralling.
In some ways Old School does for a 60s prep school what Teddy Wayne’s Apartment does for a 90s creative writing course. Both of these books are deceptively slender, and pack a real emotional punch. Both of narrators are ambition driven and their path to self-discovery is treacherous.
If you are interested in a novel with plenty of insights on writing and authorial intent or for a story that chronicles a boy’s troubling self-discovery, look no further.

Some of my favourite quotes

“It had become a fashion at school to draw lines between certain writers, as if to like one meant you couldn’t like the other. ”

“Now they sounded different to me. The very heedlessness of their voices defined the distance that had opened up between us. That easy brimming gaiety already seemed impossibly remote, no longer the true life I would wake to each morning, but a paling dream.”

“Loyalty is a matter of dates, virtue itself is often a matter of seconds.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)
Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

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