In this year of (inadvertent) re-reads, I’ve finished my third after Ponniyin Selvan and Wuthering Heights: Tobias Wolff’s Old School.
I first read Old School during our year in the US, picking it randomly off the shelves at thelocal library. This was seven years ago, when my spirits were just reviving from the effects of a bleak winter. The days grew longer, slowly but surely — the sun rose a minute or two earlier, dusk arrived a little later. The snowstorm in January had been an enjoyable spectacle, but what followed before and after was miserable sputtering from skies that knew no sunshine.
Books came to my rescue then and Old School was one of them. It’s not a cheery book by any means, but it set me off on a reading journey that enriched our trip to Paris later in the year — what a shame it would have been to go all the way and not care about Sylvia Beach! Wolff led me to Ernest Hemingway, who in turn led me to more writing about the Lost Generation.
It was probably Somerset Maugham who drew me back to Old School this blazing May in Chennai, far from where I first read it, geographically and in terms of the weather. Reading The Razor’s Edge and following Larry’s journey to Paris during his disillusionment after the First World War naturally reminded me of the Lost Generation. Larry seeks peace as he deals with what seems to be PTSD after having lost a friend in the war; he starts with Paris, where he spends a lot of time reading and learning. I’m just reaching the halfway mark in the book, where he has reached Germany and will probably travel further, but it is fascinating to see how different the experiences are in this and, say, A Farewell to Arms. So is the writing: in contrast to Hemingway’s staccato style, Maugham’s embodies composure and steadiness of the kind we would be asked to emulate, if someone had taught us writing.
Old School falls into a similar category. Wolff’s stellar writing is centred on boarding schools, literature, visiting writers, stuffy teachers — what’s not to love? When I picked it up the second time I didn’t remember the details, only that I had liked the book and was more than willing to go back to it, this time with a new perspective: I knew Hemingway better and was prepared not to hero-worship him along with the schoolboys. I was left heartbroken at his treatment of Hadley and the women who came along later. I don’t particularly admire his posturing. But his writing brings back a lot of memories of places I love and may never go back to. Watching Pulp Fiction for the first time recently, I said to G. that it felt Hemingway-esque — and learnt later that Quentin Tarantino had indeed been inspired by The Killers, one of the Nick Adams stories. Having grown up with my dad’s stories from the boys’ school he went to, sprinkled with strict Brothers and canes and boarders’ pranks, heavily masculine environments evoked through books or cinema bring along a sense of second-hand nostalgia.
Old School is a small book but I took my own time reading it, because there were sentences I wanted to read twice (that I now want to read again). Amidst reverence of various kinds is that for English:
How did they command such deference — English teachers? Compared to the men who taught physics or biology, what did they really know of the world? It seemed to me, and not only to me, that they knew exactly what was most worth knowing. Adept as they were at dissection, they would never leave a poem or a novel strewn about in pieces like some butchered frog reeking of formaldehyde. They’d stitch it back together with history and psychology, philosophy, religion, and even, on occasion, science. Without pandering to your presumed desire to identify with the hero of a story, they made you feel that what mattered to the writer had consequence for you, too.
The story touches upon class, obsession, and false appearances — about the actions that push one to strive for a certain kind of acceptance. It is about the artiste’s despair, where the real and the imagined merge inextricably, and consequent shame leads to questionable decisions. There are layers in the reverence accorded to writers: while the boys look up to Hemingway, their teacher worships Hawthorne. Ambition makes writers and writing seem intensely personal, as does more mature regard. It is not difficult to appreciate these feelings, even if they occasionally feel contrived. After all, the ardour evoked by any art form is unique and personal, and can be wildly misunderstood by someone who doesn’t care for it.
I’m not exaggerating the importance to us of these trophy meetings. We cared. And I cared as much as anyone, because I not only read writers, I read about writers. I knew that Maupassant, whose stories I loved, had been taken up when young by Flaubert and Turgenev; Faulkner by Sherwood Anderson; Hemingway by Fitzgerald and Pound and Gertrude Stein. All these writers were welcomed by other writers. It seemed to follow that you needed such a welcome, yet before this could happen you somehow, anyhow, had to meet the writer who was to welcome you.
To say more would be to give too much away, and there are parts that I didn’t really adore that I won’t go into here, but I’m happy I re-read the book; maybe I’ll go back to it in ten years’ time in a new season and see what has changed, how I’ve changed. Hemingway, Maugham, Wolff himself, and several others will fill the intervening years. Some memories will have faded or been elbowed out by others, relevant or irrelevant — all I ask for is for this fascination to remain.