sábado, 30 de octubre de 2010

Old School

Old School (Vintage, 2003)
by Tobias Wolff
USA, 2003

With apologies to those of you tired about hearing about Madame Bovary already, I'm quite certain that the occasionally uninvolving Old School suffered from being read in such close proximity to Flaubert's absolutely riveting classic.  In addition, Wolff's fake memoir also suffers in comparison with Robert Walser's 1909 Jakob von Gunten, which I read and loved last year, and Robert Musil's 1906 The Confusions of Young Törless, which I often wished I were reading in place of Old School, in terms of that whole boarding school setting thing.  Mostly, though, I think it suffered because I didn't always buy the narrator's voice when he was talking about his school days and his formation as a Hemingway-loving teen writer troubled by his half-Jewish identity. That being said, I suppose this was an OK read overall.  Wolff's a fine craftsman with a knack for the unexpected gem of a line ("She had a soft fleshy prettiness like girls in silent films," on page 159, was one of my descriptive favorites), and a few of the chapters--particularly the two where the narrator talks about a plagiarism incident that gets him kicked out of school--sucked me in with the writing.  What a shame then that one of the few female characters in the novel, the ex-writer Susan Friedman, gets so little face time in this "memoir" given that she's a far more compelling creation than the male narrator who plagiarizes her story.  I think Wolff's work, which tends to play it a little safe from my perspective, could have used more of the Friedman character's energy and unpredictability.  (http://www.vintagebooks.com/)

Tobias Wolff

Old School was Sarah's October pick for the Wolves in Winter/Non-Structured Reading group (name change, and reading list for 2011, pending).  Next month, the ladies and I will be putting Emily's selection, Ricardas Gavelis' Vilnius Poker, to the test on or around the last Friday of the month.  Please join us if interested!

11 comentarios:

  1. I am pleased to read that someone is reading Robert Walser. Swiss literature seems very neglected these days. Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless is so beautiful as well. May I add Hesse's Unterm Rad that is often compared to the other two. Difficult for any author to keep up with these three. I have a feeling I would like Old School. I will put it on my wish list.

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  2. I'm always glad to hear of someone who praises fleshiness as pretty. After our recent trip, you could accurately characterize me as "gorgeous"...

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  3. I ve just started this ,hope post later this week ,also got a copy of a void this week so hope to read that as well ,hope all is well ,all the best stu

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  4. I probably agree with you about slightly more craft than soul on this one (although amusingly, I thought that was WAY more true of Flaubert, haha). That said, I enjoyed it quite a bit more than you seem to have, in particular the way the boys' expectations of how much the visiting writers had to offer them, were gradually eroded by the narrative, and all the various mis-readings throughout the book. And the Ayn Rand section was pretty hilarious, I thought. I do agree that the Susan Friedman character was a shot in the arm to the narrative, which the narrator seemed to acknowledge as well. After all his tortured agonizing about his Jewish background, I loved her "If it depends what you mean, you're not Jewish" line. Get over yourself, kid! :-)

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  5. I actually agree with your review. I didn't mention it in my own post, but I thought the boys seemed too smart literature-wise for high school - or maybe that's just my experience of being in a class of potheads speaking. But I think Wolff was aiming for a quieter voice and something closer to real life. Overall, I just found it a rather charming little book.

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  6. *Caroline: The others in my reading group all enjoyed Old School much more than I did, so the work may very well appeal to you despite my complaints about it here. Of course, I can't say enough good things about Jakob von Gunten--just need to make time for Walser's other works now. In the meantime, thanks for confirming what I'd heard about the Musil and for letting me know about the Hesse. Good to know.

    *Jill: I've got no beef with fleshy. In fact, I'm kind of "Reubenesque" (sic) myself. Like the sandwich, not the painter!

    *Stu: Will be on the lookout for your two posts. Happy reading. The Wolff is pretty easy to get through, but the Perec is a bit choppy in spots to me. Cheers!

    *Emily: I thought we might disagree on the Flaubert/soul thing, but I had no idea you'd be quoting me from my comments left on E.L. Fay's post--that's not fighting fair! In all seriousness, though, I get why you and the others liked Wolff more than I did. I can appreciate those things on paper, but I just didn't connect with the guy for whatever reason. No big deal.

    *E.L. Fay: I think you're totally right about Wolff aiming for a quieter tone in this book, but I think he overdid it. Thought it was really flat in spots. As far as his portrait of the high school kids, I didn't think they were too smart or anything like that so much as I just didn't sense that the narrator was who he said he was emotionally. Felt like a wooden version of an old man pretending to be a young lad like in any number of so-so movie voiceovers told in flashback.

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  7. I can't think of a book which disappointed me more than this one. Wait. Except for Michael Cunningham's The Hours. "Ick" to the both of them.

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  8. *Bellezza: I was beginning to think I was the only one who wasn't bowled over by this book. Meanwhile, I "liked" it more than you, it would seem. How funny!

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  9. I have to admit that while I love Wolff's style and I liked tons of things about the book, I found most of the characters the narrator introduced far more interesting than him, even though I believed in him bit more than you! That's probably why I liked the ending so much, with it's revelation about more of Arch Makepeace's life.

    I'll definitely keep an eye out for Jakob von Gunten!

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  10. Well I wasn't bowled over, but thought it was a really enjoyable way to have wasted my time, especially the Ayn Rand bit. It was probably intentional that the narrator wasn't really who he was emotionally, being unreliable, etc., although I agree he could've been more convincing. But this is the beauty of having no blog to write.. I can just read and let it be. And then move on.

    You probably have, but if not, I hope you get to read True History of the Kelly Gang. Really would love to know what you think of it. Also, I really loved The Late Mattia Pascal.. are you reading it now or soon??

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