by Tobias Wolff
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/)
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!