Review: Old School by Tobias Wolff

James Garside

Photo of the author Tobias Wolff courtesy of Wikipedia

On the typewriter, you tell the truth.

I read Tobias Wolff’s Old School, finally, after years of it being a gift from a friend and then eventually selling the book and getting it out of the library because it had sold before I’d got round to reading it.

All sorts of thoughts about the book, but first this. If anything, on one level, it says that writers should tell the truth, but none of us do and we all need each other more than we realise. ‘For a writer there is no such thing as an exemplary life.’

But plot events and the moment of having just finished it brought back a memory of my own.

When I was a kid, junior school I think, possibly middle, I submitted a poem to the school’s poetry contest. It was verbatim a poem I’d read in a book in the local library. It turned out it was an incredibly famous poem by an incredibly famous poet, but as a kid, I’d never heard of him, I just liked it. And so, of course, I got caught was was due to be punished by the headmaster. Despite no doubt being an insufferable swot, though I never really saw myself as that except at the end of another kid’s fist again for no good reason.

And when I went into the headmaster’s office, although he did tell me off, it was with a certain amusement and detached amazement or incredulity. He was a big man, who regaled us with tales of growing up walking barefoot so his feet would toughen and that his one treat in life was that he allowed himself one liquorice stick a month, and so he didn’t need to do anything other than speak to make you feel like you’d been picked up and shook. He could see that I was nervous, that I was sorry, and the rest of it.

And so it went to the business of giving me lines to do. He set me in front of his typewriter and gave me lines and left the room. Probably to have a quick fag and a cup of tea. Or more likely to smoke a pipe. Anyway, I don’t remember having seen a manual typewriter before, not in real life, though I knew what one was. And this is my first memory of being in front of one. And here I was, as punishment, being asked to write on a typewriter.

I assume the line was I will not lie or I must tell the truth, but truth is I don’t remember. And I only wrote a few copies of the line as the keys kept getting stuck. Again, with amusement when he came back, benign bemusement if you will, he noticed that I’d in fact written nothing and hardly learnt my lesson at all. But it didn’t matter, and I had in fact learnt my lesson. And no doubt, he could see that, as he stood outside with me and sent me on my way. And I walked across the polished wooden floor and that is my main memory of him after all these years.

The sort of Old School headmaster who made a massive impression on everyone there. But whether I could write on the typewriter or not — the keys were heavy and their giant thud astonished me. But I was afraid of breaking the damned thing. And when the keys got stuck, I wasn’t sure what to do, gently coaxing them apart. But yes, that was my first memory of the typewriter and I guess you could say that the lesson is that at the typewriter you tell the truth. Which is why Old School made me think of it.

And my thought on the novel? Aside from it being a gift, and so for all these years my friend has secretly been admonishing me to tell the truth. I enjoyed most of it, and the deliberate derailment of the boy plagiarising and therefore ending up out on his arse and not meeting Hemingway, who killed himself and never visited the school in any case, was masterful. But that leaves it floundering, almost by its own admission and deliberate choice of direction.

Yes, it shows that in many ways this turn of luck actually makes the man of the boy and the truth-telling writer of the liar-pretender but it then goes on to be more about the telling of the tale of the Dean, who also fell from grace, and that the whole association with Hemingway was a sham as he had never been friends with the man as people always suspected or assumed. And although this is told as a ‘this is what led me to be a writer’ and is poignant in its way, it doesn’t satisfy as an ending because — although all those facts and information should be included — it changes from narrative to exposition.

And the main character takes a step back at the end. To make a point. But just before that, and this is what I mean by ‘admission’, it says that life isn’t like a well-rounded story but it would have been satisfying had he gone back when invited back as a visiting writer. And I couldn’t help but think for heavens sake that’s the version that I wanted to read.

Because the derailment would make more sense and all the points could still be made, but without breaking the story and getting away from the narrative. Because we’d gotten used to the pattern of boys setting at each other and vying for the attentions of a visiting writer, the whole story was about that, and the point well made that the boys fall from grace is what made him a man and led him through the muck of it, of life, to becoming a writer.

Instead of meeting Hemingway, he became that of a fashion himself. And the excellent meeting with the woman who actually wrote the story he plagiarised, when she was a girl at the academy, and she the better writer who dismisses writing as being too selfish and not doing any good. Brilliant.

So then, after that, go back to the school and round it off. With him as a visiting writer, and doe-eyed schoolboys looking up to him. Choosing a story, from the endless pretentious and painful reminders because they’re all so earnest and imitative and bad because dishonest stories, and then the dinner at the school or his reading in the chapel.

And somewhere among that plant the seeds of the revelations about the Dean and all the other stuff. And in his own meeting with the boy. Because after all this we didn’t really get a single meeting with a writer. Not really. So it makes narrative sense for us to see through the mirror and get this ‘prize’ as viewed from the boy-now-man’s own view as the writer, looking at the awestruck boy who is a reflection of his former self.

You can still crack the mirror, you can still bring the house of cards down, you can still show the Dean’s fall from grace and even his return. But all of this without breaking from the pace, structure, point of view, and narrative dream. Without jumping too far out and ahead. Yes, it’s ok to skip the man’s entire life after school in a few brief paragraphs as it did, but go back.

But maybe that’s the point, as made, life isn’t like that. But we know life isn’t like that, that’s why we’re reading books.

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NCTJ-qualified British independent journalist, author, and travel writer.


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