Review: Old School by Tobias Wolff

11464Blurb:

At one prestigious American public school, the boys like to emphasise their democratic ideals – the only acknowledged snobbery is literary snobbery. Once a term, a big name from the literary world visits and a contest takes place. The boys have to submit a piece of writing and the winner receives a private audience with the visitor. But then it is announced that Hemingway, the boys’ hero, is coming to the school. The competition intensifies, and the morals the school and the boys pride themselves on – honour, loyalty and friendship – are crumbling under the strain. Only time will tell who will win and what it will cost them.

Review:

Rarely is literature so literary. To fully appreciate Tobias Wolff’s prep school bildungsroman Old School, you must have some degree of familiarity with Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway. But this moving and brilliantly written novel can also be appreciated—though only halfway appreciated, I’d argue—by someone who wiled away his English classes drawing spirals on his notebook, because its ideas are so universal. Here Wolff interrogates one of my favorite questions: Who are we? The story we tell the world about ourselves or the story the world tells about us?

Any teenager but especially any outcasted teenager such as this protagonist, a Seattle scholarship student in an East Coast prep school, spends nearly every minute of his life creating his life. Before attaining the halls of high school, a teen’s identity is created by his parents. Suddenly liberated around 13, 14, 15, a teenager decides for the first time who he will be. Oftentimes, Wolff astutely notes, the person he chooses is the wrong choice, which ironically only makes the teenager work harder and harder to embody this choice.

Old School’s plot revolves around a literary competition where renowned writers visit the boarding school campus for a reading and then share a private audience with a boy whose story he read and selected as “the best.” The collegial yet fierce relationships these boys share are strained with the visit of every new writer. And even though these boys’ attempts at not only creative expression but also self-creation may be farce and lie and fiction, you sorta see that by making up false stories, the boys find themselves moving closer to the truth. Kinda how like any bookworm, far from being holed up in escapist fantasies, is on the verge of something realer than most people will ever find.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

46168Blurb:

The Sun Also Rises was Ernest Hemingway’s first big novel, and immediately established Hemingway as one of the great prose stylists, and one of the preeminent writers of his time. It is also the book that encapsulates the angst of the post-World War I generation, known as the Lost Generation. This poignantly beautiful story of a group of American and English expatriates in Paris on an excursion to Pamplona represents a dramatic step forward for Hemingway’s evolving style. Featuring Left Bank Paris in the 1920s and brutally realistic descriptions of bullfighting in Spain, the story is about the flamboyant Lady Brett Ashley and the hapless Jake Barnes. In an age of moral bankruptcy, spiritual dissolution, unrealized love, and vanishing illusions, this is the Lost Generation.

Review:

The Sun Also Rises: further evidence that you can hate a book’s plot, characters, and prose but still somehow like the book.

I was bored nearly every moment of reading this. Hemingway’s (in?)famous writing style is partially to blame. His sparse, almost juvenile prose is hollow, devoid of feeling or meaning. It’s irksome but also revelatory. Because you, the reader, become a partner in the creation of this story. You decide, using Hemingway’s elusive clues, why a character behaves a certain way. It’s quite empowering. Of course every book is an act of interpretation and creation on the part of the reader, but Hemingway does it better. He gives us so little that we are entirely at the reins of what this story means.

The writing style helps build the novel’s aimless narrative. Entire pages are devoted to traveling up one street, turning down another street, then another, stopping at a café, drinking, getting back in the car, going down one street, turning right, turning right again, then following that street to another café and another drink. But the aimlessness is truly finely planned. It captures the listlessness of the Lost Generation lifestyle while also showing that although meandering is the manner of transport, the people of this generation are going somewhere, it’s just not very clear where.

Finally there are some fantastic scenes in Pamplona, Spain at the annual San Fermin festival with the running of the bulls. Bullfighting and the fiestas are described very vividly, so much that you can see the beauty of them even if you disagree with them. Bullfighting is one of the novel’s best symbols. It’s this dangerous, even deadly activity that people do simply for fun. It seems ridiculous, downright idiotic but then you think of the wealthyish expat characters at the center of the novel. These people get drunk and have sex with each other and then ruin each other’s lives and for what? Fun, purportedly. Getting gored by a bull in the pursuit of fun is not so different from getting your heart broken while drinking copiously with your lover and her fiancée.

Apparently The Sun Also Rises is one of the first modernist works, one of the defining missives from the Lost Generation, and of course, it is Nobel Prize Winner Hemingway’s first novel, so there are three reasons to read it. But reasons schmeasons. I’d suggest you read it simply to be amazed at how much you can love it while simultaneously kinda hating it.

3 out of 5 stars