Monday, February 18, 2008

Old School - Tobias Wolff

Every time I hear about a new Tobias Wolff book I have the same reaction. “Oh, Tobias Wolff,” I think to myself. “He gets a very good rap, but really he’s nothing special”. Then I receive a copy of said book (my Dad is a fan) and sit down to read it. Six hours later I notice that the house is dark and rather than wait for me to stop reading, Grizzlewick has learned how to drive, got a job and earned enough money to buy himself McDonalds for dinner.

‘Old School’ is no different. Semi-autobiographical (as much of Wolff’s work is), it relates the story of an exclusive boys’ school in the 1960s, and the competition between its senior English class to earn an audience with, among others, Ernest Hemingway. Following visits to the school by Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, the boys become feverish at the prospect of a meeting with Ernest Hemingway, a firm favourite and undisputed living national treasure.

Wolff, as anyone who has read ‘This Boy’s Life’ can attest, takes a curious attitude to his own life and that of his protagonists. He is unapologetic about his flaws and behaviour, viewing them with a detachment, but not egotism. His exploits, such as the forging of a report-card which earned him a place at the prestigious school, described in This Boy’s Life, are presented without apology, but also without bluster. It is clear that in his adult life, Wolff has had the introspection to understand that his actions were not exemplary, but acknowledges their contribution to the richness of his life.

This story is compelling not only for its tension and character, but also for its exposition of the craft of writing. The boys of the school are competitive, convinced of their own originality, and desperate to impress each other, their teachers, and visiting authors alike. I started reading it fascinated by the external intrigue, but I found I was compelled by another element – the presence of necessary lies and the diminution of uncomfortable truths. While this is a book about lies told and excuses made, the truth has a strange presence in this book – it’s not here to perform a liberating function, but rather something far more sinister. The truth, in this novel at least, does not have a liberating effect, it merely serves to frustrate.

With a frustrating realness of his characters, Wolff isn’t for everyone, but Old School is certainly worth pursuing if you’ve read and enjoyed other Wolff stories. If you’re new to Wolff, I suggest starting with ‘This Boy’s Life’, so long as it hasn’t been ruined for you as a VCE/HSC text.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Count Of Monte Cristo

is one of the two* most famous works by Alexandre Dumas

Most of you would/should know the story, either by reading the book or having seen one of the several movies that have been produced over the years (which, from recollection, are not as close to the book as hoped).

I am not going to go too much into the story itself, but more into the ideas and styles within it.

The two main themes throughout are the suffering of Edmond Dantés (later, the Count of Monte Cristo) and his revenge, which becomes the purpose of his life, on the three men that were responsible for his wrongful imprisonment.

The suffering and torment suffered by Dantés (he is imprisoned for 14 years) is immense, however what is portrayed by Dumas is not as bad as it could/should be for the reader to gain more of an insight into his later eccentricities. It is almost as if Dumas has glossed over a large part of it in order to get on with the rest of the story, the 'action' part. The only other story i could think of where such huge suffering was endured after wrongful imprisonment was For the Term Of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke.

This isn't to say that the reader does not sympathise with Dantes, you most certainly do. I just believe you could sympathise more...

Dumas' writing style is not common in novels either. This was first published in installments in a French newspaper by a writer who had previously been writing mostly plays.
This leads to all the characters revealing their thoughts in theatrical ways by each performing small soliloquies in each scene.

This is a fictional novel, but it is set in historically accurate times. This makes the story even more engaging as the intertwining story of Napoleon attempting to regain rule of France (and how this affects Dantés) and the subsequent rule of the Bourbons after this is beautifully accurate.

There is a reason that this book is described as a "literary classic". It really is. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone, even though my review was pox.

*The three Musketeers being the other (which will probably be my next review)