Near the end of This Boy's Life (1989), Tobias Wolff's memoir of childhood (and his best-known book), the adolescent hero escapes a rough home and an indifferent early-sixties public education in Washington State by the grace of a scholarship to the fancy Hill School, back east. Wolff's new volume, Old School, is offered as a novel, but it seems in some respects to continue the story. Readers learn, for example, of the young protagonist's hardscrabble days in Washington, and hear occasional mention of the duplicitous father they've come to know not just from This Boy's Life but also from work by Wolff's brother, Geoffrey (The Duke of Deception, 1979).
Neither Hill nor the young narrator is named this time out, but each is rendered with vivid sympathy—especially the school. A progressive headmaster is trying to nudge it toward meritocracy, banishing class consciousness in favor of literary snobbery. The masters who teach English already receive more deference than their colleagues in other disciplines, and brief visits by such belletristic eminences as Edmund Wilson and Robert Penn Warren are occasions of great excitement on the wooded campus. "The absence of an actual girl to compete for meant that every other prize became feminized," the narrator tells us. The writing contests, whose winners get a private audience with the visiting author, are fought with special fierceness.
Wolff's hero wishes for anointing by "hands that had written living stories and poems, hands that had touched the hands of other writers." As the novel opens, in the fall of 1960, it is the wrinkled and famous palms of Robert Frost for which he and the other boys make greedy grasp. The narrator's rivals are nicely characterized by the literary styles of their submissions: George Kellogg works in traditional forms and already seems "more professor than writer," let alone student; Jeff Purcell, trying to transcend his privileged background, has "written a ballad about a miner being sent deep into the earth to perish in a cave-in while the mine owner hand-feeds filet mignon to his hunting dogs." When it comes to prose efforts, the narrator and his roommate—both of whom strain to hide the fact that their fathers are Jewish—are almost comically in debt to Hemingway.
Old School's literary joustings turn it into an offbeat commonplace book of what was no doubt Wolff's own youthful reading. The author parodies the visiting writers—their platform personae and interview manners—with charm and astuteness. The book's comic high point turns out to involve not Frost's affectations of rusticity but the appearance of Ayn Rand, who has been invited by a kindly trustee in the mistaken belief that she's an ordinary conservative. The personal cruelty she displays during an ex cathedra fireside chat—"Boys! Please! You are born to be giants, not sacrifices to some ... brainless slattern worrying about the next payment on the refrigerator"—helps to bring the narrator out of his own brief Howard Roark phase. A reacquaintance with Hemingway's wounded, heroically tentative Nick Adams completes the process: "You can't read 'Indian Camp' and then go back to The Fountainhead. Everything seems bloated and cheesy ..."
The announcement of a visit by Hemingway himself induces two character-building catastrophes, one for the narrator and one for the dean, the first involving plagiarism and the second some personal mythmaking in the manner of the historian Joseph Ellis, who let his Mount Holyoke students believe that his own early history had been rather more dramatic than it really was. Wolff adds unexpected, affecting twists to each transgression and consequence; the results are altogether more satisfying than the way he left hanging, morally and otherwise, the fraud at the end of This Boy's Life—namely, the author's own faking of his way into the Hill School. Perhaps this novel (dedicated to "my teachers") is meant to be, in some late way, penitential. (Wolff was, for whatever reason, expelled from Hill.) In any case, it is a fine offering, manly in spirit and style, less hangdog than the somewhat Carverian memoir.
Throughout Old School, Wolff displays exceptional skill in capturing the small sights and sensations that evoke the whole rarefied world he's taking us back to: "the smell of floor wax and wool and boys living close together in overheated rooms"; the "great Persian rug ... covered with cookie crumbs." He conveys the sublimation and sexual messaging that occur all at once when the boys sing to a master's young wife ("It was a kind of ravishing"), and with the same exactitude discerns the boys' wary relations with one another.
Old School's somewhat pedagogical nature inclines one toward a few schoolmasterish objections. Its gradual accrual (three episodes from it appeared in The New Yorker) may have lulled the author into writing a last chapter that, although a rattling good story, seems more like an appendage than a conclusion. I furthermore think that these cowlicked white teenagers are a little ahead of their time in calling Jackie Kennedy a "fox." And let me say this, above all, Mr. Wolff: the lack of quotation marks around the dialogue is a ridiculous piece of postmodern pretentiousness that has no place in your book. Not when it can stand with the best of what some old boys (Louis Auchincloss, Richard Yates) have produced in a waning American genre. —Thomas Mallon
The Towers of Trebizond
by Rose Macaulay
New York Review Books
Novelist, poet, journalist, wit, and world-class diner-out, Rose Macaulay was one of the most popular writers and personalities in England from the 1920s until her death, in 1958. The ebullient Macaulay was friends, it seemed, with everyone. Rupert Brooke, Gilbert Murray, Harold Nicolson, John Betjeman, and Virginia Woolf were only a few of those who prized an intelligence that, though "acid," in Nicolson's words, was "citrous merely and never poisoned."
Macaulay wrote twenty-three novels, including Potterism, Told by an Idiot, and The World My Wilderness. Her most famous was her last: The Towers of Trebizond, which first appeared in 1956 and is now being reissued, with a new introduction by Jan Morris. The book was wildly successful in its day, and its opening line ("'Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass") became famous, a byword for the off-the-wall humor that was Macaulay's specialty.
The elderly Aunt Dot, a compulsive traveler with a zealous missionary spirit, has organized a trip into Turkey with the vague idea of converting its Muslim inhabitants, and especially its oppressed women, to Anglicanism. She drags along with her the Rev. the Hon. Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg, an "ancient bigot" and a very High-Church Anglican, and her niece Laurie, the novel's narrator, whose goofy, rambling reflections set its tone. Along the way they encounter a bizarre cast of characters that includes British spies, Seventh-day Adventists, archaeologists, and a seemingly endless parade of busy literary travelers; Byzantium and the Levant were popular destinations in the 1950s, and most of the writers Laurie knows seem to be in Turkey researching their Turkey books. The party meets with a series of truly absurd adventures before returning to England—without, needless to say, having converted a single Turk to its creed.
The Towers of Trebizond brings together several of Macaulay's abiding interests: exotic travel, liturgical disputation, Church history, and ancient ruins. (Macaulay's other enduring masterpiece is the lush and scholarly Pleasure of Ruins.) "I have a passion for mélange and the fantastically impure," she once commented, and one of the wonderful elements of this novel is the way it works as a historical travelogue: through Laurie's eyes we see Trebizond (modern Trabzon) and the rest of Turkey not only in their contemporary, Muslim guise but as they were seen in turn by Jason, Xenophon, Ovid, Justinian, and the Crusaders. Macaulay deftly peels away the centuries, making The Towers of Trebizond one of the most erudite of books. It is also one of the funniest.
The novel's farcical polish has kept many readers from comprehending its serious core. Laurie—feckless, appealing, and sometimes treacherous—is actually on a sort of spiritual quest. Long involved in an adulterous affair, she feels herself closed off from the Anglican Church but is unable to turn her back on it. Here Macaulay, who was involved for twenty years with a married man, writes from experience. The Towers of Trebizond, a send-up of Anglican excess, is also a valentine to High Anglicanism. Father Chantry-Pigg, who "believed everything, from the Garden of Eden to the Day of Judgment," represents the ridiculous side of the creed; so does Aunt Dot, who urges her niece never to be narrow-minded but always to remember, of course, "that we are right." But to Macaulay as to Laurie, the Anglican Church "is a wonderful and most extraordinary pageant of contradictions, and I, at least, want to be inside it."
This, then, is the "message." But The Towers of Trebizond has been loved by many thousands of readers who have not the slightest interest in religion or those who lapse from it; Macaulay's book remains a tour de force of sustained comedy, in spite of the fact that in the half century since the novel's publication the English social world and the Eastern landscape she so lovingly describes have changed beyond recognition. —Brooke Allen
Jenny and the Cat Club
written and illustrated by Esther Averill
NYRB Children's Classics
New York Review Books—which for the past four years, in one of publishing's happiest recent developments, has been unearthing unjustly forgotten treasures for adults—is reissuing these stories, first published in the 1940s and early 1950s, as part of its new series of children's classics. That the shy yet social heroine of this collection is named Jenny Linsky, I took to be an excellent sign, a nondescript surname being quite unusual for a cat. I wasn't disappointed. With their remarkable warmth and unstrained whimsy, these stories, together with their simply sketched illustrations, exhibit the most charming qualities of a typical eight-year-old. And the difficulties a sensitive cat faces—the desire to wow a well-established group of cool cats; what to do when a bully dog steals your scarf; feelings of jealousy, boredom, embarrassment, shame, and loneliness—are those with which eight-year-olds (not to mention thirty-eight-year-olds) will be familiar. In the end things always work out well for winsome Jenny and her exceptionally kind friends, which, if not familiar, is certainly gratifying. As with any successful work of fiction, however, what makes these stories especially pleasing is not the relevance of the issues they address but the skill with which their characters and scenes are drawn. The members of the Cat Club (who meet regularly to sing and dance and feast on fish in Captain Tinker's garden), and the other cats with whom Jenny consorts in Lower Manhattan, have distinct personalities, recognizable by and interesting to human beings, presumably the bulk of Averill's readership. However, whereas the animals in many children's books are merely people with fur, Averill captures the essential catness of her characters. When Jenny is afraid, for instance, she lies all day on a soapbox in the cellar. While searching for ice skates, she ransacks a drawer of fishing tackle. When she and Pickles, the cat mascot of a New York City fire company, discuss the fact that they are broke and so cannot throw a party, she "poke[s] her paw in a crack in the sidewalk, as if she hope[s] to find a penny"—an optimistic habit anyone acquainted with a cat will have witnessed. Obviously, Averill colors her stories with abundant flights of clever fancy. (Her cats are partial to accessories, such as—my favorite—an Indian feathered headdress borrowed from a doorman.) But the nonchalance with which she delivers these makes them as real as her grounding details. Although adults may occasionally squirm at touches of didacticism that help to shape the tales' plots, children will find Jenny's lessons about emotions and behavior helpful and reassuring. — Christina Schwarz
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