Private boarding schools, as depicted in English and American literature, tend to have a humbling effect on this particular state-school-educated reader. They seem such wordly establishments, training grounds for leaders (and, presumably, buggerers) of men. The students all have fluent Latin and while away their spare time discussing philosophy and joining mutual masturbation clubs, at an age at which I was still struggling with the English language and masturbating myself. The teachers (or "masters") tend to be grumpy and aloof, but there is always one who occasionally allows his stern facade to fall away in order to impart some pearl of wisdom to his charges. Secret societies, rugger, corporal punishment, demerit points, poetry competitions, perving on the headmaster's wife, communal dining, the occasional suicide - private boarding schools have got it all. If I ever have a son, I'm shipping him straight off to a boy's school with a copy of Decline and Fall tucked under his arm. If he comes home without a first in classics and at least one sexually transmitted disease, he's out of the family.
In contrast to many examples of the genre, Tobias Wolff's Old School is a rather genteel, even pastoral, account of a New England prep school. For many of the school's students, literature is an abiding obsession, fuelled by the frequent visits made to the school by famous writers. In the lead up to these events, a writing competition is held amongst the sixth formers, the winner receiving a private audience with the visiting author. Old School is a fictional memoir of one particular school year in the early sixties, and the consequences the narrator's literary aspirations have for both himself, and the eponymous institution.
It might not sound like a page-turner, but in fact Old School is one of those books that you can tear through in an afternoon with some satisfaction. Wolff utilises nostalgia as an ambiguous device, the narrator clothing his school days in all the sun-dappled warmth we might expect from such reminiscence, but also recognising the romanticising tendencies of memory, and of his own youthful self. The cloistered, white-bread world of the school is poised to implode under the impact of social upheaval. Paralleling this, the narrator, through an error of judgement, is forced to engage with the wider world, and ultimately becomes a respected writer. The school embodies a "yearning for a chivalric world apart from the din of scandal and cheap dispute, the hustles and schemes of modernity itself". But you can't shut the world out for long, and neither should you, not entirely. Especially if you wish to write.
Old School is a pleasant, undemanding book about the way people construct public selves, while allowing themselves to believe other's self-constructions. As Old School's narrator discovers, literature tends to be, at least partly, a form of propaganda for the writer's conscience. Yet while literature may not be the whole truth, it is part of the truth, and, if it comes with talent attached, that is sometimes good enough.