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Tobias Wolff on American fiction

Tobias Wolff's books include two novels, The Barracks Thief and Old School; two memoirs, This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army; and three collections of short stories, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Back in the World, and, most recently, The Night in Question. He has also been the editor of Best American […]

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This is KZSU Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison.
We're coming to you from the Stanford campus.
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I don't know who composes the maxims in Chinese fortune cookies, but most of them are as dry,
saccharin, and indigestible as the cookies themselves.
I once thought about marketing my own fortune cookies with aphorisms for the literate, the
lemon, the lemon, the lemon, the lemon, the lemon, the lemon, the lemon, the lemon, the lemon, the lemon, the lemon, the lemon, the lemon.
Every now and then you do come across one that's inadvertently interesting though.
There's a Chinese restaurant I like on California Street in Palo Alto called the Jade Palace, and the other day a fortune was served up to me after lunch,
which is called the Jade Palace.
And we'll have. Now if that's true, it's good news for entitled opinions.
For here we are, five years and counting, still giving.
As reassuring to think that as long as we give, we will continue to have rather than assume that we can give only as long as we have,
take care of the giving and the having will take care of itself.
How's that for a cookie?
Speaking about giving, we have a really fine gift for you today.
I have with me in the studio one of America's most prominent literary authors to bias wolf,
whose appearance on this show is long overdue, things just kept getting in the way for one reason or another.
But here we are finally with Tobias Wolf, who in addition to being a novelist is also a great master of the short story.
I've been thinking a lot about the short story in conjunction with this show, and I'm eager to hear Tobias's thoughts about the genre.
But first let me mention that as I was reading through Tobias's recently published collection of short stories titled, "Our Story Begins", I found myself, I don't know why,
thinking over and over about Michelangelo of all people.
In particular, I kept thinking about what Michelangelo says about the art of sculpture in one of his most famous sonnets, where he writes,
"The best artist has no conception that a block of marble still unworked does not already contain within its own excess.
And that conception is brought out by the hand that obeys the intellect."
Paraphrase, the art of sculpture is a process of extraction, of removing all that is superfluous in the stone until the latent idea that hides within the block is revealed in its radiant, perfected form.
When I read a good short story, or let me say when I read a story by Tobias Wolf, I have the impression that the block of marble is a potential novel that the author attacks with his pen, removing all that would be superfluous in that novel, until he arrives at the quintessential conception at the heart of the matter, which now comes forth as a decisively sculpted, highly condensed work of art.
That is another way of saying that there is nothing more that the author either could add or remove without compromising the story's perfect distillation of its essential narrative content.
Of course, when you have this degree of distillation in the work of art, it calls for an equal degree of concentration or attention to detail on behalf of the person who sets out to read it.
For it is not only the author who gives the story to the reader, it is the reader who gives the story its meaning.
For where would that meaning take place if there were no readers to make sense of the words in which it is contained?
To express it otherwise, as long as you give you will have is a principle that applies to the reader's generosity toward literature, which continues to give as long as there are no readers to the reader's
who give it their receptive attention.
Great short stories require a shorter yet more intense measure of concentration than novels to be sure.
That is why some people prefer short stories to novels, but why more people prefer novels to short stories.
In both cases a mutual generosity is called for, yet with novels the giving is more relaxed, more aerobic as it were, while with short stories the giving is more punctual or anaerobic.
Speaking for myself, I tend to prefer novels to short stories for the same reason that I tend to prefer television series to movies, but that's a whole other story and not a short one at that.
We're going to talk today with Tobias Wolf about the novel and the short story and about his own contribution to both genres, so without taking up any more of our airtime, let him welcome into the program.
Tobias has taken a while, but it's a real pleasure to finally have you join us here on entitled opinions.
And I'm glad to be here Robert, thank you for inviting me.
We're going to have your bio extensive bio posted on our web page that readers can consult that and I have already mentioned that you've authored novels as well as short stories, but that short stories, if I'm not mistaken is a genre that I would, I'm tempted to conclude you actually favor over the novel, but if I'm mistaken about that, I will stand corrected.
And to favor whatever it is that I'm working on at that moment.
And before we talk about your short stories and novels, as you know, JD Salinger has died recently in the last week.
And there were a number of editorials and comments about his importance in the American, on the American literary scene, his reclusiveness and so forth.
Just for the record is Salinger, someone that you were, that hasn't had an influence on you in any way?
Oh, yes, no question about it.
I remember when I was 15 years old, I was a scholarship student at a boarding school.
Just a few miles actually from the one he went to Valley Forge Military Academy where it was said,
I was a teacher and the guy was a teacher and a teacher and a teacher and a teacher and a teacher and a teacher.
And I remember the night vividly, I was in a play.
And it was one of our, you know, we would have two or three night run and it was probably the second night.
I remember it wasn't opening night and I, and I picked this up because I wasn't on a lot.
I picked this up and this novel up and started reading it and I was just pulled in by that voice, you know, that famous first sentence.
And I felt such a kinship with this character and his language, his vision of the place that he was in, which in some ways resembled the place.
I was in some very, very, very, very profound ways actually.
And it was just so funny.
I remember just, you know, being carried away by this to the point that I twice missed my cue to appear on stage.
That is what one of the reasons I remembered this so vividly.
And I've read the novel again and again over the years.
All of my children have read it in their school curriculum at different times, all three of my kids.
And I've read it each time they were doing it in, like important work.
It does change under your eyes as you get older.
And what seemed so funny to me when I was 15 often seems achingly sad to me now.
I was very willing to participate in his view of the adult world as a conspiracy of phonies when I was 15, because it let me off the hook for a lot of things that I was responsible for.
And now I see the sadness of his need to see the world that way, of holdings need to see the world that way.
It's a beautiful novel. It really is. And I don't think it's lost anything.
And it's wonderful that we can change our vision of a work as we get older as we grow into it.
And then I went on and read everything really that I could get my hands on of his.
The stories have particularly stayed with me.
Those stories were written, you know, 55 to 60 years ago.
And we still talk about them. They are absolutely extraordinary stories.
Of course, everyone knows a perfect day for banana fish.
The stories set in Florida when Seymour kills himself. Seymour glass.
But stories like The Laughing Man, narrated by a boy on summer camp who watches a love affair come apart under his eyes.
And it breaks his own heart.
Uncle Wiggly and Connecticut.
Er, to ask me with love and squalor.
De Namari, Smith's Blue Period.
These are just wonderful, vivid, luminous stories.
Pretty mouth and green my eyes.
That heartbreaking story about a man discovering his wife's adultery with the man that he turns to for comfort in counsel.
And, you know, they're really unforgettable stories.
And Robert Frost once said that if a poet can get a few poems stuck in places where it's really hard to get him out,
he's had a good life as a poet.
And, and, and, Salinger certainly, you know, is on our shelf, I think.
For good, for good.
Yeah, a lot of critics, literary critics thought that nine stories was a more important major literary achievement than Catherine the Rhye.
And I was reading in the New York Times, you know, in the, in one of the articles that,
where the writer remarks that these stories were remarkable for their sharp social observation, their pitch-perfect dialogue.
Mr. Salinger, who used italics almost as a form of musical notation was a master, not a literary speech, but of speeches people actually spoke it.
And the way they demolished whatever was left of the traditional architecture of the short story,
the old structure of beginning, middle, end for an architecture of emotion, in which a story could turn on a tiny alteration of mood or irony.
I would say that that is wrong and almost every point.
To begin with, let's, let's, let's take this question of the architecture of the story.
It is true that there is a tradition of a, of a certain kind of story, say the kind of story that Tolstoy wrote that has a, say, the death of Yvonne Illich,
in which he is introduced as a young man, we take him through his life, he reaches a crisis, and then through that crisis, reaches a certain understanding of himself and the novel ends with a great kind of sense of finality with his death, but also a kind of realization of his life at the, at the time of his death.
That we would normally associate with the novel, I think, that, that very complete structure with everything known at the end.
And that has certainly been a vigorous and worthy strain in the writing of the short story, all the way through, but there's another, there's another art that parallels that and is rather different, and that is the art, say, of Trigania, or Chekhov, particularly Chekhov, I would say.
Who does all those things that the writer attributes to sound, or he, he eliminates, often, for example, you'll have a story that will simply begin with three men walking into a fog.
There you are, no explanation.
It only emerges through their conversation and through the thoughts of one man that he is being taken by the other two to, to exile in Siberia.
And he's dreaming, it's called dreams, in fact. He's dreaming about how great Siberia is going to be with, and he has images of fishing and hunting, and, and you realize this story goes on without ever being told this, that he is not going to make it, in fact, he's ill.
It's a tragic story, and made all the more poignant by his own inability to recognize the tragic dimension of the situation that he is in, is his inability to even see that he's dying.
You see, and, and, and that moment when you realize that that's one of those moment without ever reaching, there's still marching into the fog at the end. He has not died. He has realized nothing.
We have realized something, and that's a very different kind of story. And that's the tradition that Selinger draws on. He will begin, for example, in Uncle Wiggling, Connecticut, these two drunken friends out in the suburbs, talking about, you know, their marriages and their, their lives, and, and you realize they're so nostalgic for the time of innocence when they were young.
And for, for the innocence, as they remember it, of their, of their romantic relationships when they were young, in the sense of compromise and entrapment that they feel now.
And, and that is exactly the sort of tradition that we, you know, that we see exemplified in someone like Checkoff or, or Trigain, yeah.
And it would have, Scott Fitzgerald have been a predecessor in that regard in your view.
No, I think his story's tend to be a little more in the, in the Tolstoyan mode. He, he will start a little more in Medius Ray Hill. He will start kind of in the beginning of a story without a lot of explanatory material.
But if you look at a story like Winter Dreams or Babylon Revisited, some of the great Diamond as big as the Ritz, they're full of, they really are generally full or the rich boy, that they're well-ladd up to, they're well-explained in the middle, and they generally reach, they generally, generally reach a kind of understandable conclusion.
And, I mean, it can be tragic, it's in the case of Babylon Revisited, but they feel to me almost like small novels, the way Tolstoy, the way Tolstoy stories do.
So there, I think in a different register, I would use say Hemingway, however, is very much in the, I mean, how can you speak of, of the kind of story that Salinger's writing without speaking of the kind of story that Hemingway wrote, he learned a great deal from him.
It's an art of implication Hemingway talks famously about a story should be like an iceberg with nine tenths, you know, move, what does he say, move with the dignity of an iceberg with nine tenths of it under water.
And, and that's what we feel in, in Salinger that there's an implied story beyond what we're seeing there. We feel the pressure of that implied story all the time, and it's a, it's a very, very difficult kind of art, I think, to achieve and Salinger was a master of it.
There's no question about it. And he had a lot of heart and, and he had a good sense of humor, he's funny. And he was obsessed, I think, to some extent all great writers are obsessed.
He was obsessed with the problem of innocence and the, and the entrance, the painful entrance into adulthood and maybe even sentimentally so.
But the other thing I would say is about his ear. This is nothing new, of course. You know, even fall, I mean Faulkner has a wonderful ear for the way people speak. Obviously, Huckleberry Finn sets the pattern for that as a kind of counter-off-form say.
But the truth is, and this is to his credit,
Salinger's speech is actually highly stylized. It isn't simply transcribed. He created a sound of human speech, of a certain class of person, that really wasn't quite there before. And the tone rings true.
But, but he's not actually just repeating what people say. He says for Christ's sake a lot and that sort of thing. There are certain signature movements in his dialogue. But, but it's a very stylized dialogue actually.
Well, this raises a number of issues that I would like to correlate with your own aesthetic if I can use that term.
And I guess I would like to maybe begin with the thematic rather than the stylistic, unless you prefer to go the other way around because I'm whichever you like.
Well, let's start with then with the stylistic because the, what you quoted there from Hemingway about the iceberg and this sort of the short story, which is largely there's all this pressure of implication.
And a lot that remains latent, that doesn't come out fully. I find that this is often the case in my reading of many of your certain your short stories.
That there's a lot more that is not actually coming out into the open than, but is at the same time present.
Is this something that, that on the one hand do you agree with it and do you see yourself therefore in a genealogy with some of these writers we've been mentioning?
Well, I have tried very hard not to be captive to any particular vision of the short story, but to use whatever forms are available to me to tell the story that I want to tell at that time.
I have stories that I suppose follow up a more fully explained model than than that of the kind of Hemingway definition stories like I don't know the rich brother which begins with the line there were two brothers.
The same line that begins the story of Alibaba and the 40 thieves or that could begin the story of Abel and Cain.
And what you see played out in that story has a context in a way that some of my other stories don't because I really wanted to get the whole sweep of their life together.
And another story deep kiss is much more fully explained and less implicit than some of my other stories.
So I will, some of them feel like mock memoirs are there they have not mock memoirs, but they have the character memoir even though they're fictions.
And so I've drawn on that genre of writing in my short stories as well.
So I do think it's necessary to be able to do all kinds of storytelling because not every story should be told in the same way.
And I agree with that and so for example you mentioned deep kiss which is the last story in this collection our story begins I believe.
That's right.
While it does seem to be explicit in terms of context and reconstruction of narrative events and so forth.
But still for me at least at the thematic level something very enigmatic mysterious and elusive about what is a story really trying to get at and you as the author are not providing anything you're not throwing anything into my lap as a reader it's something that has to be probed.
And where you are in unchartered territory about how a life took this shape and why this character who is looking back on it was what this kiss actually that he has such a vivid recollection in his much later years and how that works to give a narrative sort of architecture to how he perceives his life and yet it has absolutely nothing to do with the concrete let's say.
The pragmatic events that are also described you describe those the events his marriage and his jobs and so forth.
But then there's this other thing going on at another level and the reader is left to his or her own devices in order to try to find out what the correlation is.
So you're on device is only in so far as that I trust you to be able to read the story and to feel those elements of the story that might suggest a reason for for his formation for the way he sees the past the things that were important to him in the past the what things that led to the story.
The things that led him off off off off the conventional path when he was young he became so obsessed with the girl that he actually had to be shipped away from his home.
He was in the common parlance now stalking her in fact and and why is that and you have to ask and obviously had an effect on his life and and his capacity to form emotional attachments later.
And what is going on when he forms this attachment with this girl well his father is dying and he's in.
They've been very close it comes out in little ways but he's.
He's obviously terrified and even feels in some strange way betrayed by his father's dying and and I think the life of the senses has somehow taken over for him as a place to be.
At at at a moment when he is not able to face what what what is actual in his life and what is demanding things from him and.
And so we see that that that pattern somewhat played out in his life I think.
And a little below the level of his awareness that does come to him though in ways that are painful but I do think that you know I never say that in the story but those elements are all there and.
And that is for me the crux of the relationship between the short story writer and the reader it is an it I my stories I like my stories to the degree that I have felt that I have trusted my reader.
That that the that the reader is able to apprehend.
Perhaps even at an intuitive level those things which I'm hoping the reader will understand without being told I resent being told things when I read that I could have understood or even better perhaps felt on the back of my neck as I read it.
It it it bleeds the pleasure out of the out of the enterprise for me and so my my relationship with the reader is one of you know I I trust I want to trust the reader to be as good a reader as I think I am and and I know that sometimes.
And readers will be disappointed by a lack of what they perceive to be direction that I'm not really helping them enough to understand and and that may be true but I would rather air on that side than on the other.
Enough direction to understand is an expectation I don't demand of the author but I do get intrigued for example about the rumor that the girl Mary Claude is her name I don't remember Mary Claude is that her name the one that he was had a fixation on in his youth and which obviously was a fixation that never left him.
But that she's she dies he learns about her death many years decades later and there's this kind of rumor that she might have died.
Because she had a lover with whom every time they cross each other on the road they would.
Swerve one of the change they would change lanes and that there was someone who was she thought was a lover it same car but not the lover and that she might have crashed and.
And so I at the end of a story like that I ponder I wonder.
How much I can do with this figure of what what accidental what it's an accident in in many senses of the term accident no things coming together and playing out a.
But it's the fulfillment I think of what we've seen in her earlier and why things went went bad between them is that she's all or nothing person.
And she demands that of him she she wants his attention she wants his.
Commitment at every moment and the one time when he shrugs her off is the end for her that's it all or nothing.
And you can see her again it's a rumor though we're not sure this actually happened.
She did die in a head on collision. But and it may be in fact likely that this is what this is what happened.
But but the truth is that we don't absolutely know this is this is what happened we're seeing this through the to the eyes of of our.
You know our protagonist but.
But I think that's a kind of flowering of the character that we have seen in her earlier.
I agree. Can I ask you about a few other stylistic features that strike me and again I please correct me if I if I've misperceive but I.
What I find very refreshing when I read you is this complete absence of what I call a writerly style and by I mean that in the negative sense of where.
So many American authors and I have to confess here that the reason I have a certain kind of.
A neurologic reaction to many pros writers literary writers in in America is that they're always posturing as at writing and from the first page on their contrived metaphors.
Engaged in you know these little gimmicks that are are like word painting and things there's none of that in your pros.
And to the degree that I think that you even.
Don't feel comfortable using metaphors.
The first thing people are taught in creative writing classes in in America is how to find you know unusual or you know lively animat metaforce.
Is it not in my class not in your.
Is there a conspicuous absence of metaphor in your writing style first of all that I don't think one can generalize about about what is taught in creative writing.
classes in fact I would imagine that in a in a class taught by a good writer.
Students would be.
Caught you about doing exactly what you're talking about doing this.
Proposter search for the metaphor.
I do sometimes use and sometimes it's inescapable that that that you that you want to.
You want to.
George Herbert or John Dunn will you want to liken something to someone else to make that.
The strange familiar or the familiar strange for a moment there's a there's a wonderful kind of.
Arsenal of uses for for simile and metaphor generally speaking they feel in in the pros of many writers somewhat reflexive and mandatory and by the bar.
And they slow things down they don't they actually obscure rather than.
Sharp in your view of of the proceedings and I'm.
I'm interested in in the exact statement of the situation as near as I can reach it and often that means that I would have to.
I would have to issue the use of of matter for also it.
I mean I just got something from a friend the other day I hope you don't mind but he always keeps me up to date on the.
The dark and stormy night contest I don't know if you're aware of this but not the contest.
Well it's it's a contest it's held every year for basically the words writing now I.
I've I've always felt a little sorry for bullwor letting who wrote that there was a dark and stormy night you know Charles Sulte used to use it and for Snoopy and.
I think what's wrong with that line actually sometimes it's a dark and stormy night anyway here are some of the metaphors that came through in the most recent.
And and I have a point in bringing this up rather than jokes he was as tall as a six foot three tree.
Here's one I really love John and Mary had never met.
They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.
I mean in fact the point of something like that is or this one more just one more I'll stop by promise the young because they're literally about a hundred of them.
The young fighter had a hungry look the kind you get from not eating for a while.
But these are parodies I for as well these are parodies of course but they're hitting something here which is which is often simply the unnecessaryness of.
I mean you're simply saying again something you've already said but in doing it you're you're taking the reader even farther away.
I think that's what I was trying to also allude to in my opening remarks about extraction or distillation and not say something in a redundant manner and so many of these metaphors are redundant as you say.
Yeah yeah having said that though I mean I've written a novel called old school which in which the narrator does have a more writerly a more full voice.
He is a writer in fact the character and I don't think he's you know tiresome but but that would have to I would have I had to give him a different voice than I tend to use in my short stories.
And similarly the novel I'm working on now is is actually even a little purplish here and there it's very full-throated.
And there's a reason for that and and I know you and I have talked and you're not a great fan of Faulkner am I right.
Well I put it this way I I'm a fan I mean I admire him because of what he's achieved but he's not someone I read with with the pleasure that I read many other great writers with I don't know why he he there's something about him.
That makes me unsettles me and makes me very nervous and I so when the pleasure principle is subtracted I can admire but not warm up to.
Yeah yeah I understand that.
Well he's a writer and and I think having my as a writer in this category I mean really any very distinctive writer Carver would be certainly I'd mention him.
Unlike say Alism and Ruh.
These are writers who in a sense teach you how to read them as you read them.
And and then you can begin to submit to them and and and I really love Faulkner I didn't at first and and it isn't that that his work is on that I think his work like Nabokov's who can also be very I think.
I mean you know look at the beginning of the famous beginning of Lolita filled with metaphor and and similarly it's almost over right in some ways as.
But it's very related to the character of humbert Hubbard uses language as a dodge in a way.
And I would there's something irreducible to me about Nabokov's language as full as it is and I find that to be true of Faulkner to it's just a different kind of song.
And I really I really do love it I couldn't ever write like that in a million years.
And and will be under those who try I mean very few I think Cormac McCarthy does a pretty good job of following in his footsteps but not too many others do.
And simply because it isn't that their natural living of really somehow or other was his.
But I I I mean I certainly know what you mean there.
But there are users of metaphor who are I agree with you that there's nothing superfluous about them and Joseph Conrad is another one who comes to mind.
There's a relentless effort to describe things in a kind of honest spirit he wrote in the preface to the nigger of the narcissus that the work of art must justify itself line by line and you have a sense of an honest effort.
To evoke a visual description or psychological through a relentless use of metaphor.
So I mean speaking of the heart of darkness you know that that scene when I love first of all just a complicated narrative structure that because it's not actually narrated by Marlow it's narrated by someone who's hearing Marlow tell this story.
Marlow sitting on this boat in the Thames with his friend and he's talking about how even this country even this land that they're sitting in and he suddenly calls up the image of a young Roman who's gotten into gambling debts and been sent out to the provinces and and to be lost in this wilderness of Britannia.
You know with the forest and the animals and that great phrase the hearts of wild men and suddenly you're a thousand miles a thousand years away from from that place where you're sitting and it's richly metaphorical both in in its narrative sense and also in its language and I and I wouldn't I wouldn't give up a word of it you know.
No no that that is a perfect short story in my book absolutely yeah on the thematic level Tobias the you talked about Salinger and this.
The pathos of the painful entrance into adulthood and this persistent nostalgia for the innocence of youth and I want to ask you about the youth in your own corpus because you mentioned the novel you wrote the old school which is a really beautiful account of grade school literary education.
In at a certain stage in one's life portrait of the artist as a young man if you want to if you want to use that metaphor.
There's also the book which really.
Made you that the American master an American master and that's the this boys life.
The short stories that we've been talking about many of them are not set in youth but many of them involve intense recollections where youth is always this point of reference from which all.
Which all other forms of orientation. Take their take their center and.
It's unlike Salinger you don't you don't I mean if anyone who's read this boys life is not going to accuse you of romanticizing or idealizing the innocence of youth there's a lot of dark and.
Painful experiences that are not confronted frontily and you got through it on the other side however youth continues to be a strong point of reference for.
For your work in many respects is that correct.
I would say that's probably true.
Not all I mean I don't obviously refer to to you know youth is not an element in every one of my of my stories or works but it certainly.
Does seem to be a pulse in my work and I suppose part of that is that writers are interested in.
Those moments of change those those.
Even if it is as the.
Aller just for a sound your said you know just a turn a phrase in which a life can.
Can change but but yeah the young are still in formation they're interesting that way.
By the time you reach the age of 40 or 50 you're probably pretty well fixed as in your character and and but you're not you're still trying things on when you're young trying on different roles.
And you're not really innocent.
You I mean I want one of the things that I am you know I would certainly make a distinction between say my view of things the soldiers you have things is that I do not view youth is an innocent age at all.
It's not any more corrupt I think than adulthood but you're really trying out everything at that point and also things that you know that that that that sometimes harm others that are difficult to others.
And sensitive and selfish in fact I think a lot of growing up.
To speak outside of the discussion of the story now has to do with becoming less selfish.
I think there's a we are you know we're born everybody's leaning over our cribs adoring us bringing we cry somebody brings us something we are trained from the cradle to be selfish.
And to assume that our will should carry matters in the world and growing up is is the process of shedding that painfully by by painful stage by painful stage and and becoming aware of the reality of other people in the world and all that sort of thing.
And I try to make that that sense that I have of what it means to go up part of my work and so yes yes young people definitely will will are playing and will play a part in my work.
There's a motif that recurs not everywhere obviously but of disappointment of growing into adulthood and getting not to the end of the road but kind of close enough there that you're looking back and the unfulfilled.
I don't know if it is correlated exactly with the promises that you have you represent open horizons of possibilities and then later on you realize that these possibilities have been narrowed down to just a you know a sliver of what they were originally.
But many of the characters in your stories.
That sounds more like sound sure than me I have I there there is the character in deep kiss I think you may be thinking who who does have a sense almost of having lived a parallel life he has been.
I think also of night and gale the father and night and gale I don't know if you would call that experience of disappointment as such but no I don't think it is so much it's it's it's it's a it's a sense that.
That story is about losing your children in a way and that it's an almost an allegory of the finality of separation from your children and and how you both are wanting to push them out into the world.
To the not very tender mercies of the world that at that moment when they're gone you suddenly realize that they are there you know they're gone.
But in that case it's not an nostalgia for it's not in fact when he looks back on his youth.
He suddenly realizes he's been falsifying it in fact to himself and as well as to his son and using himself as a kind of exemplary figure that is such an imitate when he actually honestly looks back on what it was that he was like and what
was driving him then he realizes that that he created a you know the non-existent person he created a fiction that he had gone through all these hard times and that he was toughened by life and that he's worried about his son's vulnerability and the unproven nature of the son's life and wants to toughen him up and he so he will fully excels him from the garden of the home.
And then on his way back he realizes that if I'm now after his too late perhaps if I'm going to be honest with myself was I really so tough what didn't I have my own vulnerabilities at his age.
Did I really have to go to these extreme measures in order to protect my son against future hypothetical heart breaks or what that's right.
Yeah when he gets to the play he decides to get his son back because the places obviously had a very brutal and there's a clear brutal ethos that he could feel of the place of judgment and and that story is full of maps.
Well it's about having very poor maps of how to get to the place and also how to get out of that place and this idea that the map can also serve to understand how you navigate your way through a life and do you really know where you're going or where you have come from.
Can you really find your way back and there's a you know the past can become a fiction in later.
Exactly and does.
And let me say Robert that you're warming my heart because you're exactly the reader that I am that I hope reads my work that you know I mean I don't expect everybody to get to
the maps but I love that you did.
Yes absolutely and you know Frost was really onto this in that very much misunderstood poem of his erode not taken.
When he you know it's commonly understood to be a kind of him to to the individual spirit and taking the difficult path over the easy one.
But if you actually look at the poem he says but as for that the passing there had worn them really about the same.
And and both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black okay but at the last.
At the end he says I shall be telling this with a sigh someday ages and ages hence how to roads met in a wood and I I took the one less traveled by.
And that has made all the difference well what is that about all that melodramatic with a sigh and I I took the one less travel by he's making fun of the way.
We glamorize our choices as we get older and and and probably I mean he sees ahead he said I know that the very that the different ways that I have taken I'm going to fictionalize them later.
And I'm going to make it sound that whatever went well I did because it was the right thing or the hard thing to do it's a wonderful story about the way we.
Turn the past on its head as we get older for our own purposes and and certainly the doctor and night and gale has done that and and we all do it to some extent mostly I think unconscious that.
I don't believe that frost thinks his that he's going to be or his narrator is going to be doing this as a conscious act of deception but as something intrinsic to the way we remember.
Well this brings up another issue going back to this boys.
Life about youth as.
A series of confronting of adversities and real pain and in that case you know even abusive stepfather and that.
Leads to a certain resiliency in the young young man or in later life and in a certain sense the father in night and gale is trying to give his son.
Whatever it would take to have that kind of resiliency and you know I'm not going to sit here to do kind of generational thing a lamenting that young people but it is the case that.
We live in a society right now where there's such an over protection of the young and such a.
Anxiety about exposing them to.
Anything has to do with abuse or conflict and all this sort of ego showing up and you know the self esteem programs and so forth that.
One wonders what how much do we really owe to the pain that even though we might glamorize it later in life and fictionalize it in a way that it doesn't represent but all that pain might.
Might be part of a necessary formation.
Well if we're.
If we're sparing our children what pain we can when they're young.
It's making a mistake of the right kind I think I don't know what the alternative would be.
No certainly not what the father does in night and gale which is send him into into a military.
Same time you know. Yeah I don't know what I really don't know what to think about that.
I remember reading an article not long ago in which the writer talks about how the tittages we've become and how when he was a boy growing up in Massachusetts.
He and his friends would go skating on the pond and they didn't have to deal with science saying you couldn't do this and and if somebody fell in that was they fell in and their parents weren't going to sue the municipality about it and how every little league game now was kind of became an.
An occasion of parental concern and certainly I actually when I lived in Syracuse I was a little league coach.
And I I I I saw a change in the way parents behaved that that was really an awakening to me I mean the.
The yelling at that an umpire who calls the strike on his kid and the yelling at the kid constantly that would never have happened when I played little league as a kid and Babe Ruthlegan.
I mean that just wouldn't have happened and so there is yeah there is that sense of a.
Of a cocooning going on I don't know what the I don't know what the cure for that is there it's going to be point you know there's going to be a lot of pain and disappointment in anybody's life.
Regardless of yeah no one can protect them from that and I don't know how you inoculate your kid against that by exposing I don't know how by what process you would.
You would introduce that experience in into someone's life.
Well yeah that sociology is not part of our thing literature you mentioned Robert Frost quoting Robert Frost Robert Frost has an important appearance in the old school book and.
Can I ask in general not only about Robert Frost but what role that just poetry play in your life as a as a prose writer or.
It's is poetry a deep love of yours yes it is.
And for some reason or other I I when I was young I.
I found a pleasure and memorizing poetry and.
Carrying it around with me and having that.
A portable pleasure if you will poetry I can memorize it more easily than I could.
Though I was my daughter is is loves to memorize things and I'd get a get big kick out of where we're driving somewhere I say okay give me the beginning of a tale of two cities and she can do the you know the whole thing she just does this on a run.
And and that was a pleasure that I had when I was young and and you know perhaps it had something to do with the kind of poetry I was reading to it maybe.
Frost for example lent himself to memorization a little more easily than than some other poets do.
But yeah I.
Who are some of your papers in the English T.S. Eliot I know you I know I love the work or text especially but you know the.
The the wasteland is just wonderful things in it and and you know some of the early poems my guy when I think of that's why sometimes the world's revolve like ancient women gathering fuel and vacant lots.
You know hollow men you know.
The beautiful love song of jail for proof rock and so yeah I had you know I have heard the mermaid singing each to each I do not think that they will sing for me they're.
I don't know they're they take up a home in you some poems and certainly frost was was that for me George Herbert metaphysical poet.
17th century poet someone who's really stayed with me I love John done.
And and I love kids.
How about some of the Americans like heart crane.
Heart crane I don't know that well I mean I've read him he isn't that close to my heart of the American poets well frost is.
Process the number one for you.
I love frost and I when I was younger I really love to eat coming so I had a lot of his poems even some of his early less adventurous poems.
Son it's like it is in moments after I have dreamed.
And I love Robert Lowell's poetry and oh gosh I like sharing old so lot.
And C.K. Williams is a poet I really like a lot I tend not any longer perhaps because of my memory to memorize the poets but I read them and I really like Robert Bly a lot and I love his translations.
From you know Rumi and Kabir especially but in Thomas Transtron.
So yeah the poetry of this country is just I think extraordinary and still lives it's vital.
I agree.
Finally Tobias you said you're you're working on a book now could you mind sharing with our listeners what what it is that you have in the works.
It's hard for me to talk about a word a work in progress because it's always shifting under my under my hands but right.
I I had been working for about a year and a half on a book that that I never I didn't feel quite alive to me and yet I had said I was going to write this book and I was going to write this book and it had to do with 70s radicals and hiding actually that I got very interested in I was teaching in San Francisco when.
And I had a high school during the time of the Patty Hearst kidnapping and the whole business with the Symbianese liberation army and I got really interested in it then I've been following the fate of some of its members and especially this.
Kathleen Ann Salaya who got caught in after 30 years and really not too long yeah and she served some time in Chachil and I think she's out now.
And I thought what is it like to live for 30 years in in Conito and eventually knowing as I think I do how you become other people as you I mean she probably doesn't even think she is I mean she kept insisting she was innocent even when it was clear that she wasn't and she probably actually felt she was because that was somebody out.
And that's the past as a fiction. Yes exactly and so I set out to write this and it just never really came to life and I finally begged it and for the last.
Several months I've been working on another book who shape as much less clear to me but the voices alive and I really and that's what you want.
That's what you wanted for sure.
So it will take me where I will at this point I mean I obviously have some idea where it's taking me but that I keep a very loose hand on the late rains when I write it's to get this is a nice place to come back to that Michelangelo poem it's discovering it is not imposing a form.
It is discovering the form that that is latent in in this case in the very character of the person who's speaking the story.
Well how about when you've done with it and it's out we'll get you back on to title opinions to talk about it.
I'd love that.
Alright thanks for joining us we've been speaking with Tobias Wolf who is a professor here at Stanford and this has been Robert Harrison for entitled opinions will be with you again next week.
Thanks again Tobias.
Thank you.