September 4, 2008

Tobias Wolff: Our Story Begins

Posted in Bloomsbury, Wolff Tobias at 8:00 am by John Self

Straight into a shortlist of one for best book of the year and worst cover design of the decade is Tobias Wolff’s volume of new and selected stories, Our Story Begins. (Seriously, what is it with that cover? To give an already under-read writer like Wolff such an offputting design reminds me a little of the Lee and Herring joke about a poorly-rated TV show, which was “so popular they had to keep moving it around in the schedules to give other programmes a chance.”) If you believe me about the book of the year thing – and I mean it – and are new to Wolff, then it may well be that on completing this volume you will feel the urge to read everything Wolff has written. With many authors – I’m experiencing it with Philip Roth – this is a task as daunting as it is exciting. Wolff, ‘fortunately’, has kept his output down: in 63 years he’s published one novel, two memoirs and three collections of stories. All are essential; but some (Old School; This Boy’s Life) are more essential than others.

Of course if you read this edition, you’ll have a good range of Wolff’s story output anyway, but I recommend the full collections to fill the gaps. Our Story Begins is heavily weighted in favour of his later work, with only nine stories from his first two collections, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs and Back in the World (in the UK these are published in one volume, as The Stories of Tobias Wolff). Fortunately it includes one of his most famous stories, ‘Hunters in the Snow’, which exhibits the best of early Wolff in 16 pages:

Frank reached out and laid his hand on Tub’s arm. “Tub, have you ever been really in love?”

“Well -“

“I mean really in love.” He squeezed Tub’s wrist. “With your whole being.”

“I don’t know. When you put it like that, I don’t know.”

“You haven’t then. Nothing against you, but you’d know it if you had.” Frank let go of Tub’s arm. “This isn’t just some bit of fluff I’m talking about.”

“Who is she, Frank?”

Frank paused. He looked into his empty cup. “Roxanne Brewer.”

“Cliff Brewer’s kid? The babysitter?”

“You can’t just put people into categories like that, Tub. That’s why the whole system is wrong. And that’s why this country is going to hell in a rowboat.”

“But she can’t be more than -” Tub shook his head.

“Fifteen. She’ll be sixteen in May.” Frank smiled. “May fourth, three twenty-seven p.m. Hell, Tub, a hundred years ago she’d have been an old maid by that age. Juliet was only thirteen.”

“Juliet? Juliet Miller? Jesus, Frank, she doesn’t even have breasts. She doesn’t even wear a top to her bathing suit. She’s still collecting frogs.”

“Not Juliet Miller. The real Juliet. Tub, don’t you realise how you’re dividing people up into categories? He’s an executive, she’s a secretary, he’s a truck driver, she’s fifteen years old. Tub, this so-called babysitter, this so-called fifteen-year-old has more in her little finger than most of us have in our entire bodies. I can tell you this little lady is something special.”

Tub nodded. “I know the kids like her.”

This is Wolff at his showiest, able and unashamed to entertain with diverting oddities and clever dialogue several times a page. Most of his stories are told in the third person, which enables Wolff to act as omniscient narrator and put in witticisms (a college which “looked so much like a college that moviemakers sometimes used it as a set”) and insights which wouldn’t necessarily occur to his everyman characters. This could be a weakness if Wolff’s integrity toward his creations weren’t so complete, and the people in his stories so full-blooded. He can sum up elements of their characters with exceptional economy, as in the passage above, where Frank’s knowledge of the very time of day when Roxanne Brewer turns 16 expresses him both as a parental figure and a plan-ahead predator. In another story, ‘Soldier’s Joy’, we get a twinge of pity, a cringe of embarrassment and a smile when we learn of the character Hooper that “he was no great lover, as the women he went with usually got around to telling him.”

Soldiers feature regularly in Wolff’s stories, as do boys from broken homes: Wolff has recorded his own experiences of these situations in This Boy’s Life (1989) and In Pharaoh’s Army (1994). His soldiers are usually in the army by necessity; his fatherless boys feel ambivalence toward their struggling mothers. The two lives are combined in ‘The Other Miller’ when a soldier has a stroke of luck (of one sort or another) and is sent on home leave for bereavement: “Miller knows what happened. There’s another Miller in the battalion with the same initials he’s got, “W.P.,” and this Miller is the one whose mother has died. The army screws up their mail all the time, and now they’ve screwed this up.” This Miller, anyway, isn’t on speaking terms with his mother, as he “wants her to understand that her son is not a man to turn the other cheek” after she remarried, to Miller’s high school biology teacher. Miller joined the army to spite her: “she was right too. The army was just as bad as she thought, and worse. … Miller hated every minute of it, but there was a pleasure in his hatred because his mother must know how unhappy he was.” In a dozen pages, Wolff tracks through this rather eccentric scenario to close in beautifully on the truth at the heart of it.

Miller leans back against the seat and closes his eyes, but his effort to trick himself into somnolence fails; behind his eyelids he is wide awake and fidgety with gloom, probing against his will for what he is afraid to find, until, with no surprise at all, he finds it. A simple truth. His mother is also going to die. Just like him. And there’s no telling when. Miller cannot count on her to be there to come home to, and receive his pardon, when he finally decides she has suffered enough.

This ability to extract piercing honesty from outlandish, attention-catching settings is a speciality of Wolff’s: in ‘Mortals’, where a man complains that his obituary has been published when he’s not dead yet; or in the new story ‘Her Dog’, where Wolff risks extreme silliness by having a man imagine a conversation with his dog – with her dog – but gets to the heart of a relationship in a way that standard issue knockabout stuff between man and woman would struggle to. Elsewhere, the first new story, ‘That Room’ is only four pages long but has a stretch of prose near the end which takes off in an entirely unexpected direction, rather rich and strange, which seems unlike anything Wolff has done before. He seems to be stretching himself.

The rather better US cover for Our Story Begins

The rather better US cover for Our Story Begins

As with any selection of stories, there will be quibbles for every reader familiar with Wolff. (Readers new to him will be delighted by an embarrassment of riches.) For my part, given Wolff’s preference for the stories in his 1996 collection The Night in Question (12 of its 15 are here), I wish he’d included one I vividly remember from reading it a decade ago, ‘The Life of the Body’. The only way through that is to read all the books again anyway: no hardship. It’s a reviewer’s cliché to say it, but there really is more brains, heart and soul in one story by Tobias Wolff – in one page – than some of this year’s Booker longlisters manage in their entire length. The only other criticism is that the book isn’t twice as long, and that we have only ten new stories from Wolff to show for the five years since the publication of his last book, Old School (2003). Like Joe in ‘Deep Kiss’, the last new story in the book and a highlight of this exceptional collection, I feel “itchy with thirst and deeply satisfied all at once.”

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38 Comments »

  1. Mrinal Bose said,

    I have a tendency to skip the excerpts that reviewers incorporate into their reviews. But I happened to read these this time, and I’m fascinated. This is real writing, and Tobias Wolff seems to be that rare breed who writes from lived experiences. Thanks, John, for introducing Wolff.

  2. John Self said,

    Mrinal, I deliberately kept it to just a couple of excerpts because otherwise I could have filled the entire review with them.

    As for whether he writes from lived experiences, I think that would be true. Even his novel, Old School, he says has a broadly autobiographical background. Actually there is another novel (just to pre-empt any pedants like me who were going to mention it) called Ugly Rumors which he wrote in the 70s, before any of his other books, but it’s long out of print, scarce, and I think Wolff intends it to stay that way.

    In short, I don’t know anyone who has read Wolff who doesn’t think he’s terrific. Why he’s not as well known as Cheever or Carver I’m not sure. His brother, Geoffrey, is also a writer, though I don’t know anything of his.

  3. Paul said,

    John, by coincidence I just finished reading a collection of short stories by an American writer a couple of days ago and have not stopped thinking about it since. ‘Unnacustomed Earth’ by Jhumpa Lahiri. I’d like to recommend it to you. It blew me away.

    It makes me wonder why the short story seems to be so healthy in American literature, why their writers seem to excel in the form. It’s worth thinking about.

    Finishing the Lahiri book has left me in the mood for more good short fiction by American writers (you know how it is when that happens like a fashion thing), so as well as getting hold of Jhumpa Lahiri’s earlier books, I may well check out this collection by Tobias Woolf. You’ve certainly sold it to me.

    It’s a different reading experience too isn’t it? Your pacing, your reflection. You begin to read the concision of the form.

  4. John Self said,

    Thanks Paul. I will definitely read the Lahiri on your recommendation – I’ve heard good things about her, and I know Unaccustomed Earth was widely praised in the press, but to date my only thoughts on it have been, “Mm, nice cover.”

    The traditional response to why Americans seem to excel in stories (I’m not enough of a story reader to be sure that’s true, but it’s certainly the perceived wisdom) is that they have many more high profile outlets for the form. Here in the UK we have Granta and, er, The People’s Friend.

    As for reading stories, the old advice is the best: don’t overdose on them. I was lucky enough to find that a local bookshop had put out copies of the Wolff back in June (it wasn’t supposed to be published in the UK until August), so I’ve been taking it on a pretty leisurely basis for the last three months, a story every couple of days, which is definitely the best way to read him. Wolff’s stories are short – I think the longest here is about 30 pages, but most are 10-20 – so each can be read in a sitting. This book is a perfect place for anyone to start with Wolff – and my experience is that once you start, you won’t want to stop.

    I say that also as someone who doesn’t read many stories (as indicated above) – partly this is because my (probably mildly autistic) completion impulse means I much prefer to read a book I can complete in one go, ie a novel, than a collection I will have to come back to time and time again. It’s rare for me to finish a collection of stories I start, which is another indicator of Wolff’s standing.

  5. KevinfromCanada said,

    I don’t know Wolff and very much appreciate this review — I’m usually reluctant to approach short stories, but this does pique my curiosity.

    I do know Lahiri and very much like her work, including Unaccustomed Earth. But if you are thinking about starting her, her first book (The Interpreter of Maladies, which won the Pulitzer) is a better book for my money. Her novel, The Namesake, was good, but not up to the short stories.

    And for those looking for (North) American short story writers, as a good Canadian I have to put in a word for Alice Munro (the NY Times review of her last collection called her the best short story writer in the world, which might have been a bit excessive). That collection — The View from Castle Rock — is a bit of a memoir. Starts at Edinburgh Castle with her ancestors and then moves into Canada and eventually into Munro’s life. The Runaway, a more traditional short story collection, is probably more typical of her work — it won the Giller Prize, which is Canada’s version of the Man Booker. Munro does need to be read the way that John approached Wolff — one or two stories at a time — because while they are all very well-written, they tend to run together if you read too many at once.

  6. KevinfromCanada said,

    John: Check out the North American cover (it’s a gentle portrait of Wolff). You might want to import an image for your review as a much better indication of the book.

  7. I strongly second Kevin’s recommendation of Interpreter of Maladies. The first story in the collection, “A Temporary Matter,” left me stunned for days.

    I have had Wolff on my shelf for years since a friend gave me a copy of Old School and my wife bought an as yet unread copy of This Boy’s Life. You’ve given me reason to dig into them. Much appreciated!

  8. John Self said,

    Thanks for the guidance, Kevin. In fact a copy of Unaccustomed Earth is already winging its way to me after Paul’s recommendation earlier – impulsive little devil, aren’t I? – but if I enjoy it as much as I hope to, I’ll surely be picking up her earlier stuff anyway.

    Alice Munro is widely, and not just by the NY Times, called the greatest short story writer around. I read one of her collections, The Progress of Love, about ten years ago now and to be honest I didn’t really engage with it. However she’s so well respected that I can’t rule out a revisit.

    (Also, I’ve seen the North American cover for Wolff. I might add it in lower down, but the UK one has to stay now, otherwise my Lee and Herring joke would be left floundering!)

    Trevor, I hope you can find room for Wolff in your post-Booker binge. The great thing is that his books are short (so don’t take long) but very satisfying (so linger a good long while).

  9. Stewart said,

    I strongly second Kevin’s recommendation of Interpreter of Maladies. The first story in the collection, “A Temporary Matter,” left me stunned for days.

    A Temporary Matter is the only story I can really remember in part from that collection. In fact, I don’t think I even finished it, thinking that each was the lesser of the one before.

    As for American short story writers, we can’t rule out Richard Yates. I’ve never finished reading all his stories, but those I’ve read (from Eleven Kinds Of Loneliness are memorable. And Annie Proulx has another collection of the blighters out around now. Indidentally, I bought The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories by Washington Irving today, and he’s probably the earliest of American short story writers.

  10. Paul said,

    John, I tend to read short stories as you describe, loosely, spaced out, at a more leisurely pace than, as you put it so well, the autistic state you enter when reading a novel.

    But I read Lahiri’s collection as intensely as I read a novel. It just tugged me into itself. I do think that one of the stories does not quite coalesce, but even that one has some of the strength of the collection. They are quite long short stories; and the final three works are demarcated as Part Two of the collection and even though each one stands on its own they knit together to form a semi-novella.

    I hope you enjoy it. Thanks for the recommendations from everyone else, too.

  11. Paul said,

    One last thing about Tobias Wolff, in the American cover above. What a moustache. I have long thought that we are diminished by the lack of beards and snazzy taches on the faces of our literary greats.

    It is a fact that Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Melville, Dickens, the list never ends, from the days of candle sticks and quills, it is a fact that their work was in some way enhanced by their manly hirsuteness, and the demise of the writer with beard or coiffed moustache is a small tragedy in some ways. I long for the day when it returns; the tache gives me another reason to buy and read this work of Mr Wolff.

    Of course Proust is the high mark of the literary moustache. I think that the modernist break with the beard was part of their reaction against all that came before, and the beard represented all that was false and decayed in the old forms of European literature. Proust’s moustache was a statement of modernism. Google an image of Ibsen to see his wild troll like side wings, and compare it to Joyce’s restraint in his moustache.

    In Tobias I see resemblances to the WG Sebald tache too, the last truly great writer to use clippers on the upper lip. But Wolff’s mussie has an American grit and expansive loneliness to it. I’m thinking the opening scenes of Wim Wender’s ‘Paris, Texas’.

  12. John Self said,

    An excellent point, Paul, well made. The essence of facial hair in literature through the ages – surely there’s a PhD there for the taking? I struggle to think of British writers who can match that sort of furniture. But how about Howard Jacobson, whose new novel The Act of Love I intend to read soon? Interestingly, his unstructured beard seems to reflect the looseness of his fiction. (Jacobson is sometimes described – mainly by me, and not terribly accurately either – as the British Philip Roth. Now, even more interestingly, Roth has always struck me as a moustache manqué – take a look at that long upper lip and tell me it isn’t crying out for decoration.)

    By the same token, Wolff’s clean-cut, defined – dare one say military – ‘tache is matched by his careful, burnished prose, seemingly effortless but clearly requiring hours of dedication and maintenance. On a side note, both the US and UK covers of Wolff’s collection have clearly been designed with an eye to the male market: the black scribbliness, the denim shirt with rolled-up sleeves – “these are manly stories,” they seem to say. Now, I don’t know about that.

  13. KevinfromCanada said,

    You handled the covers perfectly.

    I read books exactly the way you do — which means I, like you, am an infrequent short story reader (Lahiri is definitely an exception for me). And having said nice things about Alice Munro earlier — and I do agree with the critics that she is an excellent writer — I too have difficulty engaging with her work. It was a novelist friend (who quite dislikes her) who spoiled Munro for me: “Every story is like looking at southwestern Ontario, an inherently boring place, through sepia-coloured glasses.”

    Paul’s note on Unaccustomed Earth echoes a thought I was thinking as well — I’d consider starting with the last three stories, since as linked stories they do form a novella (I recommended this to my wife and she followed my suggestion and said it was a great idea). I don’t think there is any reason to leave them until last.

  14. Sam said,

    I read ‘Old School’ a few years ago and remember it as a pleasant and nostalgic read. Oddly, his writing does seem to be both too gestural and too emphatic all at once. I don’t think I ever knew why the boy in ‘Old School’ (I can’t remember his name) did what he did (plagiarise Hemingway?) I guess I wanted the book to tell me *why* people (like the kids in the school) deceive themselves, and Wolff only told me what we all already know: that people simply do deceive themselves as a way to deceive others. There were gestures towards some familial pressures, I think, but it was all a bit undercooked (or, in reviewer-speak, ‘beautifully subtle’). And I thought he was generally too neat in the way he closes things off with a nice neat bow of an epiphany (for example the extract from ‘The Other Miller’ above). Compare to Chekhov’s (or Munro’s) ‘negative-endings’ in which you get the sense of things just kind of carrying on off the page, even though we’ve had to stop reading. Isn’t that much more like life? But Wolff certainly writes wonderful prose.

    I really enjoyed ‘The Interpreter of Maladies’, too, and thought the first story, ‘A Temporary Matter’ absolutely super-dooper. I think Richard Ford included it in a recent collection of 100 best American short stories of the twentieth century (or something like that). Unfortuantely I’m going to have to wait for the PB of ‘Unaccustomed Earth’, for I, being poor, have only my pennies. And a shit library.

  15. KevinfromCanada said,

    If bookermt is dropping in on this site, and I suspect he is, surely he can find a way to get Sam a copy of Unaccustomed Earth.

  16. Paul said,

    John, Philip Roth NEEDS a moustache. He would look so positively lecherous and Zuckerman / Portnoy-as-an-old-man-esque. Think the raging sleazy energy of Sabbath’s Theater. Now we’re talking.

  17. Sam said,

    Thanks, Kevin, but really it’s fine. I like the anticipation! (And I don’t even like the HB cover – that Hokusai painting is sinister as all hell.)

  18. KevinfromCanada said,

    The young Philip Roth needed a moustache. The aging, balding Philip Roth would look quite silly with one. Check out the Library of America website and follow the covers of their volumes in sequence for a study in receding hairlines. Roth is just fine the way he is now, unless he acquires a toupe. John Updike, John Cheever, Wallace Stegner, Raymond Chandler, Mordecai Richler and Saul Bellow also never had moustaches. Perhaps we have uncovered the secret to the difference between great European and great North American writers/novelists? Which makes Wolff a displaced European, not at all a bad thing as some extrapolation of John’s review would indicate.

  19. KevinfromCanada said,

    Sam: Go to Amazon.com in the US and check out the North American cover. Just as in the book above, it is far more subtle, far more indicative of the content and all in all far better. I must admit from my monitoring of the Man Booker this summer, it appears that publishers in the U.K. think readers need to be slammed over the head with a cover to get them to buy a book — amazingly, North American versions are far more subtle (if you are playing around on your computer, check out Netherland and The Lost Dog for examples).

  20. John Self said,

    Oddly, [Wolff's] writing does seem to be both too gestural and too emphatic all at once.

    I shall have to ponder that, Sam. If you mean the pleasures of his stories are often primarily on the surface of the page (as I think the extract from ‘Hunters in the Snow’ shows), I wouldn’t disagree. Indeed when writing about Our Story Begins, one of my problems was to explain exactly why I like his stuff so much, and I don’t think I really succeeded. As for the ‘negative-endings’ you refer to, I’d agree that this is often a more satisfying structure, though in Wolff, the neatness of the form matches the neatness of the prose. I’d consider Wolff’s friend Richard Ford, in his recent collection A Multitude of Sins, to be expert in negative endings – many of those stories seemed to simply be chapters from longer, ongoing narratives of life.

    Our Story Begins shares its title with an early story of Wolff’s, where a character portentously announces, “Our story begins,” to make the ironic point that the story really has begun earlier, long before even the point where Wolff started telling it. Perhaps this is an argument for ‘negative beginnings’? One could argue though that all stories are, or should be, like that, freighted with prior substance in the characters’ lives and stories which remains unwritten.

    Sam, your use of the word ‘gestural’ reminded me of comments Wolff once made in an interview, about the use of gestures in fiction.

    There’s a famous paragraph in one of Chekhov’s letters to his brother Nikolai in which he talks about writing description. In it he says, ‘When describing a starry night, don’t just talk about the beauty of the heavens, and the beautiful pinpricks of stars all over the inky sky.’ He says, ‘describe a piece of broken glass and the moonlight shining in that, and all of a sudden a wolf runs past you like a black ball in the night.’

    It’s that kind of odd angle of vision that really captures those unexpected things that you would find in a good story, that broken glass. That’s something very distinctive with Chekhov. I translate that into the description of character as well. You can illuminate character by a similar kind of sidelong glance that you can use to illuminate that moonlit night.

    There’s a kind of stock repertoire that comes out of drama, mainly of gestures and actions that people perform in stories. You know: the mixing-of-drinks, the-crossing-of-rooms, the-lighting-of-cigarettes. What’s wrong with them is they’re essentially anonymous. They don’t tell us that much. What you want is a gesture that tells you something particular.

    Whether he succeeds is another matter I suppose.

    And incidentally Paul, I noticed that one of the other Wolff stories uncollected in this volume, ‘An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke’ (from In the Garden of the North American Martyrs), features a hated colleague with an “unnecessarily large moustache.”

    Kevin, this comment is already too long, so I will have to wait another time to disagree with you in principle about US v UK book covers … though of course, not in this case anyway!

  21. KevinfromCanada said,

    You don’t have to open a debate about book covers by geography. Some are better in one place, some in the other — there is no trend.

  22. Sam said,

    Hi John

    By ‘gestural’ I guess all I meant was that from my limited experience of Wolff’s work he has a habit of just gesturing or pointing towards a deep idea without actually *going there* and inhabiting it fully. But your point about the pleasures of his stories being primarily on the surface of the page is an astute one (style over content, if we were being crude). It’s soemthing I’ve sometimes thought common to a few American writers – Updike, Wolff, and what I’ve read of Yates. They all write this seamless carpet of very fine prose, but I can never shake off the suspicion that it’s ‘just’ surface-dazzle, trying to blind me to the fact that underneath it all they don’t actually have that much to say. It’s almost as if they’re afraid of digging deep for fear of agitating their perfec prose and risking looking ridiculous. Compare with late-Roth who can be sometimes clunkier and more sentimental than his contemporaries, but I’d say that’s because he’s trying to produce work that has a psychological depth and trawl that is so much farther than most of his contemporaries.

    ‘What you want is a gesture that tells you something particular’.

    Absolutely. It’s the old ‘telling detail’ that every novelist tries to find. The example you gave from your review of ‘The Lost Dog’ – of the porcelain figures being washed head down in soapy water – is a brilliant one.

    Anyway, I may well pick the Wolff up. It sounds like a good read in any case.

  23. JRSM said,

    My only complaint about this book–besides agreeing with you about the cover design–is that I felt Wolff deserves a big fat book containing ALL the stories, like that wonderfully generous William Trevor collection of some 1000 pages, 100-odd stories, containing the complete contents of seven story collections. With that Trevor book and a big Wolff collection, you could last a long, happy time abandoned on a deserted island.

  24. Elaine said,

    John – Bloomsbury have very kindly sent me a copy of this and I was really interested to read your take on it. I recently had a post on Vulpes Libres during their short story week and started by saying I didn’t like short stories much and then realised by the end of the post that I had more or less contradicted myself as I had read and enjoyed more than I thought. This was picked up and this book hit my doorstep and now that I have read your thoughts, I am looking forward to taking the plunge soon.

  25. John Self said,

    JRSM: Yes and no. Wolff deserves as many deluxe editions as his publishers can give him, but I personally find those fat Collected Stories (Ballard’s springs to mind too) offputting and would never read a story in that format. Rather, I’d like Bloomsbury Classics editions of each of his four collections of stories, including the ten new ones in this collection published on their own.

    Elaine, I hope you like it – I think if anyone can win over a short-story denier, Wolff can. As I indicated above, I don’t read many myself, more through a completist impulse than any dislike of the form. But I will keep an eye on your blog to see what you think, and you can of course share any thoughts here too.

  26. Anyone who has enjoyed “This Boy’s Life” will have a good time with Geoffrey Wolff’s “The Duke of Deception,” about Tobias and Geoffrey’s con-man father. I don’t think it has the artistry of T. Wolff’s memoirs, but it’s a great story.

  27. Hans said,

    Happened to pick up a tattered copy opf Wolff’s “Back in the World” when in Vietnam last december (The Bookworm, arguably the best bookshop in Hanoi). Just one of those lucky picks, I guess.

    Don’t know what drew me to his name in the first place, probably just the sound of the name, a memory of Thomas Wolfe (and how Kerouac always used to say he wanted to write the definitive “all American novel” in the style of Wolfe, which he attempted in The Town and the City).

    Anyway, it was most certainly a lucky draw. “Back in the World” is a mesmerizing collection of stories, and one has to approach it as if it were poetry: bits at the time, as if it were Wislawa Szymborska or Elizabeth Bisshop.

    So I ordered “Our Story Begins”, the European edition, with the strange cover. (John, look again: it’s sperm in a centrifuge!) Many of the Back in the World stories are reprinted in this volume, but no matter, they’re worth being read again.

  28. John Self said,

    Thanks for your comment, Hans. In fact I think there are only four or five stories from Back in the World contained in Our Story Begins, so by my reckoning that’s 25 or so new stories you’ll have to look forward to. In any event it was a fine choice you made in the first place. As the reviewerly cliché goes (I seem to be succumbing to those more and more), I envy you the delight of discovering many of these stories for the first time.

    Funny you should mention Elizabeth Bishop – she’s currently on promotion in Waterstone’s bookshops in the UK as part of a selection of books recommended by Philip Pullman. I’m ashamed to admit I’d never heard of her before that.

    Sperm in a centrifuge eh! And I’m sure those are cobwebs in the background. Too much insight into the designer’s subconscious, I think.

  29. [...] managed to fit nine stories into 200 pages, so the stories were half the length of these. One commenter did recommend reading the closing trilogy first, and that might have helped. Meanwhile, I’ll [...]

  30. Lee Monks said,

    Where to start here…? Well, how about with Munro, before we move on to a few of the others mentioned in the above missives…

    I recently read some Munro stories, and I found her to be an excellent writer with very little to say. What she had to say was poignant, perspicacious, economic and affecting. But to bring in anoter writer mentioned – her stories seemed bereft of the heft of a Carver, for example, as though she was training an obsessive, finely-honed scrutiny upon too narrow a concern. I mean, you can create something pretty snazzy with an etch-a-sketch, but why not try a canvas, or at least get the pencil and pad out? Terrible metaphor but anyway. I enjoy it more when writers try and slip out of their comfort zone; when such attempts are made and the writer develops, as Carver did with Cathedral, as William Trevor did, as others have, it can be thrilling. Another dreadful metaphor, but I can’t seem to shirk the temptation to throw it in: Munro strikes one as an extremely proficient, slightly quirky pub singer – in the same way that Amy Hempel seems to be a literary, archly pre-conceived Alanis Morrissette figure – as opposed to the Leonard Cohen flourishes of a Wolff or the morose, deceptive candour of a Dylanesque Carver.

    I think Old School is a flawless masterpiece; heck, if you’re going to take your time, take as long as you want if this is the kind of ratcheted yet intensely likeable gem you gently cultivate. I suppose it’s a no-brainer for book lovers, the subject matter of the novel being what it is (another reason that I’m perhaps not the best-equipped to properly judge Chabon’s marvellous ‘The Wonder Boys’) but it’s as beautifully crafted as a Fitzgerald, as dialogue dead-on as a Hemingway and as quietly affecting (almost!) as Faulkner on form. Surely in 50 years I wouldn’t have to scrupulously check these comments to make sure I’m deadly serious and the book would have taken its rightful place alongside Huck Finn and a handful of others…time, a better critic than I, will tell…

    I’m prattling now, but a quick word on another writer amongst the above comments, Richard Ford. Incapable, I imagine, of anything as concisely brilliant as Wolff, he is more a kind of logorrhoeic, compulsively insightful wag that has never failed to entertain. The Lay Of The Land seemed to contain enough languidly aphoristic panache for at least three novels but was a fitting close to THAT trilogy I felt.

  31. John Self said,

    Thanks Lee – yes, Old School, I hope, is destined for longevity.

    My only experience of Munro (I may be repeating myself) is a collection of her stories I read about ten years ago called The Progress of Love. They seemed to me to be of the short story type which might be described as a ‘mini-novel’ or perhaps ‘fragment from a novel’ which, oddly, is how Richard Ford’s short(er) fiction strikes me too. But all that is clouded by ten years’ intervening memories.

  32. adevotedreader said,

    I’ve just read Old School, and was so impressed I’ll certainly be chasing up the rest of Wolff’s oeuvre, especially after reading this glowing review and comments.

    I have to stick up for Alice Munro though!

    I think the danger of reading any book of short stories one after the other is that they can run together. Personally, in Munro’s case I don’t find this happens. Yes, her stories are largely set in south-western Ontario, but they detail the individual lives of ordinary people. Her characters live largely hum-drum rural lives and do have a superficial similarity, but their personalities, regrets and dreams are all very different.

    I’d recommend her first book, Dance of the happy shades(1968) as the most likely to convince the disengaged or doubtful.

  33. John Self said,

    You won’t be disappointed by Wolff’s stories if you liked Old School, adevotedreader.

    You have identified the problem with reading books of stories – I tried to avoid this by reading Our Story Begins over a period of about three months, limiting myself to a few stories a week.

    The difficulty I suppose for any writer with a distinctive tone or milieu is that their stories will seem similar, at least to the non-fan – just as songs by an artist with a distinctive voice will run into one another. I’ve felt the same about William Trevor, although I haven’t read enough of his stories to usefully comment. I do know that he’s regarded as one of the greats of the 20th century short story, so I may be drummed out of the book blogosphere for even hinting a criticism.

  34. [...] that feature female leads. And if you think you might prefer Wolff’s short stories, check out John Self’s review of Our Story Begins, his most recent [...]

  35. kaze said,

    I’m glad you’re giving Wolff’s short stories their due. I have an old-fashioned affinity for writers who lived an actual life before they hit campus, whether as writing students or writing teachers, and now try to capture what they saw without being precious about it. Characters in Wolff’s stories are not “characters.” They’re convincing as people. Great craft, big heart.

  36. [...] Wolff, Our Story Begins : “there really is more brains, heart and soul in one story by Tobias Wolff – in one [...]

  37. [...] these are the literary ones – D.H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Salter, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, W.G. Sebald and Thomas Bernhard. (Though it may just be that I’d read some of them before, [...]

  38. […] Wolff, Our Story Begins : “there really is more brains, heart and soul in one story by Tobias Wolff – in […]


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