Saturday, March 29, 2008

Brian Hall's "Fall Of Frost"

The time has come at last to plump for our friend and neighbor, Brian Hall, whose new book Fall of Frost was published by Viking the other day. The novel is a fictionalized life of the poet Robert Frost, and was inspired by an event late in that life: his meeting, in Russia, with Nikita Khrushchev.

Why this meeting isn't better known is anyone's guess; it's not even mentioned on Frost's Wikipedia page. Not long after reading "The Gift Outright" at Kennedy's inauguration (instead of the poem he was supposed to read), Frost persuaded the administration to let him make a sort of informal diplomatic mission to Moscow. By Hall's reckoning, Frost had the noble but naive idea that he understood the kind of man Khrushchev was, and could break through the rhetorical impasse between east and west by speaking with him directly. The meeting was, of course, of no real consequence, until now, when it has inspired a really wonderful piece of work.

Hall's last book, I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company, was a fictional account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and is one of the best biographical novels I've ever read. That's not saying much, because, as I've said here before, I can't stand biographical novels. Unless, that is, they are amazing, and that one was. Ambitious, broad in scope, intensely imagined, it ought to have given Hall an airtight reputation as one of our best novelists.

I'm not sure that it did, though. Historical novels usually don't make literary reputations; they mostly make historians hate you, sometimes with good reason. So it was with perverse joy that I learned that Brian's next book would be...another historical novel, this time about a poet. The man just couldn't get enough. And I'm sure that there will be many biographers of the poet who will have some manner of hissy-fit over this book.

But like I said, Fall of Frost is fantastic, not as biography, but as literature. With the Khrushchev meeting serving as a kind of flash-forward backdrop, the book examines Frost's life in fragments, filtering known biographical details through a fictional consciousness that can only be described as spectacularly vivid. This Frost feels like the Frost of his poems. It is unsullied by the kind of scholarly agenda that mars most biographies (and indeed, we are treated, in the book, to a darkly hilarious glimpse of Frost's first, hostile biographer, Lawrence Thompson); instead, it strives to construct a probable Frost-mind, an emotional and intellectual landscape upon which events of the poet's life are projected. We get the devastating deaths of his children; his marriage, and later, his affair with his married secretary; his thorny relationship with scholars and readers; his walks in the woods and lame attempts at homesteading. He comes off as a complex, deeply flawed, and eminently likeable character. The life was long and tragic; the book is articulate and quite funny.

I dunno. I know I said I hate the bionov. But there's something to be said about the value of such a book--even beyond its value as a literary work. A novelist, or at least this novelist, puts together the pieces of a life in a different manner from a biographer. Fall of Frost is the life of Frost as your friend, your intimate. It's the life of Frost, as if you were Frost. It is not like a biography at all, and maybe that's what makes it so good.

One caveat--the version I read is not the version you can now go out and buy. Because the Frost estate withheld from Hall its permission to quote the later poems, he was forced to go back, post-galleys, and feverishly rewrite a lot of scenes. To hear him tell it, the result is different, but of comparable quality. But to be safe, I'm not going to quote anything here.

19 comments:

bigscarygiraffe said...

that reading; oh man. the manstruation moment is now a top ten college experience. you made me believe in readings again.

5 Red Pandas said...

This may seem like a strange comment, but since I've been thinking about tags a lot lately (for class) I can't helped being troubled by Ward Six's not having a tag/label sidebar. I know that you said that you thought it would be too long, but people coming to the site wouldn't know what tags/labels to google if they haven't been reading for a while. If you're going to use tags, then you should make a list of them visible. In the name of good and open information access and retrieval, please, instill a label sidebar! Readers don't necessarily think like you, the labeler, so they won't know to look for "bionovel", but if they saw that there was a tag for bionovel their interest may be piqued. I know that I would check out clusters of posts if there was a label list because it's interesting to see how multiple posts connect with one another.

Yes, library school will do this to you.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't The Saskiad--or some similar terrible title-- by Brian Hall? That book was brilliant, but man, what a death-by-bad-title marketing problem. I wish Hall would do a YA instead of these bio pieces. He's such a good writer, but who wants to read about Krushev aside from the NYTimes Book Review and old men? I still occasionally think of lines from The Saskiad (is that the right title..?) and laugh.

The Fall of Hall...?

jrlennon said...

Anon, yeah, "The Saskiad" was Brian, and personally I love that title. I don't think a good writer generally does what's good for his career; he does what he feels compelled to do, and lets the chips fall where they may. Needless to say, a Robert Frost bionov is not the stuff of Oprah, but in this case, it makes for a hella good book.

giraffe, thank you! It was an amazingly fun night and I really appreciate your coming. And BTW, you and I have a credit or two to clear up, howabout stopping by office hours this week?

And Pandas, OK, OK, I'll do it. We think up like six new tags a week, and the list will be as long as your leg, but FINE HAVE IT YOUR WAY ;-)

5 Red Pandas said...

Ah, now I can sleep at night. The functionality of labels has been fully realized.

rmellis said...

I don't really know what a tag/label sidebar is for. I'm just writing this junk and posting it!

I think Brian should continue writing for adults. There's nothing wrong with the YA genre, and I think it's wonderful to write for teens, but they don't have adult problems or adult perspectives, and that's what I'm interested in.

5 Red Pandas said...

A tag/label sidebar lets new readers (and old ones looking for older posts) find posts that they want to read based on the descriptive labels you've assigned individual posts. I noticed that you don't tend to label your posts but John and Ed do. I was just curious to read some of the older posts about specific topics, but I couldn't remember how they were labeled. This way I just have to look at the sidebar.

I'm taking "knowledge organization" this semester, so maybe that's why I wanted John to install the sidebar. I'm selfish!

rmellis said...

Ah ha, that makes sense. It didn't occur to me that anyone would want to go look at old posts, though. I might, however, so that would be handy.

jrlennon said...

R, you could always go back and label your posts in the edit window. Or I could...

AC said...

I loved The Saskiad. Absolutely loved it. It's one of my favorite novels. And yet, I have a hard time recommending it to others because I don't know how to pronounce the name of the main character/title. So in that sense, it is a lousy title. But so funny and so fitting.

At the time that I read it, I was working at Borders (far away from my home state, which was a big reason why I picked that book to read from the many on the shelves). It was shelved in the adult fiction section (not erotica, you know what I mean) but our database of reviews described it as YA, recommended for older teens.

Which would you say it is?

AC said...

And thanks for plugging his new novel! I remember looking for the Lewis and Clark one when it came out, not finding it, and then apparently forgetting all about it until now...

rmellis said...

Brian says, I think, "SAHS-kee-ahd."

JRL correct me if I'm wrong.

jrlennon said...

No, I think you're right.

It's not a YA novel by any stretch, in my view. It happens to be about an adolescent, but that's about it. A smart teenager might well like it, though.

I've always been of two minds about the final, flash-forwardy bit, with the sex in it. In a way, it's inevitable, but in another way, I found it a little unsatisfying. It's been a while, though, since I read it, and I can't explain my feelings clearly. I do remember thinking it was a strange, superb book overall.

Brian was appalled when I told him, upon first meeting him, that I had read his first book, The Dreamers. I believe what he said was "Oh, no!"

barb michelen said...

Hello I just entered before I have to leave to the airport, it's been very nice to meet you, if you want here is the site I told you about where I type some stuff and make good money (I work from home): here it is

Mr. Saflo said...

I agree with our mutual friend Barb Michelin: don't let this fantastic money-making opportunity pass you by!

jrlennon said...

You know, Barb, Rhian was not supposed to know about our encounter at the airport. Now I've been forced to promise never to see you again--and never to engage in fabulous cash-generating activities. You've damaged my marriage, and ruined my chance to make millions.

AC said...

Thanks for clearing up the pronunciation for me. Wasn't sure if it was an "ah" or a short "a", as in apple.

I read The Saskiad shortly after Russell Banks' Rule of the Bone, so the two characters seem like partners to me, sort of male and female versions of the same troubled kid. I used to wonder what would happen if the two of them ever met.

Anonymous said...

[url=http://sapresodas.net/][img]http://sapresodas.net/img-add/euro2.jpg[/img][/url]
[b]adobe photoshop to buy, [url=http://sapresodas.net/]acdsee 7 driver[/url]
[url=http://sapresodas.net/]software at discount[/url] buy photoshop student coreldraw cgm
adobe creative suite 4 serial [url=http://sapresodas.net/]buy it now software[/url] office 2003 standard serial
[url=http://vioperdosas.net/]free reseller software[/url] adobe photoshop cs4 for mac serial code
[url=http://vioperdosas.net/]shopping cart software[/url] adobe software trials
kaspersky internet security 2009 keys [url=http://sapresodas.net/]discount filemaker pro[/url][/b]

Cris said...

HI friends, this information is very interesting, I would like read more information about this topic, thanks for sharing.

homes for sale in costa rica