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.