A Book in the Making

Almost a year ago, in October 2019, Gyula Jenei, Marianna Fekete, and I travelled to Dallas to give poetry readings and hold discussions for the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture’s annual Education Forum. I think back on those bright, brisk days: the events, with their lively discussions; the walks all around Dallas, the visit to the Terrell Academy in Fort Worth; and the many conversations and meetings. At a luncheon we met Will Evans, Executive Director and Publisher of Deep Vellum, who expressed interest in publishing a book of my translations of Gyula’s poems.

Yesterday the contracts were executed; the book, Always Different: Poems of Memory, by Gyula Jenei, translated by Diana Senechal, will be released sometime in 2021.

I have translated much poetry in my life, but this is the first large project that I have initiated. Others came to me through invitation; this one I sought out, and then later a publisher sought the fruits of it. It stands out in that way and in many others: it also brings together my life in Hungary and my long and rich relationship with the Dallas Institute. Beyond that, the poems are great, and people love them in English as well as in Hungarian. One of my favorites, “Scissors” (“Olló”) will be published in The Massachusetts Review, probably this spring, and most likely before the book comes out.

In retrospect, the timing of all of this seems perfect and improbable. If our trip to Dallas had been scheduled for the spring instead of the fall, the pandemic would have prevented it from happening. It not only worked out, but worked out as perfectly as a human thing can. Not only did nothing go wrong, but an abundance of things went right. And there we were together, talking about poetry, reading and hearing poetry.

The title of the Education Forum was “Poetry as Education.” This was not about pedagogy at all, though pedagogy came up here and there in the discussions. The event–like the Institute’s work in general–was based on the premise that good education requires attention to the essential subjects themselves. Poetry is not an afterthought or an extracurricular activity. It underlies each day.

Finishing the manuscript by the end of 2020 will take intense focus, but that is nothing new for me; I am used to meeting deadlines, and it can be done. I thrive on such focus; it counterbalances the multiplicity. This year is about as full for me as a year can get, but I would not give up any of it. With that in mind, I must run.

Both photos in this post are by James Edward, courtesy of The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. The full Flickr slideshow can be found here.

“In a problem, the great thing is the challenge….”

In childhood I was given a book on probability, a subject that fascinated me. It had a series of intriguing problems, with humorous illustrations scattered throughout, and detailed solutions at the end. I loved the book, opened it up many times, but did not get far in it. I remember poring over the first few problems and browsing through the others. Then, after a series of moves and life changes, the book got misplaced.

Years later, I remembered it and wanted to find it, but I couldn’t remember the title or author. I asked people, searched in bookstores, searched online, and racked my memory, all to no avail. Then one day I read an interview with a dear friend of the family, George Cobb, who died last spring and whom I had not seen in many years. He mentioned using Frederick Mosteller’s Fifty Challenging Problems in Probability with Solutions (1965) in a probability course that he taught. Something told me that this might be the book; I looked it up, and sure enough, it was. He must have given me a copy as a gift. I ordered a Dover paperback (the original book was hardcover); it arrived the other day.

I opened it up and read the preface, which I probably hadn’t read before, since in childhood I didn’t bother much with prefaces, preferring instead to get right into the matter. It brought back a dim and beloved world. Mosteller writes:

Much of what I have learned, as well as much of my intellectual enjoyment, has come through problem solving. Through the years, I’ve found it more and more difficult to tell when I was working and when playing, for it has so often turned out that what I have learned playing with problems has been useful in my serious work.

In a problem, the great thing is the challenge. A problem can be challenging for many reasons: because the subject matter is intriguing, because the answer defies unsophisticated intuition, because of its difficulty, because of a clever intuition, or even because of the simplicity or beauty of the answer.

I turned to the first problem, which I now remembered clearly.

1. The Sock Drawer

A drawer contains red socks and black socks. When two socks are drawn at random, the probability that both are red is 1/2. (a) How small can the number of socks in the drawer be? (b) How small if the number of black socks is even?

The first part I figured out just by experimenting in my mind. The total number of possibilities for choices of two socks would be (t)(t-1), where t is the total number of socks. I would need r(r-1), the total number of possibilities for choosing two red socks, to be 1/2(t)(t-1). If the total number of socks were 4, and the number of red socks 3, this would work out.

The second part is much trickier–and the solution in the book involves setting up an inequality, using it to express the relation of r to b, and then trying out increasing even values of b until one of them works.

Last night I started thinking of a different solution, which I would execute with Perl. My underlying principle was this: if I could have Perl generate two tables, one of which held particular values for the total number of socks (t, t-1, t(t-1), and t’s even/odd value) and the other for the total number of red socks, and if I could write a program that iterated through the tables until it found a match where t(t-1) was twice r(r-1), then I could narrow down the list to those where t and r had the same even/odd value, which would make b even (since b = t-r). I worked on that for quite a while but couldn’t get Perl to do the iterations that I had in mind.

Then, when biking to the supermarket for last-minute groceries for dinner, I had a different idea.

use POSIX;

for ($redtotal = 1; $redtotal <= 1000000; $redtotal++) {
$redsocks[$redtotal][0] = $redtotal;
$redsocks[$redtotal][1] = $redsocks[$redtotal][0] – 1;
$redsocks[$redtotal][2] = $redsocks[$redtotal][0] * $redsocks[$redtotal][1];
$redsocks[$redtotal][3] = 0;
if ($redsocks[$redtotal-1][3] == 0) {
$redsocks[$redtotal][3] = 1;
}
else {
$redsocks[$redtotal][3] = 0
}
$redsocks[$redtotal][4] = 2 * $redsocks[$redtotal][2];
$product = $redsocks[$redtotal][4];
$square = sqrt($product);
$roundup = ceil($square);
$rounddown = floor($square);
if ($roundup != $rounddown) {
if (($roundup * $rounddown) == ($product)) {
if ((($roundup % 2) + ($redtotal % 2)) != 1) {
print (“$roundup”, ” total socks, “, “$redtotal”, ” red socks\n”);
}
}
}
}

The POSIX call just brings in some extra functions. The whole program consists of a “for” loop that iterates through values of $redtotal, the total number of red socks. First it established the elements of the array @redsocks. Then it assigns a few more variables.

Basically, we are trying to find out whether, for any particular r, 2r(r-1) can be expressed as the product of two consecutive integers, t(t-1). To find this t and t-1, take the square root of $product, and, if it is not an even integer, identify the integers immediately above and below it ($roundup and $rounddown). Then test them out by multiplying them with each other. If they equal $product, then you have a match. In that case, add the even/odd values of $roundup and $redtotal. If the sum does not equal 1, then they are either both even or both odd, in which case b will be even. Those are the matches that will be printed out.

Now have the program print out all the matches as specified above. For the purposes of the problem, we only need the lowest value (15 red socks, 21 socks in total), but it’s fun to see what happens after that. Here are the results (where $redtotal goes up to one million):

21 total socks, 15 red socks
697 total socks, 493 red socks
23661 total socks, 16731 red socks
803761 total socks, 568345 red socks


You can test them out by multiplying each number of total socks by the number one less than that, doing the same for the red socks, and then verifying that your second result is one-half of your first one. Let’s do this for the highest number here.

803,761 x 803,760 = 646,030,941,360
568,345 x 568,344 = 323,015,470,680

323,015,470,680 x 2 = 646,030,941,360

So, you see, it works!

There are probably ways to make the script more elegant. Instead of nesting the ifs, I could have used a series of ands, but I couldn’t get that to work correctly. I haven’t used Perl in years, so I’m a little rusty with the syntax. I was proud to be able to get this working.

The book was written long before Perl and more sophisticated programming languages came into use, long before it became possible to program from home. But the problems do just what they did before. They incite you to think, play, tinker, and solve. And this book is not only rejoining my collection but opening up to me in a new way after all these years.

If you try out this code, be sure to change the minus sign (in line 5) to a plain hyphen and the quotes near the end to plain quotes.

The Phrase “Growth Mindset” and Its Problems

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I have brought up growth mindset, skeptically, many times on this blog; in addition, I dedicated a chapter to it in my second book, Mind over Memes. My basic argument is that we both have and need a mixture of mindsets; while it can be damaging to believe that your abilities are absolutely fixed, there is no evidence that an unfettered belief in growth would benefit anyone. Beyond this, something bothers me about “growth mindset” as a term. Conceptual problems aside, the phrase itself rings false.

My criticisms take nothing away from Carol Dweck’s and others’ research; they aren’t about the research. Nor do they disparage those who have been helped by the concept of growth mindset. Rather, they take up the matter from a linguistic and philosophical standpoint. Today I will focus on the linguistic.

I have already brought up the problem with each of the two words. Limitless growth is not always desirable; moreover, our attitudes about improvement may not constitute a “mindset.” Together, the two words ring with an importance that has not been earned. “Growth mindset” sounds like a life solution, an attitude that, once adopted, will open you up to happiness and success. As a result, anyone who questions “growth mindset” gets accused of negativity, even unhappiness. Unless you are a terrible, mean, frustrated person, how could you possibly criticize something that liberates people, that allows them to reach their true potential? If you oppose growth mindset in any way, aren’t you wishing stultification upon the world?

Dostoevsky’s Underground Man would have had a field day with this. But even a happy person, a person who does believe in certain kinds of improvement, can have serious qualms about “growth mindset” as a concept, without being mean or wishing anyone ill. Unfortunately, the very phrase “growth mindset” is constructed to imply otherwise. It’s like “cooperative learning” in that way. If you question or criticize anything about “cooperative learning,” you get written off as uncooperative.

A week ago, in a New York Times article, Alina Tugend wrote about making a mistake, long ago, in a New York Times column. After that mistake, she found herself wondering why people berate themselves so much for mistakes; later she wrote a book on the subject. One of her major sources of insight and inspiration was Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and the accompanying research, which she summarized in the present article. The next part of the article described an interview with Dweck during the pandemic. Could growth mindset help people through the Covid crisis? Dweck replied with laudable caution, but Tugend offered reasons for optimism. She concluded the article by reflecting on the process of writing it. It had not been easy:

This article, the one you are reading, proved to be a mini-Mount Everest for me. Somehow I couldn’t get it right. My editor offered some helpful comments, but a second try also fell flat. My first thought was “Oh forget it — this just won’t work.” The second thought was an internal wry smile and an acknowledgment that I wasn’t demonstrating much of a growth mind-set. Back to the computer.

Now, scrapping a piece isn’t necessarily a sign of “fixed mindset,” but I’ll leave that aside for now. The point is that this article was more of a personal reflection than anything else. The comments varied widely–some enthusiastic, some critical or skeptical, but I didn’t see anything nasty. No putdowns, no ad hominem remarks. All in all, they were remarkably civil and thoughtful. Then I saw this:

Alina,
Thank you for the article and persevering through the challenges of putting it together. No quick and easy answers in psychology, and mindset only gives us a small part of the big picture, but a useful part. Try not to give these comments too much time, lots of stone throwing unhappy people reading the Times these days. Stay in the light.

I see the commenter’s point about not giving the comments too much time. But what was with those “stone throwing unhappy people”? If people had been hurling insults at her, or even at the article, that remark would have made sense. But if objecting to some aspect of “growth mindset” is tantamount to “stone throwing” or “unhappiness,” then there’s something manipulative about the phrase itself. It automatically casts aspersions on those who sidestep its temple.

Many fads and cults depend on phrases like this, phrases that sound so good on the surface that only a cruel, miserable person could question them. This does not mean that the researchers themselves have sought to create any kind of cult or fad–in fact, they have resisted this, from what I can tell–but the phrase lends itself to that kind of thinking. There are the Good and Enlightened who believe in Growth Mindset, even if their own growth mindset isn’t perfect. Then there are the Bad and Deluded who have reservations of one kind or another. The one group walks in the light, the other in confusion and brambles.

The Underground Man’s words (I decided to quote him after all) hit the mark. This is from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Part I, Chapter 10:

You believe in a palace of crystal that can never be destroyed—a palace at which one will not be able to put out one’s tongue or make a long nose on the sly. And perhaps that is just why I am afraid of this edifice, that it is of crystal and can never be destroyed and that one cannot put one’s tongue out at it even on the sly.

You see, if it were not a palace, but a hen-house, I might creep into it to avoid getting wet, and yet I would not call the hen-house a palace out of gratitude to it for keeping me dry. You laugh and say that in such circumstances a hen-house is as good as a mansion. Yes, I answer, if one had to live simply to keep out of the rain.

Exactly! The problem with “growth mindset” as a phrase is that “one will not be able to put out one’s tongue or make a long nose on the sly.” That, and it is more of a hen-house than a palace. It can help with certain things, up to a point, but it is not the answer to all of life, nor is anyone obligated to pursue its perfect, complete manifestation. In fact, there’s reason to think that that would be hell.

The organization MindsetWorks continues to promote the notion that everyone should be on a “journey” to more growth mindset.

Our mindsets exist on a continuum from fixed to growth, and although we’d like to always have a growth mindset, the reality is that we can only be on a journey to a growth mindset. The goal is to recognize fixed mindset elements in ourselves and then reflect on feedback and strategies for how to improve.

This is the “crystal palace” through and through; MindsetWorks not only puts it forth as an ideal but also leaves no room for the possibility that someone might “be on a journey” to a different destination. No, we are all supposed to examine ourselves for any remaining elements of “fixed mindset” and remove them, one by one, until we all radiate perfect growth and eat each other up.

What would I offer instead of “growth mindset”? Well, I see no need for a catchy phrase at all. Instead, adopt a working principle that humans are capable of improvement and learning. Bring that principle into teaching, employment, and other areas of life–show it through your own attitudes and practices–and remember that it does not encompass the truth about a person, a subject, or the world.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

This and That

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A beautiful, long vacation is coming to a close. I don’t remember when I last had such a stretch of time. It was a long time ago.

Yesterday I finished reading Sándor Márai’s novel Kassai őrjárat (Košice Patrol) in Hungarian. It’s the second novel I have read in Hungarian; the first was Krisztián Grecsó’s Vera, which took much longer. Kassai őrjárat, Márai’s meditation on his return to Košice a few weeks after the German invasion of Paris in 1940 (and a few months before Hungary joined the Axis powers), is both beautiful and perplexing, both prophetic and off the mark. It is clear that at this time he did not know what Germany was doing; he believed, or his narrator believed, that if writers and other artists lived up to their responsibility, and if European nations could both work together and retain their individual identity, Europe might enter a new and glorious phase. He saw the writers of his generation shrinking away from their importance; he saw pseudo-writers, concerned mostly with fame and career, filling the gap. He saw the decline of the book from a sacred object to a saleable item. But he did not see what was coming–or, probably, much of what was going on right then and there–in the war.

But even with the blind spots, it is an absorbing, moving book. Maybe the blind spots made it even more so. None of us sees everything that is going on at a particular time. At best, one of us might offer new information, perspectives, or synthesis. But anything any of us observes or reports is incomplete. The imagination fills in the rest, for better, for worse, or for a mixture.

Besides reading, writing, and translating, I have gone on many bike rides and evening runs. When I moved to Hungary in October 2017 (almost three years ago), I looked forward to getting on the bike and going wherever I wanted–on a long or short trip, on bike paths, regular roads, or other routes. In this I have not been disappointed. Today I biked out to Millér and then followed a dirt road for a long time. It was my first time on that particular dirt road.

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Another beautiful part of this summer has had to do with Shabbat. My own synagogue, Szim Salom, has been online throughout the pandemic; members have been taking turns leading services, and only twice a month have the rabbi and I led. But these occasions have been sweet and strong, even with all the technical difficulties. And I have attended B’nai Jeshurun and Shearith Israel online services as well. The time difference makes that a bit strange but no less lovely; on Friday I tuned in to B’nai Jeshurun at midnight (6 p.m. in NYC).

My Hungarian is still far from fluent (in the true sense of the word), but it made some leaps this summer. I think back to a year ago; the progress has been substantial. At that time, I understood a lot but could express myself only slowly and haltingly, with limited vocabulary. Now, in more and more situations, I can express myself and respond to others without hesitation.

The summer has also been filled with music; I listen to a lot at home and went to two concerts: one by two members of Platon Karataev, and the other, last Friday, by Marcell Bajnai. This Saturday evening I intend to go hear Marcell’s band Idea (formerly 1LIFE) in Budapest.

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There is much more to say about the summer and other things, more than I can bring up right now, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Dominó and Sziszi, who have brought so much to these days. See them below. And now the season is turning, and I look forward to returning to school and picking up the tempo a bit.

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Respect for What Is Other and Different

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Since the killing of George Floyd by police officers–just one of a long line of incidents of police violence against black people–the public has come to recognize the need for profound changes. Not only the Black Lives Matter protests, but countless formal and informal discussions have taken up the topic around the clock. Yet within the drive for racial justice, an injustice is taking hold. People are being shamed, canceled, driven out of their jobs–for saying the wrong thing, saying the right thing but not strongly enough, or saying the right thing, strongly enough, but not coupling it with immediate and acceptable action. Such shaming hurts not only the individuals involved (including the shamers, who bring out the worst in themselves), not only democracy, language, and human dignity (a handful already), but even the protests. There will be no real progress against racism in America if people cannot participate with integrity, if they cannot speak their minds, doubts, and feelings, if they cannot hear others out. Instead there will be heartbreak as the movement fails not only the larger public, but its own participants and supporters.

On June 6, Mayor Jacob Frey was booed out of a protest rally in Minneapolis because he stated–upon being questioned repeatedly–that he did not support the full abolition of the police. You can watch the exchange here.

Another video suggests that many members of the crowd were not booing him but rather letting him pass through. If this is accurate, the booing does not represent the whole, but still drowns out everything else.

For the sake of what? Mayor Frey had already said that systemic change was needed. The woman with the microphone pressed him further by asking him repeatedly whether he supported defunding the police. What does that even mean? The Minneapolis City Council has since vowed to dismantle the police force, but no one knows what the end result will look like. In other words, a mayor was driven out of a rally–which he had come out to support–for the sake of something unknown.

The ganging up on perceived enemies has affected not only politics, but medicine, poetry, theater, art, science, sports, and other spheres. It is not exclusive to the left. Health workers and officials have been pushed out of their jobs and subjected to harassment and death threats by groups protesting coronavirus protection measures–groups that regard the coronavirus as a hoax perpetrated by Jews, for instance. According to The New York Times, Dr. Amy Acton, the state health director of Ohio, dealt with “anti-Semitic attacks and demonstrations by armed protesters on her front lawn,”. While widely different in political orientation and aim, groups from the right and left punish those who do not meet their demands exactly. Whether Trump sets an example here or follows an existing trend, he displays a similar tendency in his tweets to all the world.

Back to the left, or a segment of it. A letter to the Poetry Foundation–presented by thirty individuals, most of them Poetry Foundation Fellows, and signed by over 1,800 individuals–demanded that the Foundation replace its president, take specific action to eradicate racism and other discrimination, acknowledge the harm it has committed already, move toward redistributing its funds, and more. All signatories pledged not to work with the Poetry Foundation until the demands had been met “to a substantial degree.” The president, Henry Bienen, has already stepped down. The letter came in response to the organization’s antiracism statement, issued on June 3, which was not deemed strong enough:

The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine stand in solidarity with the Black community, and denounce injustice and systemic racism.

As an organization we recognize that there is much work to be done, and we are committed to engaging in this work to eradicate institutional racism. We acknowledge that real change takes time and dedication, and we are committed to making this a priority.

We believe in the strength and power of poetry to uplift in times of despair, and to empower and amplify the voices of this time, this moment.

The Guggenheim Museum and other museums, theaters all over the country, and other institutions are being told to espouse certain values, statements, and actions or face consequences. Those who delay in doing so are named on lists; those who comply are often suspected of not meaning it. A public Google spreadsheet, titled “Theaters Not Speaking Out” and open for anyone to edit, lists 486 theaters as of this writing. According to the Los Angeles Times:

More disturbing than the slowness to speak out, [Marie] Cisco said, was the language of the statements themselves, many of which fell back on pledges of support without acknowledgement of the historical diversity problem in theater or commitments to take concrete steps to support black artists.

As theaters posted statements to social media and emailed them to their supporters and the press, Cisco and her crowd-sourced contributors recorded when each company’s message went public, whether it cited Black Lives Matter specifically and whether the institution had donated to the cause or pledged “actionable commitments,” among other criteria.

Beyond the arts, countless corporations are churning out antiracism statements–and it is no surprise that some of them ring hollow. In a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” environment, many probably figure that they can mitigate their damnation somewhat with a consultant-crafted mission statement.

I think back on the words of O’Brien in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain.” As the tactics of shaming and demanding become a way of life, so does the damage. The tactics hurt much more than the targeted individuals and institutions.

First of all, they hurt democracy. If, to be treated as an acceptable human being or institution, one must adopt a prescribed line and course of action, then there can be no exchange of views. Without an exchange of views, there is no democracy. We have already seen this, in different form, with Trump’s long series of purges. Democracy depends on a plurality of opinions–an opportunity to discuss, deliberate, and decide. It also depends on a mixture of priorities. Social justice–as usually conceived–is not the only kind of justice worth fighting for, nor can it stand alone.  To be viable, it must consider and combine with other justices, including justice within an individual, justice between two, and public justice.

Second, these tactics hurt language. If those making the demands reject all criticism and challenges, they lose a chance to exercise imagination and logic. In a bizarre Rolling Stone article, EJ Dickson argues that Olivia Benson, a police officer in the TV show Law and Order, (that’s right, a fictional character) should be canceled because she appears as a good cop and could therefore confuse viewers about the true nature of the police force. What, should Marge Gunderson be canceled too for her smarts and tough charm? Should fictional characters from other professions–teachers, mayors, doctors, priests–be nixed as well, while we’re at it? And what price will the mind pay for this? How can anyone “reimagine” the police, for instance, if we are not supposed to imagine in the first place? (Not to mention that literature would disappear.)

Third, these tactics hurt human dignity–the presence, in each person, of something that goes beyond measure, beyond others’ knowledge. If people are so sure of their assessments of others, so quick to name enemies of the cause, then anyone, at any moment, can be flattened to enemy status; not only that, but the flattening will become a way of life and thought. The “I-Thou” relation as described by Martin Buber and referenced in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” becomes a thing of the past, a relic in an antique shop.

Fourth, these tactics hurt the Black Lives Matter protests themselves–not only over the longer term, but now. To accomplish something durable, protesters must be willing to work and speak with a range of people, including those who disagree with them on some points, express ideas differently, or have different priorities. Through such work, the protest efforts can grow and strengthen over time. But just within the coming months, the protesters’ conduct will influence the outcome of the election in swing states. Setting a principled example, showing regard for others, the protesters can help the country overcome Trump (along with his effects and affects) and move toward a saner and kinder world.

The alternative–the extreme self-righteousness, the thronged castigation of dissenters–will dishonor the protests, harm decent people, and destroy the very things worth fighting for.

Painting: Marc Chagall, The Revolution (1937). “I think the Revolution could be a great thing if it retained its respect for what is other and different,” Chagall had written in My Life (1923).

Correction: The Minneapolis rally mentioned here took place on June 6, not June 7.

Update: See “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published online in Harper’s on July 7. It will also appear in the Letters section of the magazine’s October issue.

Bike Rides and Their Layers

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One thing I love about long bike rides is that they allow me to think without interference. I can sift through many things over those hours. Another thing I love is the discovery: exploring towns and countryside, taking detours here and there. A third is the return: coming to know a place better through visiting it again and again. Then these three things start to play with each other in counterpoint: the thinking, exploring, and return, so that the bike ride becomes a kind of music.

Music! someone might say. What are you doing talking about music? There’s no time for that. You should be out on the streets protesting.

But music is not an escape. It is protest of its own kind. It demands and allows truth.

I stayed in Vajdácska, at the bed-and-breakfast I have visited four times now, in four consecutive years. The owners are welcoming, the food is delicious, and the place is lovely and full of original touches. The photo at the top was the view from my window. Here, below, is a view from about 300 meters away. (The church on the left is Hungarian Greek Catholic; the one on the right, Protestant.)

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In 2017, when I first visited, I biked around the surrounding towns and villages. In 2018 and 2019, I bicycled up to Kassa (Košice) and took a train back; this time, I biked to Tokaj and back. Tokaj is famous for its wines, especially sweet white wine–but it is the dry Furmint that especially appeals to me.  Anyway, I had more than one reason for going to Tokaj: I wanted to stay within Hungary, see Tokaj itself, see what this southbound route was like, and start figuring out a future bike trip–about two and a half days long–from Szolnok to Vajdácska.

But this bike ride took me beyond what I had expected. In Vámosújfalu, I noticed that every house had a well next to it. That is, everyone drew their own water. The next village, Olaszliszka, had something magical about it, but I didn’t start to understand it until the way back. Then in Szegilong there were storks in nests, one after another, all of them feeding their young. (There had been storks before, but this was the first time that I saw them in a row.)

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As I drew closer to Tokaj, I started seeing wineries and vineyards, one after another.

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Then Tokaj itself–a place where you were invited to take a rest and enjoy yourself. A statue of Bacchus, by the sculptor Péter Szanyi, sets the mood in the town square. (Tokaj legends include a cult of Bacchus, thanks in part to the Jesuit teacher and poet Imre Marotti.)

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I had some goulash at the Bacchus Restaurant, then visited a wine cellar (the Borostyán Pince, over 350 years old), where I bought some Furmint and talked for a while with the owner, who showed me the currency he had received from visitors from around the world and asked me many questions about how I ended up coming to Hungary to live and teach. (All the conversations on this trip were in Hungarian.)

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So far, this sounds more or less like a typical tourist trip, or tourist bike trip. But I had been noticing some other things too. When I entered Tokaj, I passed by a large Jewish cemetery, larger than the one in Sátoraljaújhely. It was closed, so I just looked at it for a few minutes. (To take this picture, I passed my hands through the gate.)

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On the way back, I was thinking about how some of the villages were entirely inhabited by Roma people (“Gypsies”), others by white Hungarians, others by both. I thought about how each village had its own history–sometimes a violent history–of ethnic conflict. I didn’t know anything yet about Olaszliszka, but on the way back, I took a little more time to look at it. It seemed to be all Roma–I saw children playing in the streets, parents pushing their babies in strollers, teenagers chatting outside a corner store. I saw medieval ruins overgrown with greenery.

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I saw a sign pointing the way to a Jewish synagogue and cemetery–and biked in that direction but found nothing. Later I learned that this was a famous center of Hungarian Hasidism–where the first Lisker Rebbe, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Friedman, lived. The village apparently still has a memorial synagogue site.

The village was also the site of a murder in 2006, which became part of the subject of a play by Szilárd Borbély. A white Hungarian biology teacher, Lajos Szögi, was driving through with his two daughters when his car hit a little Roma girl, who fell down but was unharmed. The family attacked the man and beat him to death in front of his daughters. The father of the little girl later received a life sentence; all the others involved received stiff punishments. There have been some discussions of why this happened, but for many, the incident confirmed existing prejudice and hatred. (There has been repeated violence against Roma people too.)

A village like this keeps everything secret and tells all. Knowing nothing of this yet, I stopped to listen to the swooping birds. I hope to go back and see more, including the synagogue memorial.

Before and after, I was thinking about the U.S., about police violence, about the protests. I support the protests in that they call out truths and necessities. I do not stand with protesters who shame and debase people who disagree with them even in part (for instance, those who booed and shamed Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis when he said that he did not support abolishing the police force). This leads to no good; it alienates some possible allies and coerces others into false agreement. It makes deliberation impossible.

On the other hand, protests need their fire. Many protesters are understandably tired of moderate arguments; too often moderation has squirmed away from its promises.

The next day, on my way to the Sárospatak train station, I passed by a rose garden. It was beautiful, so I stopped. The gardener saw me and cut a rose for me. I thanked him and headed on. Then I turned back and asked him if he would take a picture. He obliged. (There is much more to say about Sárospatak, and far more to learn.)

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I wondered, throughout the trip, whether my own uncertainty (over politics and many other things) was a sign of strength or weakness. I don’t think I can answer that yet (or maybe ever). But for better or worse, uncertainty is part of what I do, what I have to offer. I know that I don’t know the entirety of another person, a country, myself, or a crumbling building. But I want to come back and learn more.

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I made a few small additions to this piece after posting it.

Wending Its Way to Readers

mindovermemesWhen you write a book, there’s great excitement and anticipation around its publication. Who will read it? How will they respond to it? Then come the book events. Then the reviews–maybe many, maybe few. A few responses from friends. Then a few interviews. Then the wait. Sometimes a long silence.

My book events–in Dallas, Budapest, Szolnok, and New York–were dreamy and lively. I couldn’t have wished for better. They come back as happy memories. The responsible reviews were encouraging too. (A few Goodreads reviews were irresponsible in that their authors showed no signs of having read the book or knowing what it was about.) But overall, the book went under the radar.

People have so much to read, they are so bombarded with stuff, that they don’t rush to read your book unless they have a particular interest in it or have been hearing about it from everyone. That is why so many publishers and publicists compete to create “buzz” around a book even before it is published.

My book opposes buzz, though; that’s part of its point. It is about thinking carefully about what you want to say and saying it on your own terms, in your own time. It is about questioning those catchwords and phrases–“the team,” “creativity,” “the good fit,” “toxic people,” and others–that do so much damage when thrown about carelessly.  It is about recognizing that we don’t have the last word about the people around us, the ways to lead life, or the meaning of a text.

So it was a delight to be interviewed by Marci Mazzarotto at the New Books Network. She is an Assistant Professor of Digital Communication at Georgian Court University in New Jersey. We had an unrushed, enjoyable conversation about the book and its ideas. The podcast appeared online today.

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A good interview brings out some new aspect of a book or author, or at least something that hasn’t been emphasized yet. In this case, we talked about the presence or absence of empathy in language. For instance, when people write others off as “toxic,” they often haven’t taken the trouble to speak with them, learn who they are, or address the particular problem at hand. To call someone “toxic” is to say, “I don’t have to bother with you.”

Empathy is a tricky matter. It can bring its own illusions. But as a rejection of over-certainty about others, it is good. As an acknowledgment that others cannot be summed up, that they have lives and thoughts of their own, it can help us out of many errors.

The book was written well before COVID-19 appeared, but today I notice various ways of writing off the disease–not by calling it or its victims “toxic,” but by somehow describing those affected in a way that separates them. It’s tempting to believe that the virus comes just to the old, the sick, the faraway–as though anyone could escape any of those states with just a bit of willpower. It is easy to trick yourself into this kind of thinking, even in mild forms, until you know someone who has been ill.

When I reread the book now, I see that it says important things that hold up over time. There are a few superfluous sentences and phrases that I would cut today, but they don’t overwhelm the text. In any case, it is wending its way to readers, and I have thoughts for the next book.

Old School in Hungary: Part 9

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We finished the novel, and then schools throughout Hungary closed on account of the coronavirus. We didn’t have a chance to discuss the book as a whole. But at least we completed it and discussed the ending together; we devoted our last lesson to the last half of the last chapter. Afterward, as we quickly adjusted to online classes, students’ written responses started to arrive in my box. The days went by, and I thought about how strange it was that for us, too, school had become a memory–a recent one, yes, but a memory all the same.

The students’ responses to Old School varied in emphasis, idea, emotion, and more. I am quoting a few here–with the authors’ permission–to give a sense of the range. In this one, a student describes a change of perspective over the course of the reading.

At first I didn’t know what to think of the book. It felt dull, like just another book about writers coming to visit a private school. The fact that we don’t know the name of the narrator didn’t help either. It made me feel like it’s not even an individual story, which, now that I think about it, is not even a bad thing. I couldn’t relate to the main character. He had different problems, feelings, and attitudes towards the questions of life. In chapter ”Übermensch,” for example, he read a novel and suddenly realized that he belongs to the next level of humanity. How am I supposed to place myself in that situation?

But as I read more and more, I started to get the picture. The discussions helped me understand the deeper meanings that I wasn’t able to recognize while reading at home. There was one part in particular that I couldn’t stop reading. It was the part when the narrator got expelled. One reason for that is that I can’t put a book down not knowing what happens next. What’s more, the way the narrator heard the same usual sounds of the school brought up some memories of mine, memories of my last day at primary school. Although it wasn’t an expulsion, I felt the same way. Now that was relatable. The way I, once a student, became an outsider.

It is difficult to summarize the whole novel as one single unit. It has parts that seem to be only storytelling, but in reality have a double meaning. There are also philosophical parts, which require the reader to think about certain questions for themselves. Overall, this book has definitely changed my perspective on life.

Another student, after explaining what he didn’t like about the book–the difficulty of the language, the lack of information about the characters, the lack of clear signals when a dialogue is beginning or ending–went on to discuss what he liked:

The characters were very interesting, especially the “narrator” in the perspective from which we could usually see his thoughts mostly, not his physical acts. Also the way he plagiarized the book, and thought that it really was his.

I really liked (or disliked) the other characters as well. For example my favourite of them all was Mr. Ramsey, who won this place because he was so different in the school than after the narrator was expelled, in the car and at the station. And when he gave the pack of cigarettes to the narrator: that was such a middle-finger to the Honour Code which he did not agree with. And there was Goss, who behaved disgustingly. And this was, I think, some of the biggest magic of the book: you could really associate with the narrator, how he felt in these situations, and what his feelings were about other characters, and it was so well written! And anyone can associate with these feelings, because there is no human being who never felt the stressful pressure while being charged by something, knowing/realising what he did and what the consequences will be, but unable to say a word for his protection. And also, these characters are so real, that you can really associate with them.

One student brought up the loss of innocence in the book–the realization that the school has double standards and that the world isn’t a “pink bubble”:

Old School deals with many moral issues and social problems. It can be read as a parody or satire on the value of art and morals in society (for example, the racial boundaries). But what caught me the most that the novel introduces us to an academic environment with strict standards, but later we can see them as double standards and false standards. Like when the boy is caught copying, he knows he has broken an ethical code (which I think is not so perfect), but what he doesn’t know then, he learns later in the book: All the people who judged him so harshly were liars too, as was the idea of “not lying.”

My personal favourite part is when the narrator whistles a song what he learned during his summer job. I had no idea why the school’s handyman Gershon was so upset when he heard it. It was a big suprise when it turned out to be a Nazi song. I found it the story’s most shocking part. That was when I felt that the writer pulled us out of the little sweet school life to push us into the true and cold reality. This was a powerful point for the narrator (and for us). At that moment he finally realises that the world isn’t a pink bubble. He experienced bad things before, but lots of people experienced so much worse. And he started to cry when he found out the truth about the song and Gershon’s past. I think it was very a human reaction from the narrator. At that moment I could sympathize with him.

Another student went through some changes of perspective and understanding while reading–at first noticing what the book wasn’t, but later realizing what it was.

Through the last few weeks, I have been a part of a story whose atmosphere was unknown for me in many aspects. At first the book itself sounded great, as though there would be some action and adventure. Yet it wasn’t as I expected it to be. For me the most interesting experience was that when I was reading the chapters I didn’t feel any of this great adventure, but as I am now fully aware of the whole story, I look back and see lots of expressions, conflicts, confrontations, secrets. I think this is why it is unusual for me but these things take the story to a whole other level. Now I think reading a book like this can help us with understanding some real important issues we will be having in our lives, so I think it teaches a lot about how to handle some situations.

What I have realised is that reading a book is one thing, but to talk about it with people of different opinions is the best way of understanding what it may hold hidden between some pages. Through the discussions, I could feel sometimes that some parts of the book are just boring and like the story wasn’t going anywhere, but after all I think these might have been the most essential parts to make a full story. If we think about the fact that throughout the story we have met some famous writers who, in other cases we wouldn’t have met, this is a story full of knowledge. If we think about it, this book really broadens our minds.

I am glad that we had class discussions, as now I can see lot of things more clearly, and I think this built a stronger trust between some classmates.

One student wrote about the book in terms of the questions it raised:

My first question is why Makepeace gave money to his wife, if they didn’t live together. He could have loved her very much.

The other question that makes me think about is Susan and the narrator’s relationship. I can’t stand how could Susan be so kind and friendly with the narrator, after what he did. She could have become a talented writer if he hadn’t stolen her novel. I can’t stand this, but I have to recognize her. When they were at the restaurant, she said “writing is too frivolous; it makes you selfish and doesn’t really do any good,” but she knows that the narrator was a writer, and she hurts him with this monologue, maybe just accidentally. I think the narrator liked Susan more than as a friend, before they met, but during the “date” Susan gives clear signals that she doesn’t like him. Why does the narrator accept Susan’s idea for a meeting place, if he knows there’s won’t be anything between them?

One of my favourite citations in the book is: “let sleeping dogs lie….” We discussed the meaning of this sentence, but it started the gears in my brain. Is it a good decision to keep the truth hidden? Maybe, if I were Makepeace, I would have told the truth. He felt guilty, and he could feel much better through making a statement. On the other side, it could make others lose their confidence in him. But he hasn’t got any choice, because that was one of the headmaster’s terms. In my opinion, Makepeace was a totally honest and good person, if he got hurt by this little lie.

Another student focused on the ending:

I think this ending was very messed up and unordinary. As I like to read, I have gotten used to some types of endings, such as in the crime stories, where they find out who the murderer was. But this was absolutely different. We didn’t get to know whether the main character visited his old school or not.We didn’t get to know about his family life, or what his job was alongside writing. Although I would do it differently, this ending was good in his own manner. It was a plot twist, and the readers hadn’t expected that. And the good writer pretends to surprise his or her readers.

Another had a striking comment on the copying of “Summer Dance”:

What made an impression on me? Well, I liked reading this book because it wasn’t a fairy tale. It had some real-life problems, and these things made it better. When I found out that the narrator was Jewish, I didn’t really understand why he didn’t say it to Dean Makepeace. He could just say it, and this way he shouldn’t have apologized. A while later I finally understood that he was afraid. Afraid because he didn’t want to be an outcast in the school. Afraid of what his friends would think of him. And I felt sorry for him, not knowing that he was going to be strong enough to say it.

This is why I was so happy when he copied “Summer Dance.” Even though it wasn’t his, everyone thought that it was. He had the power to announce the truth about himself. The whole school found out that he was Jewish. He was no longer afraid or embarrassed about his true self, and this is what made an impression on me.

Another student expressed ambivalence–relating to certain things, finding the ending and overall style unsatisfactory, but enjoying the experience overall:

Quite frankly, the story was relatable. The protagonist went through some character development, which happens to the most of us at his age. He even cycled through the same outlooks on life as I did, or am currently doing. Having your role-model be the perfect and peak performance of a human, without any faults. Of course he too realized how stupid that is.

The only thing I can nit-pick about is how the end left too many questions open, and how solving them required a lot of post-processing and theorizing by the class. Some people find these things entertaining, and I have to admit it is kind of smart, but since I personally would have missed the hidden meanings, I find it under-handed.

I would never really voluntarily read stories like this one. It was honestly more of a documentary than anything, although it was relatively enjoyable even though it was a mandatory read. The class discussions were fun and I think they were better than simple classes where we learn things I mostly already know.

Many students wrote about the discussions themselves. Here are a few quotes:

Although I really enjoyed the weird storyline at the end, my favorite part was discussing the story, because it was very interesting to hear my classmates’ thoughts about it. I also enjoyed that I could give some useful thoughts to these discussions. I felt that I understood the meaning of the story, so I am really happy about that, especially because I am not a huge fan of reading books. This book encouraged me to start reading more often.

Another:

The class discussions let us get to know each other’s personality more, which was really important for our little community. They also showed how intelligent my classmates are. I noticed it when small arguments came up in class and everyone could keep their chill and talk about the disagreements with respect.

Another comment that brings up the class arguments:

To begin with, the characters of the book had really big effects on me. I could “see with their eyes” and think like them. For example, Ayn Rand’s personality and features were exciting and disgusting at the same time for me. Besides her, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost also impressed me. Also the calm and kindness of the narrator’s grandparents melted my heart. In a nutshell I was able to observe so many people with different lives, habits, and features.

For me the most important part was the class discussion, so I would like to focus on this. Due to the discussions and arguments, I could hear my classmates’ opinions on a given topic. It helped me get to know them a little bit better. I could see how they could argue and what their reasons were. It also showed how wise and mature they are.

Lastly, I stepped out of my comfort zone too. I read something that I thought I would never choose, but as it turned out, it was very good. So in a percentage of the reading I tried something new, and new things are always exciting.

Taking everything into account, I liked this book, but I liked how we elaborated on it even more.

I could go on with the comments, but after all, not one of them is the last word, for the students individually, for the class, for me, or for the book, so I don’t need to turn them into anything conclusive. Instead, they show how some students met the book in time: what it meant, didn’t mean, or came to mean.

I think of how quickly it all went by. Walking into the classroom (sometimes seeing students up at the board drawing diagrams of the plot–they were nervous about the pop quizzes), starting the discussion, hearing students’ comments, looking at passages closely together, raising more questions, and then hearing the bell and realizing that we had run out of time. I also think back on the long conversations with students who didn’t like the book but would linger after class to talk about it. Liking or not liking–that’s secondary to what happened here. For this I am grateful to Old School, to my school, to my colleague Marianna (who helped make this possible), and to my students.

 

This is the last in a series of nine posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. All the students quoted in this post gave permission to have their comments included. To view all the posts, go here.

Old School in Hungary: Part 8

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Somehow we finished Old School just before the Hungarian schools closed on account of the coronavirus. We didn’t get to have the last discussion I had planned, a discussion of the book as a whole, but the students wrote about it, and I have been taking in their responses all evening.

On Friday, when the second section finished the book, I asked whether Makepeace had the right to kick himself out of the school, whether he could possibly be a fair judge of himself (and whether in general people can judge themselves accurately), and whether it was the right decision for him.

Regarding the question of rights, one student said that no, he didn’t have the right to kick himself out, because he had responsibilities toward others. Another asked whether anyone else besides him was in a position to expel him. That’s a trickier question than may seem, because the headmaster, while technically entitled to fire a teacher, would probably not do so except under extreme circumstances. A matter of conscience like this would probably not have made the cut.

(In the other section, students overwhelmingly agreed that he had the right to kick himself out. But one student pointed out that that didn’t make it a good decision.)

Then the question of whether he could judge himself fairly: a student said that since he was elderly, he was likely to be too hard on himself. Young people up to age 30, he explained, rely on others’ judgments; people in their 30s and 40s (I think) realize that the world doesn’t care about them, and older people tend to judge themselves. This observation helped us see Makepeace in time; his age makes a difference here. We talked a bit about how people can judge themselves too harshly (or, in some cases, too lightly).

We spent some time on Makepeace’s regrets, and what he missed about teaching; and then we made our way to his return, which a student read aloud. Then I asked what this ending was about–they picked up on the Prodigal Son reference right away–and what it had to do with the narrator.

A student suggested that it had something to do with the epigraph at the beginning (from Mark Strand’s “Elegy for my Father”).

Why did you lie to me?
I always thought I told the truth.
Why did you lie to me?
Because the truth lies like nothing else and I love the truth.

She explained that the narrator, by ending the story with Makepeace, was telling his own truth through a “lie”–that is, through a fiction about someone other than himself. I then passed out a longer excerpt of the poem–I had meant to hand it out on Monday, but now seemed the time–and read the first two parts aloud. The same student commented, “He answers each question in two ways. The first answer is factual, and the second is from the soul.”

Then she continued: “The narrator is doing the opposite of what he did before, when he copied ‘Summer Dance.’ There he copied someone else’s story and submitted it as his own. Here he is telling his own story, but making it into someone else’s.” (Her words were slightly different, but this was her point.)

Students recognized that not only Makepeace but the narrator had come home, and that this ending was about coming home, really coming home, and being welcomed  and forgiven.

But it isn’t pat. A student in the other section, who didn’t like the book, said, “It isn’t a happy ending.” He was right. There is sadness in the ending, and there are those who don’t like the book, even though they argued with it, thought about it, and carried bright insights into it.

The sadness is maybe this: that the homecoming required a great loss. The final image has a heartbreaking aspect: “Though the headmaster was the younger man, and much shorter, and though Arch was lame and had white hairs coming out of his ears and white stubble all over his face….” Although the “though” is typically the weaker part of the sentence, the “concession,” here you feel its weight.

I won’t quote students’ written responses here. Later, I might ask permission to quote a few, but only after some time has gone by. Responses are still coming in. So far I admire their genuineness, their fresh language, their differences from one another. There’s nothing generic about them. They are downright beautiful.

I didn’t know that this would be the end of class discussions for a while. But having built something, we can let it stand for a little while. It won’t come apart, and meanwhile we will work on other things. As in the book, though, how suddenly a cherished part of daily life can pause, change, or end.

 

This is the eighth in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here. There will probably be one more post in this series.

I made some additions to this piece after posting it.

Old School in Hungary: Part 7

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“In this book, two things happen,” one student said. “The first is that the boy gets expelled. The second is that the story ends with Makepeace.” That was that. But I wanted to hear more. How did he understand these actions? What made them stand out? Did he see a relation between them?

Arch Makepeace, the dean of the school, resigns from his position when the boy (the narrator’s character) is expelled for submitting someone else’s story as his own. Makepeace argues that if the boy is being punished for laying “false claim to a story,” he himself has “laid false claim to much more–to a kind of importance, to a life not his own.” All this time, he has lived, taught, and served as dean in the midst of rumors that he knew Hemingway in World War I–and while he has not confirmed this outright, he has not dispelled the rumors either.

In class on Wednesday, one student pointed out that Makepeace is partly responsible for the very contests he hates: not only has he failed to speak up against them, but his own reputation has fueled them.

Then a student suggested that Makepeace actually comes to believe the rumors that he knew Hemingway in World War I. There’s more to that than may appear; I’ll get to that in a moment.

Another student pointed out that he actually does know Hemingway, since he knows his work. Thus the lie is true in a way. This brings up a lot that might have passed by us otherwise: the way he drops A Farewell to Arms from his honors seminar but keeps something by Hemingway on the reading list. (That in itself shows an intimacy with Hemingway’s writing.) He behaves toward Hemingway’s writing the way one would toward an old friend who gets annoying at times.

Back to the other student’s point: although nothing suggests that Makepeace really believes that he knew Hemingway personally, he does seem to have fallen for the sense of being special. This, in fact, allows him to resign; he somehow believes that he has the wherewithal to live without the school and without teaching. There’s a submerged hubris at work here. Later he finds out how wrong he was (191):

In former times Arch had supposed that his sense of being a distinctive and valuable man proceeded from his own qualities, and that they would sustain him in that confidence wherever he happened to be. He’d never imagine that this surety was conferred on him by others, by their knowing and cherishing him. But so it was. Unrecognized, he had become a ghost, even to himself.

And just a couple of pages earlier (189-190):

Up to the moment he resigned he must have imagined that teaching was a distraction from some greater destiny still his for the taking. Of course he hadn’t said this to himself, but he’d surely felt it, he later decided, because how else could he not have known how useless he would be thereafter? For thirty years he had lived in conversation with boys, answerable to their own sense of how things worked, to their skepticism, and, most gravely, to their trust. Even when alone he had read and thought in their imagined presence, made responsible by it, enlivened and honed by it. Now he read in solitude and thought in solitude and hardly felt himself to be alive.

If the Hemingway rumor has fed his own notion that he is destined for something greater, then through believing this notion, he has come to believe the rumor. But the rumor is also true to an extent; not only does he know Hemingway’s work, but Hemingway the person rises up again and again in it: “Who could not think of Hemingway when reading about Colonel Cantwell pissing on the Italian battleground where he’d been wounded, or Santiago pursuing his big fish?” Arch keeps trying to muffle his Hemingway but has doubts about doing so; he “distrusted his growing aversion to both the man and the work. It might well be a dishonest form of chagrin at his own false position, or simply resentment at looking so small beside the giant to whom he’d let himself be linked” (184-185). Even as he thinks he looks small beside Hemingway, he unknowingly imagines himself a giant of sorts. He is too reticent to show this off or even accept it in himself, but it becomes part of his thought and action.

And there–we concluded yesterday in class–lies a parallel between him and the narrator. Both take on a story that is theirs and not theirs. Both pay for this truth-lie by leaving the school: the one through being kicked out, the other through resigning.

I’ll stop here for now, since the second section finishes the book tomorrow (the first finished it yesterday). I think back on the words: “In this book, two things happen. The first is that the boy gets expelled. The second is that the story ends with Makepeace.” We will take this up on Monday, our last day with the book.

 

This is the seventh in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.