Questions and Topics for Discussion
Brian Hall’s novel Fall of Frost is an exquisite feat of imagination executed within a very contemporary form: the biographical novel, wherein a famous person becomes the protagonist of an imagined narrative. In Hall’s case, he has taken the long and often troubled life of Robert Frost as a starting point for a rich tapestry of meditation on and exploration of the poetic life and the nature of inspiration. Hall states in his author’s note that although Fall of Frost “is properly called a novel, I’ve approached it in the spirit of a biographer who wanted to stretch his usual form” (337). The result is a moving and highly distinctive book that combines the best aspects of both genres.
The hybrid nature of this relatively new form brings its own unique set of challenges and demands. Hall’s narrative strategy is simple in its structure but complex in its effects. Fall of Frost is composed of 128 chapters that jump aggressively backward and forward through time, often across the span of a half-century or more. Released from the constraints of a linear narrative, Hall is free to re-sequence Frost’s life thematically, in order to juxtapose far-flung events and to make the interplay of memory and experience more resonant. The effect is explicitly cinematic: freewheeling, lyrical, even a little disorienting. What is sacrificed in narrative clarity is gained in emotional impact.
Perhaps no facet of Frost’s personality is better depicted through Hall’s innovative technique than Frost’s attitude toward his growing celebrity and his sly yet sometimes wobbly management of his public persona. Robert Frost was the last truly famous American poet, having reached by the time of his death an iconic status; it is difficult for a contemporary reader to fathom the scope of his presence in what was largely a pre–mass media age. The dyspeptic persona Frost cultivated in response to his fame was a mixture of the feigned and the authentic. No naïf, Hall’s Frost is very aware of his capacity for misrepresentation, of times when he “pretended to be the simple rustic his audience wanted him to be,” and in doing so “betrayed his own poetry” (188). Frost’s maintenance of what we would today call his image was a defense mechanism, and its deployment took a toll on its creator.
This sense of the potential for betrayal, for catastrophe and subsequent guilt, was the keynote of Robert Frost’s poetic imagination, which for all its invocations of pastoral beauty was haunted by a deep pessimism, the wildness of the New England countryside matched by a wildness within. Frost’s adopted Yankee pose contained a strong vein of New England Puritanism, that ancient and fatalistic inheritance of cold wind, salt water, dark winters, and bitter truths. Such darkness was the wellspring of the “extraordinarily lush and difficult mental landscape” (337) that Hall explores with such vivid, beautifully modulated empathy.
ABOUT BRIAN HALL
Brian Hall is the author of three previous novels, including I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company, a fictional retelling of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and three works of nonfiction. His journalism has appeared in publications such as Time, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine. He lives in Ithaca, New York.
A CONVERSATION WITH BRIAN HALL
1. Your relationship with the figure of Robert Frost is one of deep attachment mixed with some ambivalence. Can you talk about what first drew you to Frost? What specifically appealed to you about his poetry?
I’ve always preferred poetry that has a good deal of surface lucidity. It’s hard to write poetry of this variety that feels weighty as well as good, because it’s really the thought that counts; that, and a good ear. You can’t hide behind an elaborate form or allusive obscurity. Perhaps this sort of poetry appeals to me because it’s closest to being a purified and heightened form of what I strive to create in my prose: concision, wit, insight, close listening, and an awareness of the multiple meanings of every word you use. Frost was fantastically good at hearing how common words fight with each other and with themselves, tugging in several directions toward different goals. He also was blessed (in his art, anyway) with an uncommonly large store of “negative capability,” which happens to be the attribute of artists that I most admire.
I was drawn to write about Frost when I came across a brief mention of his trip to the U.S.S.R. to meet with Khrushchev. I hadn’t been aware of that incident, and I was immediately attracted by the idea of juxtaposing poetic insight and political insight; literalizing and exploring Shelley’s idea that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world (Frost repeatedly joked through the years that he wanted to run for the Senate); asking what happens when poetry tries to speak to power. It also allowed me to delve into the awful burden of fame, which I think is often underestimated because we who are relatively unknown tend to envy the famous.
2. You write in your author’s note that at times you are “presuming to guess what Frost might have been thinking” (337). Did you find the act of putting words in the mouth or mind of a famous person daunting? Did you have a method or guideline for deciding where or when to elaborate or invent dialogue or internal reflection?
No particular guideline for internal reflection; I just fleshed out those areas that interested me, which tended to revolve around Frost’s most intimate personal ties: those with his family, and his “brotherhood” with Edward Thomas. As for invented dialogue, I only used it when I felt I had to, in order to sketch at least a ghostly sense of relationships that have left no public record: for example, we have no testimony, other than Frost’s poem “The Ax-Helve,” of what kind of conversation he might have carried on with his wall-mending neighbor, Napoleon Guay, but I wanted to have some fun suggesting subterranean ways in which “The Ax-Helve” and “Mending Wall” might be related—for example, the curious mention of “elves” in the latter poem—so I wrote chapter 50. There’s also very little recorded of the nuts and bolts of Frost’s relationship with his wife, Elinor, which was the most closely guarded and crucial relationship of his life.
And yes, it’s very daunting to try to think like Frost in any sort of convincing way; especially if you read his letters, where the constant and deep play of his mind, his acute sensitivity to words, is impressive and intimidating. (I think Frost is one of the great letter writers of the twentieth century; a good edition of his letters is finally in the works.) Fortunately, there are a number of ideas and verbal expressions that Frost returned to again and again in his life, over the stretch of decades, and by accumulating a store of these favorite tropes, I could use them as building blocks for my guesses about his thoughts.
3. Could you tell us a little about the process of researching this book? Your chapter notes imply an intimate understanding of an array of sources. Did you have to travel to visit all of the various archives? Were there any that were especially difficult to obtain access to?
I spent more time researching the novel than writing it; the research took me two and a half years, and the writing one and a half. During the research phase of a novel like this or my Lewis and Clark book, I read everything I can get my hands on and take hundreds of pages of notes, jot down thematic ideas, questions, possible linkages, patterns, and so on. Probably some ninety percent of this material never makes it explicitly into the book, and probably a good thirty or forty percent of it I never read again after I’ve written it down. The point of the process is to build a mountain of information, then climb it, sit on the summit crossed-legged, close my eyes, and see what thoughts waft up toward me. (Hmm. That makes it sound like a dunghill. Oh well, Frost always lauded the rich “compost” of decaying New England.)
With a person as famous as Frost, quite a lot of the archival material has already been published, which makes the work easier. The unpublished material is scattered in half a dozen important collections, but most of what I wanted was at Dartmouth College and Amherst College. An essential resource is Lawrance Thompson’s “Notes on Robert Frost,” which fill about two thousand pages of typescript; the original is at the University of Virginia, but there’s a good copy at Dartmouth, which is where I read them. Thompson included in these notes many striking private details—the real nitty-gritty of Frost’s daily life—that he felt he couldn’t publish in the biography. Also, the notes provide valuable insight into Thompson’s rigid, envious, and bilious personality, which is crucial to keep in mind when you read both his notes and his biography of Frost.
4. Your novel does not shy away from portraying Frost’s unattractive traits: his egoism, self-absorption, ill temper. Was it difficult for you to write from the point of view of a protagonist who was in many ways fundamentally unlikable?
I’m intrigued that you find him “fundamentally unlikable.” Many people seem to respond to Frost’s character in that way, and I’ve never quite understood it. It seems to me that, in America at least, “likability” is presumed to be based on niceness, self-effacement, and sociability, and has nothing to do with intellect; and you’re right that Frost wasn’t “nice,” and often not sociable. And like many artists he was an egoist. But, really, so what? He was brilliant and inventively contrarian and intellectually restless and hypersensitive and wild. I like those qualities, and therefore I find a person who has them “likable.” My opinion wouldn’t be changed just because, if I were somehow to meet Frost, he treated me rudely, or didn’t let me get a word in edgewise. That would be substituting my egoism for his.
I think it’s also worth asking why it is that we sympathize with clinical forms of mental illness, but condemn the subclinical forms. It’s clear that a strain of paranoia ran in Frost’s family, and that Frost himself struggled against it. Let’s imagine that he had a worse case, and was institutionalized at some period in his life; wouldn’t we then withhold judgment of some of his more unreasonable behavior, as we do, for example, in the case of Robert Lowell?
5. Most of the events narrated include Frost and take place during his lifetime, one exception being the brief description of your visit to the Frost farm in 2004. What was your motive in including this passage? Why did you decide to place it in the middle of the narrative, instead of as a foreword or afterword?
Since I already had the Younger Poet, the Biographer, the Editor, the Critic, and the Encyclopedist as various human eddies in the wake of Frost’s fame, and since I was implicitly critiquing the complex motives of all those gleaners who come after the real harvester, I felt it was only fair to admit that I am one, too.
I also wanted to round out the story of the closest thing to a real home—or better, the one small piece of native land—Frost ever had, and the cradle of his best poetry, the Derry farm. I wanted to trace its transformations, from refuge to stranger’s home, to dead poisoned wasteland, to purified dead museum, and it was only my presence at the last stage that allowed me to do that.
6. In 2004 the Irish novelist Colm Tóib”n published a book about Henry James called The Master, in which he imagines James’s inner life in much the same way you do Frost’s. Tóib”n said that he wanted to explore the hidden darkness within James. Do you feel you had a similar mission to explore the “darkness” within Frost?
Yes, but the darkness within Frost has had a fairly widespread airing in the past thirty years. The problem has been that the argument has always seemed to be between people who see the darkness and call it monstrosity, and people who refuse to see the darkness. I wanted to look squarely at this thing—call it what you will: darkness, pain, complexity, stoicism, self-protection—and, without in any way scanting it, try to kill off this “monster” image, which is interpretively useless, and which has proved astonishingly enduring considering that it is based on a tone-deaf and tendentious biography written by a lapsed Frost-worshipper and abetted by critics who (understandably) dearly wanted to clear Frost off the stage to make room for other spoets.
7. It seems particularly tricky to write a creative and poetical novel based on a man with a creative and poetical mind. Is it difficult to write evocatively about a man whose mind was itself relentlessly evocative? Did you ever feel that you were, in a sense, competing with Frost?
I think this gets back to the idea of whether the work was daunting, which it was; and also back to the question of why I put myself in the book as the Novelist. Of course I’m competing with Frost. It required presumption, but I don’t think any good art is ever created without fearlessness and presumption. Perhaps I’ve fallen on my face, but it’s not for me to worry about that; the reviewers will happily tell me.
8. You write of the device of the “Younger Poet” that “presented in the plural, they might have been a chorus called Legacy” (337), which harkens back to the use of the chorus in Greek drama. Do you think of Frost’s life in terms of Greek tragedy? Do you regard him as a tragic hero? Did Frost’s own love of classical drama and poetry provide the impetus for this device?
When I think of a “tragic hero,” I’m not usually thinking of Greek tragedy, in which Fate works impersonally and ineluctably (with the result that Greek heroes are found more in epic than in tragedy), but of Shakespearean tragedy, in which the hero falls from the consequences of a flaw in his character. I guess I would place Frost’s story more in the Greek camp, if we see it as the working out of a remorseless family curse. (And his heroism, if that’s the right word, was basically an epic heroism; he kept picking up the sword to fight another battle.) However, there’s something compelling to me in the idea that one person’s strength leads to weakness in others, and in the Frost family, Robert Frost’s “tragic flaw” was that he was too energetic and too talented, and too absorbed in and consumed by his talent; his family wilted in his shade. (If we’re talking Shakespeare, Coriolanus would be a good parallel.) If he had been the monster Lawrance Thompson would have us believe, the toll on his family would not have bothered him, whereas in fact it tormented him.
The classical parallel that most appealed to me was not Greek tragedy but Roman pastoral. My very first shaping idea about Frost was that he could be seen as the American Virgil, complete with the eventual artistic burdens and corruptions incumbent on a national poet (what one might call the sorrows of imperial poetry). The last chapter of Fall of Frost is a recapitulation of Dante’s opening of the Divine Comedy, with Frost now cast in the thankless but endearing Virgilian role as the unsaveable guide to the hopers of salvation. As it happens, Frost knew the Latin poets better than he did the Greek ones, and Virgil, along with Lucretius, was probably the classical poet his thoughts turned to most often. It was delightfully fortuitous for my purposes that Virgil invented the version of the Orpheus legend that we know today, since that legend resonates so strongly with the story of Frost and his wife, Elinor.
9. Could you say something about your literary strategy in deciding how to construct this novel? Why did you elect to tell it in a large number of short chapters, arranged non-chronologically?
Since this is a book about poetry, I wanted to imitate, at least in a pale way, the effect of a lyric poem. By making each chapter brief and highly focused, and by breaking it free of any obvious relationship with the chapters before and after, I’ve tried to create the effect of intensity and isolation, so that each chapter will feel like a distinct, vivid moment, meaningful in the way the heightened observed moment of a poem is meaningful, which is to say, mysteriously so. If the chapters were arranged chronologically, the reader would easily glide from one to the next, following the “story,” and the effect that I want, in which each chapter seems like a shard of differently colored glass, would be lessened.
The disrupted chronology also allowed me to get away from the standard biographical focus on the external life (born, grew up, wrote this, wrote that, got famous, met the following famous people) to focus inwardly, where an artist’s real life is lived: the words and ideas that keep coming back, the obsessions, the relatively few intense experiences that also keep recurring in memory, always changing but always also staying the same.
10. Your last novel, I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company, used historical sources as the basis for a retelling of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Can you explain what draws you to this kind of fiction? Is there something attractive to you about imagining the inner thoughts of historical figures? What do you enjoy or find challenging about writing such novels? Do you have another figure or figures in mind for your next project? Do you envision ever writing again a work of “straight” fiction like your novel The Saskiad?
To begin with your last question: My plan at the moment is for my next novel to be “straight” fiction. However, there are two main attractions of historical or biographical fiction. Most importantly, this kind of fiction limits my freedom, and too much freedom in fiction can be (for me, at least) a problem. This is related to what Frost meant when he criticized free verse as playing tennis with the net down: you want the net so that you have some non-solipsistic way of distinguishing your good shots from your bad shots. I think it was Robert Coover who said that when he wanted a character in his fiction to fly, he simply wrote, “He flew.” That doesn’t seem to paralyze Coover, and all power to him; but it would paralyze me, because when I write, I need a sense less of what various directions I could go in than which one I should go in.
The other main attraction to me of fact-based fiction is that it fights against the fiction writer’s tendency to make his or her stories neater than real life—narratives with shapely arcs, telling details, controlling metaphors, satisfying endings. I like the challenge of taking a set of facts that I forbid myself from changing in the smallest particular, and see if I can tease out a shape that’s pleasing, while still retaining an authentic sense of life’s blooming, buzzing confusion. Frost talked about feats of prowess, and what he meant in part (Henry James often talked about this, too) was that all that really gets an artist out of the bed in the morning, so to speak, is the setting for himself of a task, a trick, a feat, with its own rules, maybe arbitrary ones; then he sits at his desk to see if he can pull it off. It’s not much different from spinning a basketball on the tip of your finger (which I’ve always wished I could do, and never could); it’s showing off.