Reviewed by Peter Behrens
Sunday, April 20, 2008
FALL OF FROST
By Brian Hall
Viking. 340 pp. $25.95
Americans of a certain age might remember Robert Frost as the white-haired codger at JFK's inauguration, a very old New Frontiersman struggling against the January cold and sunlight to read a poem composed for the occasion. Between the glare and the paper-rattling wind, the old man wasn't up to the task. Finally, he folded his pages and extemporized, in an elder's quaver, lines long since committed to memory. All in all, it was an edgy, brave performance.
In Fall of Frost, a novel, Brian Hall presents a vision of Robert Frost as an unsuccessful farmer, tormented father, distanced husband and, most of all, a poet who deals always with the hard pith of things. Hall's themes, like Frost's, are major: love, death, the anarchy of living, the tragedy implicit in creating children and poems. This is a book about a man confronting the world and struggling to make sense, through his work, of what he cannot otherwise grasp. Like Frost's poetry, Hall's novel is pungent, deceptively simple and magnificently sad.
The story operates the way an old man's memory might, moving back and forth in time through 128 small chapters, each set in a particular place at a specific time. The restlessness of these almost staccato chunks is occasionally confusing, moving as they do from "Moscow 1962" to "The Derry Farm, New Hampshire 1902" with many other stops along the way. But the disjointed structure allows a feeling of intimacy, the sense of inhabiting a restless mind.
It is no news that biographical fiction can sometimes bring a reader closer to a life than biography is able to do. It helps when the novel is a savory pleasure to read, as Fall of Frost is. In an afterword Hall insists his fictional Frost is constructed around a strong armature of fact, and sources for scenes, for the tenor of relationships, even for dialogue are earnestly discussed in chapter notes at the end of the book. The novel contains some earlier Frost poems and bits of later poems, but the author also notes that he was denied permission to include more than fragments of verse written after 1922 because the copyright protection will not end "until 2018 at the earliest (and perhaps not even then, given the interest of powerful corporations in extending copyright)." This must have been frustrating, but it doesn't compromise Hall's powerful and convincing portrait of the poet.
In one chapter, "San Francisco, California, March 1874," the poet's memories of his mother's stories are all that remain from the rough house where Frost happened to be born. His life finds its own ground in his ancestral New England, on the New Hampshire farm where he tries to sustain his family. "Derry Farm" chapters seeded throughout the book detail the stoic, self-indulgent life the poet lived in the early 1900s and in periods thereafter, with a wife and a brood of brooding children, writing poems all night and getting out of his bed at 11 o'clock in the morning. Late risings prove to neighbors what he suspects already: Despite chickens, vegetable gardens and hay-mowings, the poet is no farmer. Meanwhile, the lives and fates of those children, their suicides, mental illnesses and early deaths, become lodes of guilt. Hall wonders, "Did he replace the love of his children, whom death could touch, with the love of words?"
Other chapter headings -- "Little Iddens, Ledington, Gloucestershire, England, August 26, 1914"; "Gagra, Georgian S.S.R., Friday, September 7, 1962" -- suggest the scope of Frost's life and of this novel. The Georgian chapters spin around a weird trip the elderly poet took just a few weeks before the Cuban Missile Crisis, after Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin delivered an invitation from Chairman Khrushchev to visit the Soviet Union. Frost is convinced he can talk man-to-man with this earthy son of the soil and convince Khrushchev to cool the Cold War by giving up East Berlin: "Just cut the Knot," he tells the Soviet leader. "Relent. Graciously give, and prove your strength by giving."
This is the poet in near-dotage, his mighty vanity and the sound of his own voice misleading him into a diplomatic game that confuses everyone. Hall slyly places us within Khrushchev's mind, which is chewing over the obscure "meaning" of Frost's message: Frost "talked about how the U.S. and Russia could avoid a stalemate. . . . Khrushchev would love a stalemate. If only! . . . Why didn't the old man say something about Cuba? He's in Kennedy's inner circle, must be getting instructions every day."
Robert Frost was a lyric poet whose poetry did not fit easily into any canon. Never popular with the avant-garde, he enjoyed early success and remained a public figure for almost half a century, approved and fed by institutions and acolytes. Despite the applause, in Hall's telling the man never gets what he needs. He keeps buying and selling those stony New England farms, searching for the right ground, and the poetry keeps spilling out of him.
Hall's Robert Frost is poet of loneliness, a lyric naturalist and barely a romantic, altogether a significantly more dangerous voice than the Old Man of the Mountains mythology suggests. In the novel, the poet armors himself with ersatz New England folksiness whenever he's tired, lazy or scared. But this is a performance and never has much to do with the actual work, which is anything but naive or rustic. At one point, late in his life, he muses on Thomas Hardy: "The avant-gardists spurned him, but he didn't care. He was the main army. He had his castle and his art and his stonemason's heart that sweated tears from its own coldness."The American poet might also be describing himself. ·
Peter Behrens is the author of "The Law of Dreams."