Apr/May 2008

A Cold Case

In his novel, Brian Hall pries beneath Robert Frost's brittle demeanor

Craig Seligman


Robert Frost became a monster in 1966. That was the year Lawrance Thompson finally brought out the first volume of his authorized biography (two more followed, in 1970 and '76)—an account that Brian Hall, the author of the novel Fall of Frost, calls a mauling. Frost had given Thompson the go-ahead in 1939, when he was already elderly (he was born in 1874), with the stipulation that publication await his death. And then, uncooperatively, he lived on. And on. Resentments grew, and by the time he did die, in 1963, at the age of eighty-eight, the two men hated each other.

Subsequent biographers have come to Frost's defense, but nobody describes him as a sunbeam. He was controlling and paranoid—grist for the biographer but not much of a hero to hang a novel on. Difficulty is catnip to Hall, though, whose last novel, the 2003 I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company, put the haughty and depressive explorer Meriwether Lewis at the center of an elusive, ribald, and altogether beautiful story. Hall explained in an author's note that he had "wanted to dream up a Meriwether Lewis who fit all the puzzling facts and still breathed on the page." His aim was "to take the record as I found it and fill in gaps."

With Frost, the gaps are fewer, but there's still the chasm—it yawns at the feet of every writer, but his case is extreme—between the man and the voice on the page. Fall of Frost is, if anything, even more rigorous than Hall's previous book. As he explains in his author's note this time around:

Although this work is properly called a novel, I've approached it in the spirit of a biographer who wanted to stretch his usual form to accommodate more speculation than nonfiction generally allows. None of the known facts of Robert Frost's life have been changed; all of the letters quoted or paraphrased are real; Frost's public utterances are drawn from transcripts; most of the private conversations are either close paraphrases of reported interchanges or elaborations of a participant's description of a conversation.

Evidently setting himself strict parameters frees his imagination—which hardly makes him unusual among artists. Frost used verse forms to bind himself in the same way; as Kenneth Clark said, many a great thought has come of a difficult rhyme.

Frost: No novelist could have named him better. Probing the poet's mind after one of the darkest incidents in his life—his son Carol's suicide in 1940, at the age of thirty-eight—Hall plumbs the man's chilliness: "He's always been kinder in letters, where the conversation can proceed exactly as he wants it. In a person's presence, something gets him—fear he'll be touched, maybe; hugged, smothered. Fight, fight!" You can feel this fear in the cold (or is it cold?) embrace he enters a few pages later, after he steps down from the train that has borne him to the funeral: "The platform: Prescott, his grandson, is standing in front of him. Frost drops his bag, fights down his aversion to physical contact, hugs the boy. Neither of them speaks." End of chapter, and a deftly ambiguous snapshot of the poet's psyche: remote, proud, suffering, fully cognizant of the importance of the gesture he would just as soon forgo.

Frost and his wife, Elinor, raised a brood of difficult children—"Lesley's prickly, Carol's sullen, Irma's anxious, Marjorie's shy. It could be a nursery rhyme." There's no way of knowing how much of the damage was inflicted and how much innate, but Hall's Frost thinks accepting the blame may be best. His sister, Jeanie, died in a mental institution, and he eventually has to commit Irma, too. When Lesley accuses him of driving Irma crazy with his own paranoia, he sympathizes: "Better to believe her father poisoned the well with words than fear that the water, in its essence, is tainted"—since the taint would seal his own unhappiness. Looking back, he wonders (in the third person Hall uses throughout), "Why is he alone? Does he deserve it? Did he kill them all? Talk them past endurance? Have his way, until they left him to his way?"

Robert Frost during a meeting with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in Gagra, 1962.

Talk he did, unstoppably—and once his white-locked wisdom was branded on the public mind, he had plenty of opportunity. (Hall cites a telling anachronism he encountered on a 2004 pilgrimage to Derry Farm—now the Robert Frost Farm—where the poet lived as a young father from 1900 to 1911. In a short film for visitors, "An actor, whose face is never shown, walks around pretending to be Frost doing farm chores. Predictably, the filmmakers cast an old man in the role. They've given him the famous tussock of white hair.") At one point, Frost addresses the specter of Thomas Hardy: "How did you act your country's poet-sage for thirty years without making a goddamn fool of yourself?" For a poet-sage who never shut up, Frost didn't do so badly. In any case, he left mountains of talk behind for Hall to mine—from classes, interviews, readings, lectures, and countless conversations later set down by his dazzled interlocutors.

Hall's method is kaleidoscopic: 128 mostly short chapters (typically from a couple of paragraphs to two or three pages) laid out in a shattered chronology. Many of the longer ones cover Frost's September 1962 trip to the Soviet Union, where he was to meet—and, after long delays, did meet—with Nikita Khrushchev. The old man is near the end of his life and so sickly and mean that I started to dread these segments. But they have a glorious payoff. When the interview finally takes place, Khrushchev is, as expected, animated and vulgar, and Frost likes him and shines himself, wanting (perhaps delusionally) to do his part for peace. They talk at cross purposes in a ludicrous and moving set piece. And then there's an even funnier payoff: Hall takes us into the thoughts of each man and shows how clueless they both were about what was going on.

So it isn't all gloom; after all, this is Frost. Moreover, Hall is as poetry besotted as his subject was. One minor but pleasurable fruit of this intoxication is his parlor game of stuffing the text with (often mildly irrelevant) allusions ("That's all the doctor in the doorway knows and all he needs to know") and then crowing, "Happy hunting." The effect isn't all that different from a drag show I once saw in which all the lines came from old movies—but it was fun, too, and this running prank gives some indication of the author's playfulness. Which is appropriate, given the playfulness that buoys even Frost's bleakest poems. And what Hall loves most is thinking about the poems. The novel should be read with a fat volume of Frost handy, since, as Hall fumes, the Frost estate invoked copyright to keep him from quoting as copiously as he wanted:

The irony is that I could legally invent a scene in which Frost commits murder (since in American law you can't libel the dead), and I could just as legally fill this novel with my own atrocious doggerel that I insisted, hand over heart, was Frost's, but I'm not allowed to freely quote his actual, still-copyrighted poetry, much of which is widely available (despite copyright) online.

Even thus restricted, the pages overflow with verse—and not just Frost but also the poets he loved (Shakespeare, Herrick, Dickinson, Hardy, Edward Thomas) and even those he didn't (Whitman).

Thomas was Frost's one deep friendship; Frost called the English poet "the only brother I ever had," and Hall devotes a good deal of attention to their bond. The Frosts lived in England from 1912 to 1915; it was there Robert published his first book. (Hall concocts a sweet reminiscence of a visit to Pound: "Oh, to be back in Ezra's bohemian room on an alley in London in 1913, Ezra in an Oriental dressing gown reading the first bound copy of A Boy's Will while Frost stares unseeing at a magazine, waiting for the verdict. 'You don't mind our liking this?' Ezra intones.") Thomas died in World War I; a few years hence, fame would touch Frost, and thereafter his friends were no longer his equals—which was evidently how he liked it. It may have been that the earlier friendship flourished because Thomas wasn't quite Frost's equal, either: He was younger by two years, and it was under Frost's tutelage that he began to write serious verse. Frost needed admiration, and he must have needed it especially when he was still obscure. Maybe that explains the closing words of his elegy "To E.T." (published in New Hampshire, the 1923 collection that won him the first of his four Pulitzers)—the wrenching regret that he can never again see his friend "pleased once more with words of mine."

Fall of Frost contains delicate readings of quite a few poems, though Hall is modest enough to have Frost remind us, "Critical commentary on any poem is always more or less a desecration. Or maybe a better word is indiscretion. It can only put into words what the poet deliberately chose not to say." If it's any good, of course, it does more than that: It sends us back to the work with our response enriched and deepened—which is what this novel does, subtly, splendidly. In addition to being rich and deep itself.

Frost couldn't have asked for a more generous champion. Still, all of Hall's kindness and understanding weren't enough to make me fall in love with the crabby old poet—which didn't really matter, since I was already busy falling in love with Hall. Out of this stony material he has fashioned a warm and lovable book. The opening is gray, the protagonist is trying, the fractured chronology denies you the pleasure of a plot arc. I'm not sure when I realized how much I was enjoying myself.

Craig Seligman is the author of Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me (Counterpoint, 2004) and a critic for Bloomberg News. A Cold Case

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