Viking, $24.99 (hardcover)
Elegant prose in fiction always grips me, but only occasionally does a novel come along whose language holds me spellbound, makes me forget the tyranny of plot. Fall of Frost defies fast reading and so probably won’t be a runaway bestseller. It doesn’t fit the rush of plane travel or the distractions of the beach but demands tranquility. I lingered, dwelled on haunting phrases, flights of wordplay, and happily reread paragraphs.
Brian Hall’s biographical novel of Robert Frost is absorbing art worthy of its subject. Although numerous biographers have anatomized Frost’s life and work, this is the first “fictional” treatment. Its “fiction” is formal rather than literal: little in Fall of Frost is invented, though some scenes are fanciful; the endnotes demonstrate Hall’s meticulous research. He seems to have read everything, published and archival, on Frost. “America’s greatest poet” was, however, no Rimbaud or Hemingway, no self-destructive adventurer, so a life of Frost must instead study his mind and words. Form rather than action. A complex, often paranoid, guilt-ridden, indolent, narcissistic figure, Frost outlived diverse family tragedies, struggled at breadwinning, sought privacy while taking on the role of public figure. He became a sort of rock star of American poetry, a celebrity who performed at JFK’s inauguration and imagined himself a friend of Kennedy’s and literary knight of Camelot. At age 88, Frost traveled to the USSR to confront Khrushchev about East Berlin, a culminating episode with which Hall begins and ostensibly organizes his story and one of its central themes, that of the tension between poetry’s aesthetic necessity and its larger (e.g., political) irrelevance.
For this is a novel about poetry and its place in our lives. Despite its emphasizing Frost’s failure to be an acknowledged legislator of the world, or even a very successful human being-“Did he replace the love of his children, whom death could touch, with the love of words?” and, Hall has him ask himself repeatedly: “What’s poetry good for?”-Fall of Frost criticizes a poet’s delusions while celebrating what poetry really does, how it really comprehends and enriches life. Though hampered by copyright strictures (maybe in the end actually beneficial to the narrative), Hall quotes Frost’s poetry frequently and also laces in formative influences-Yeats, Tennyson, Dickinson, etc. His playful exegeses and riffs often explode received critical wisdom on, say, “The Road Not Taken” or “Stopping By Woods on Snowy Evening”-how often have we been instructed that the latter is about the poet’s death wish?-while exploring more refreshing readings. (It’s interesting to note that Frost’s official biographer Lawrance Thompson simply misquoted poems such as “Stopping By Woods” when he wanted to belabor some opinion about Frost. Hall, on the other hand, is a reader who really sees the words on the page.)
Instead of doing what biographers typically do, transforming complex and contradictory lives into linear, orderly narrative, Hall emulates Frost’s untidy poetic life. In the book’s 128 chapters, varying in length, as Frost’s poems do, from many pages to a mere sentence, Hall assembles a seemingly random array of fragments: anecdotes, episodes, glosses, set pieces and tableaux, meditations. Each chapter is a poem. Dates and places always head the chapters since the novel hopscotches around Frost’s lifetime. His material, after all, is memory, guilt, association, and in places Hall switches to a second-person narrative to convey Frost’s dialogue with his conscience. If you couldn’t tell from the poetry, his baggage contained the death of a first child, for which Frost felt responsible, a second son’s suicide, the insanity of a daughter, the loss of his frail and frigid wife.
Whatever we learn or don’t learn of Frost the man from this novel, we get to revel in lush verbiage that paints the world Frost might have seen and inhabited. Hall’s binges of “word-drunkenness,” as he terms Frost’s verbal flights, can themselves be excessive, for example when he launches into an alliterative or improvisational run, but I find them exhilarating and amusing. “Last night the spring peepers were shouting in chorus, pulsing like crickets in summer, but with spring music, with a shivery shimmer, as thought the head-heavy snowdrops were swinging, ringing, or like distant sleighbells, like the last dissipating ghost of the Christmas season, yielding to spring heat, spring love. Where do the peepers go, he wonders, when they run out of song?” Here Hall imagines Frost brooding over his child’s death the previous summer at Derry Farm, moving from the frogs’ nocturnal noise to the supposed etymology of the name Frost gave the little brook there, Hyla, in Greek mythology and the taxonomy of frogs, as a fanciful explication of the boy’s being spirited away by cholera-or by “water nymphs, those animal wives whose interests are not our interests, [who] call Hyla!, Hyla!, Hyla! in the April mist. And the hyla breed [of frogs] sing with lustiness and lust, of the brevity of mud.”
Fall of Frost persuades me that biographical novels, if not biographies, should all be written this way. Perhaps they’re not reassuring to readers, but certainly they’re more true.