When Robert Frost met Khrushchev
This genre-bending bio-novel considers Frost's life through the lens of his last year and his 1962 trip to Russia.
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Hall creates the character of Younger Poet as a stand-in for Daniel Smythe, Robert Francis, Galway Kinnell, John Ciardi, Robert Lowell, Padraic Colum, Donald Hall, and Philip Larkin, all of whom touched Frost or were touched by him.Skip to next paragraph
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Frost loved his admirers almost as much as he raged against them. "He knew all about the dangers of standing on a pedestal," writes Hall. "Not that they'll knock you off – no, they're happy to leave you standing there, making a spectacle of yourself."
And then there was Russia. Frost met Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin at a Washington dinner party and the two enjoyed a lively exchange. From this was born the idea – endorsed by Kennedy – that Frost should travel to Russia in the summer of 1962 as a kind of good-will ambassador.
Despite his own doubts and fears, Frost agreed. Hall paints Frost and Khrushchev as somewhat kindred spirits. "Frost liked the shoe-banging," he writes. "If he had to sit through all that United Nations talk he'd bang his shoe, too." The notion that the two might connect on some deeper level does not seem so farfetched.
But the trip in some ways becomes symbolic of Frost's difficult latter years, involving uncertainty, dark periods of waiting, and frustrating public relations exercises while Khrushchev dallies.
When the meeting finally takes place, Frost's charisma works its charm. But at a press conference on the way home, Frost paraphrases Khrushchev's remarks and angers both Kennedy and Khrushchev – a failure of language that ends up wounding him deeply.
Throughout this work Hall sticks meticulously to what is actually known about Frost. When possible, he uses Frost's own words, drawing heavily on letters and Frost biographies.
This is not Hall's first foray into novelized biography. He quite successfully did something similar in "I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark."
Not all readers appreciate books that blur genres. Those looking for a straight biography of Frost should stick with Jay Parini. And those who want a story with a poet at its center will probably be happier with A.S. Byatt's "Possession." But for readers desiring a richly poetic treatment of Frost in all his splendid contrariety – kindly/surly, selfish/magnanimous, caring/distant, childish/infinitely wise – this is a book to savor.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.