Geoffrey Wolff spends the summer months in Bath, Maine, a small, proud ship-building town where the deep-cut Kennebec River meets the sea. The Wolff house is waterside, with a grassy slope leading to a floating dock, and a glassed-in porch facing the far bank. During the long first day of the interview—a gloomy June day of chilly fog—and the second, as gleaming and warm as the first was dark—Wolff often paused in the course of his lengthy tales and looked out over the river, gathering his memory, taking his time.
Geoffrey is the eldest of a pair of richly talented brothers, both of whom have written acclaimed memoirs about their family. In The Duke of Deception, Geoffrey wrote lovingly of the father who was a great conjuror, whose obsession with the trappings and trimmings of social class led him to work tirelessly to create an impression of a high life. As a boy Geoffrey observed the con man at work and drew from him both an exquisite appreciation of surfaces and a blunt intolerance for niceties. Almost in spite of himself, it seems, he has led a life of the sort his father might have conjured: boarding school at Choate, summa cum laude from Princeton, a Fullbright, a Guggenheim, teaching positions at numerous top universities, and, for the last decade, a position as director of one of the most prestigious writing programs in the United States.
As quick and accomplished as Wolff’s mind is, he laughed often at the life revealing itself in his words. His ribald tales were almost Chaucerian—bawdy and poetic, each answering a question, each speaking to a different stage of Wolff’s journey from gifted observer to master writer. Later he he went over the edited transcript and added touches to deepen the measure of reflection.
The interview had been delayed for several months while Wolff recovered from major open-heart surgery, a medical sequel to the cardiac “event” he chronicled in the title essay, “A Day at the Beach.” The only evidence of his recent surgery was a slight breathlessness as we climbed the grassy hill from his boat dock, where he had taken me to see the river at the river’s eye level.