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inverarity

Book Review: Stoner, by John Williams

A finely wrought tale of mediocrity and disappointment.


Stoner

Vintage, 1965, 288 pages



William Stoner is born at the end of the 19th century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar's life, far different from the hardscrabble existence he has known. And yet as the years pass, Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments: marriage into a "proper" family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude.

John Williams's luminous and deeply moving novel is a work of quiet perfection. William Stoner emerges from it not only as an archetypal American, but as an unlikely existential hero, standing, like a figure in a painting by Edward Hopper, in stark relief against an unforgiving world.




Stoner is the sort of book I once would never have even considered reading. There is no action. There are no grand dramas. The "plot" is just the biography of an unremarkable fictional character, and the author spells out his entire life story on the very first page! So we know before we've even begun that William Stoner will spend his entire adult life as an undistinguished college professor at a small Midwest university and then die and be barely remembered.


Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be. He had wanted friendship and the closeness of friendship that might hold him in the race of mankind; he had had two friends, one of whom had died senselessly before he was known, the other of whom had now withdrawn so distantly into the ranks of the living that...

He had wanted the singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that, too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died. He had wanted love; and he had had love, and had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality. Katherine, he thought. "Katherine."

And he had wanted to be a teacher, and he had become one; yet he knew, he had always known, that for most of his life he had been an indifferent one. He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance. And what else? he thought. What else?

What did you expect? he asked himself.


Why would anyone want to read a book like that?

Because it's really, really good.


Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.


This is a quintessential "literary" novel, and not the sort of snooty, aiming for some sort of postmodernist cleverness or showing off the author's verbosity literary novel, but a literary novel whose virtue is that the prose is finely crafted without getting in the way and the story is utterly and convincingly believable, all the characters real, all their hopes and disappointments and trials being elegantly rendered descriptions of things that could actually happen to real people. There is no suspension of disbelief, there is no one acting in an unbelievable fashion, no contrivances in which silly or unlikely things happen for the author's convenience.

That said, one might still wonder why one would want to read such a depressing book — and it is a depressing book.

William Stoner, a tall, lanky, quiet and serious young man, arrives at a small agricultural college in the years before World War I, sent there by his hardscrabble dirt farmer parents who hope he will learn something that will be of use back at the farm. He diligently goes through his studies until he discovers, by chance, the world of literature in his obligatory English Lit class. This changes his life — from that moment on, he is destined to become an English professor.

The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print—the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly.


John Williams, the author, was also an English professor born of farmers. He set Stoner at a university much like his own. He assures his colleagues in the foreword that his story is entirely fictional.

William Stoner, the character who has so much superficial resemblance to his creator, has a much more (we hope) disappointing life. Bleakness and disappointments and wasted opportunities blight his marriage and his career.

It starts with his marriage to Edith, the daughter of a banker, a girl as tall and awkward as himself, beautiful but introverted, and evidently never actually feeling much of anything towards Stoner despite accepting his marriage proposal. She's been damaged by a very proper upbringing and (it is very lightly hinted) a problematic relationship with her father, which manifests itself from the moment that Stoner first shows interest in her. But if it wasn't clear before then (as it certainly wasn't to the oblivious and lovestruck Stoner), then their wedding night presages what their life together will be like.

When he returned, Edith was in bed with the covers pulled to her chin, her face turned upward, her eyes closed, a thin frown creasing her forehead. Silently, as if she were asleep, Stoner undressed and got into bed beside her. For several moments he lay with his desire, which had become an impersonal thing, belonging to himself alone. He spoke to Edith, as if to find a haven for what he felt; she did not answer. He put his hand upon her and felt beneath the thin cloth of her nightgown the flesh he had longed for. He moved his hand upon her; she did not stir; her frown deepened. Again he spoke, saying her name to silence; then he moved his hand upon her, gentle in his clumsiness. When he touched the softness of her thighs she turned her head sharply away and lifted her arm to cover her eyes. She made no sound.


He will never receive an iota of affection, even a quantum of solace, from Edith. As their marriage goes on and his career at the university begins to develop, Edith goes from withdrawn and bitter to quietly, viciously passive-aggressive, in a lifelong campaign to undermine everything between them. When they have a child, because of a sudden maternal impulse that blossoms within her and then seems to die almost as soon as their daughter is born, Edith will take their quiet, intelligent daughter who shows signs of favoring her father, and turn her into another tool with which to inflict misery on her husband, breaking her poor daughter's will in the process. And always with a complete lack of self-awareness. Stoner, who for all his faults of passivity and awkwardness, is self-aware and quite perceptive about others, recognizes the truth, that Edith hates him and does not love her daughter, and simultaneously, that Edith is utterly convinced otherwise.

While Stoner endures an increasingly barren home life, his career is stunted early on when he makes an enemy of the man destined to become the chair of his department. He takes a stand on principle, against an incompetent, fraudulent graduate student who is for personal reasons the pet of his rival. Refusing to bend on the subject of a PhD dissertation, Stoner loses the political battle, and while his tenure prevents him from losing his position, the hatred of his department chair means the next twenty years he spends at the university — unable/unwilling to leave because he is anchored by his wife and daughter — will be all but futile for him.

And yet, there is much that is admirable about Stoner, as frustrating as his stoic quietude can be. He doesn't ever bend on principle, even when he knows the cost. He never does stand up to his wife, but neither does he become browbeaten by her — he simply withdraws from the battle, which would be less frustrating if it didn't mean ceding their daughter to her. He remains, always, in love with literature and eventually even becomes in love with teaching, and here he carves out a small niche for himself, liked and respected by those few students and colleagues who recognize his qualities despite the unrelenting hostility from the department chair.

Stoner is about a man who lives a life he has chosen — not the one he wanted, but when he looks back on it, with all its regrets and hardships and disappointments, he does not blame anyone for it, and accepts what has been.

He had come to that moment in his age when there occurred to him, with increasing intensity, a question of such overwhelming simplicity that he had no means to face it. He found himself wondering if his life were worth the living; if it had ever been. It was a question, he suspected, that came to all men at one time or another; he wondered if it came to them with such impersonal force as it came to him. The question brought with it a sadness, but it was a general sadness which (he thought) had little to do with himself or with his particular fate; he was not even sure that the question sprang from the most immediate and obvious causes, from what his own life had become. It came, he believed, from the accretion of his years, from the density of accident and circumstance, and from what he had come to understand of them. He took a grim and ironic pleasure from the possibility that what little learning he had managed to acquire had led him to this knowledge: that in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter.




Verdict: You probably won't appreciate this book if you're too young. I also think this is very much a man's book — which is not to say a woman might not enjoy it, but it's a male point of view, and it completely puts the lie to the idea that slow-moving introspective novels about "feelings" and "relationships" can't be extremely masculine. Stoner is all about the interior life of a single character; one might even say a Mrs. Dalloway for dudes. It is perhaps not surprising that I liked Stoner far more. 10/10.




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