Stoner by John Williams: So You Can Understand

September 3, 2013 | No Comments

Stoner by John Williams
Whenever someone mentions Stoner, we writers turn misty-eyed. I can’t remember who, a few years ago, first urged me to read John Williams’ novel from 1965, but I know it was a fellow wordsmith, and since then I’ve recommended it in turn, right and left and yonder. Although well received on publication, Stoner quietly took its place on the shelf of the grossly-underappreciated, while Williams went on to win the National Book Award in 1972 for Augustus, a prize he shared with John Barth for Chimera. But Stoner’s slow and steady rise to greatness is almost entirely due to word of mouth, fuelled by stellar reviews following its reissue in 2006 by NYRB. 
As early as 1973 C.P. Snow asked “why isn’t this book famous?” It is still a relevant question. The answer may owe much to an habitually narrow definition of ‘greatness’ in terms of our literary arts. Even now we equate a ‘great’ book with a hefty page count and a broad sweep of subject matter that goes beyond the personal and metaphysical into the wider political, historical and cultural realms, often combined with a convoluted or sensational plot. Stoner‘s plot, however, could not be simpler and unfolds over an average 270 odd pages. It tells of William Stoner, who leaves his family farm prior to the First World War to go to college. He finds a mentor, makes two close friends, and after graduation joins the world of academia, endures a bad marriage, has one love affair, battles a professional nemesis, publishes one minor book, sees his devoted daughter drift tragically astray, and is then, in retirement, overtaken by death. It is an ordinary life with its ordinary measure of heartbreak and happiness, but rendered extraordinary by Williams steely empathy—and I use the word ‘steely’ deliberately, because he never flinches in revealing his characters in all their flawed complexity. Many of Williams’ contemporaries, (such as Updike, Roth, Salter, etc), have also written books based around the biography of a single character, usually a man, but none, I would argue, have reached this level of perfection, of profundity. Perhaps they didn’t really want to write about a human being but rather use him as a conduit to write about America—they aimed their arrows at ‘the larger beyond.’ Williams, though, channels— no, intuits—Stoner, and by so doing, he unmasks the entire human condition, and, almost as an aside, reveals ‘the larger beyond’ other writers were aiming for, but with greater subtlety. I feel, though many will disagree with me, that some authors sit at their desk determined to write ‘a great American / European novel’ whereas Williams’ intention appears to have been to write something ‘true.’ And yes, there is a difference; if ‘truth’ can be realized then greatness will follow, but if greatness is the writer’s primary objective, then no matter how talented he or she is, a scrim of (often wordy) narcissism will inevitably blur the work.
Is our admiration, therefore, rooted in Williams’ craft? Certainly that is part of it; his prose is like a taut plumb line. Without brushing against superfluous words or being tarred by sentimentality it hangs straight and true, yet still vibrates with poetry; it reminds me of the piano music of Phillip Glass or Fredrick Chopin, or of the watercolors of Singer Sargent. Stoner’s parents lived on a “bare treeless little plot,” and he considers “the cost exacted year after year of the soil,” yet “it remained as it had been—a little more barren, perhaps, a little more frugal of increase. Nothing has changed. Their lives had been expended in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligences numbed. Now they were in the earth to which they had given their lives; and slowly, year after year, the earth would take them.” With the repetitions of “lives,” and “year after year,” Williams’ distills Stoner’s parents’ tragedy, distills the sacrifice they made by letting Stoner go. Throughout the book such moments cause the reader (this reader) to catch her breath, another example being when the middle-aged Stoner, disillusioned, asks himself that dreaded question familiar to us all, “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,” before he undercuts his own melancholy with pragmatism, “What did you expect?” And few writers have ever written so movingly, or astutely, about love; love that “was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.
There will be those who read Stoner then shrug, dismissively, that the book is boring; the man led a dull life and then died. Using fame as a fashionable measure of success, he could be said to have endured a fate even worse than death by having died as an unknown. There may be those who cannot share Stoner’s self-deprecation after weighing his own life in the scales and seeing the irony of fretting over failure “as if (failure) mattered.” It is the definition of failure that is one of William’s principal subjects here, because in the things that truly matter, in what Stoner’s lover Katherine had termed “lust and learning,” Stoner had met only success. In a rare interview, Williams argued his protagonist was “a real hero” because he had loved his job, he had loved his task, he had, to put it simply, loved; Stoner “had in odd ways given it to every moment of his life, and had perhaps given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance.” Stoner loved others, yes, but he also gave love and dedication, above all, to teaching and the written word. “You’ve got to keep the faith,” Williams said about Stoner’s commitment to education; “The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilization.” And here we hit the crux of it, of the wordsmith’s weepy admiration for this deceptively simple book. It is not due to the dexterity of the craft alone but because Williams’ decided to make his protagonist not a fireman or a politician or a farmer, but a writer and a teacher and therefore most writers (myself included) identify to some extent with Stoner.

In every writer’s life there is a momenta pivotal momentof personal revelation. Maybe it happened when we were very youngwe realized we would rather hide indoors with Alice and Peter Pan than join our friends playing outsideor maybe at collegewe paused to reflect on a line of poetry in the library, lifting our head from the scratched desk to breath in the damp, foosty air of parchment and pencils, knowing there was nowhere we would rather be than here, in this communion with this soul who wrote these lines so many centuries before but which are now, in this very moment, born again, immortal, a gift set before our very eyesbut, wherever, either through a sudden jolting self-realization, or by the prompting of a mentor, parent, or friend, we knew that what we felt for the written word, for language, was not simply affection, or hobby-like, but a calling, and to which we could, given enough courage and encouragement, dedicate our lives. This moment occurs for Stoner prior to his graduation during a conversation with his mentor. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet?“ asks Sloane. “You are going to be a teacher…. You are in love, Mr. Stoner. It’s as simple as that.” Stoner’s calling is the teaching of literature, and it is this love that allows him to navigate the outer tragedies of his life.

For those who have what I term ‘proper jobs,’ in business or manufacturing or nursing or retailing, it might appear that what writers do, what teachers do, what poets do, is somehow tangential to the real world, somehow on the margins of what truly matters, an assumption which Sloane refutes when he asks Stoner to consider carefully before volunteering to fight in the First World War; “Remember,” he says, “the significance of what you are doing. There are wars and defeats and victories of the human race that are not military and that are not recorded in the annals of history.” By deciding not to fight Stoner risks humiliation but this decision sets him on the path of actualization and a willingness to pay the price that must be paid in terms of solitude, for the life of the mind often requires a turning-away, a turning-in. In an act recognizable to all artists and teachers, he begins to ‘nest,’ to construct a safe exterior space for his interior work to be done, to sculpt a room of his own, and “it was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study. As he sanded the old boards for his bookcases and saw the surface roughnesses disappear… it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself he was making possible.” (And here the writer reaches again for the hankies.)

It takes Stoner some time, though, to have the courage to reveal his love of sharing knowledge, “the love he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous.” Like those who write poetry on the sly but suddenly find themselves in a poetry workshop, Stoner experience a feeling of freedom, of having ‘come out,’ and enjoys the confidence it bestows. “He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man. It was a knowledge of which he could not speak, but one which changed him, once he had it, so that no one could mistake its presence.” Stoner’s enthusiasm is solidified through his love affair with Katherine and his realization that all books, all learning, are part of an ongoing conversation about the mysteries of the human condition begun centuries before that will continue long after we are gone and to which, through his book and his students, he has contributed a small part. Therefore at the end of the novel, when he is reflecting back on his life, “It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and that it served no use… yet he knew, a small part of him that he could not deny was there, and would be there.” He honors his parents as Seamus Heaney had, by digging with his pen, cutting his mark into the unforgiving dark earth that, year after year, had extracted its price. Through his teaching he dedicates fruit of the human soul to his students, leaving the soil, the world, a little less barren. As he reaches from his bed to lift his book, he “felt a tingling, as if those pages were alive,” echoing a line earlier in the novel when he’d received the book written by his beloved Katherine, and “his fingers came alive, they trembled so that he could barely open it. He turned the first few pages and saw the dedication.
Love and lust and learning; to be a man or a woman to whom his or her book is true. This is the writer’s secret hope and our public calling. This is why, after we’ve wiped our eyes and blown our noses at the end of Stoner, we rush outside to sing its praises from the rooftops – and the blogs – not only to those who are writers, but also, critically, to those who are not. We’re not simply saying ‘read this,’ we’re saying ‘read this, so you can understand.’

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