Stoner Again

It is the most marvelous discovery for everyone who loves literature. Ian McEwan

Stoner by John Williams is a great favorite of mine. The novel isn’t widely read in this country. In contrast, Steve Almond reports (Times 4/11/14) that last year it topped the best seller list in Europe. It was prominently displayed in every bookstore I visited in Europe this summer. And a recent review by Keith Oatley may spark some interest in this country.

Although Oatley, like everyone else recognizes how depressing the novel is, he admires Williams’ skill in describing Stoner’s deep feelings, even occasional joy in spite of the tragedies in his life. “…Williams has a strong sense of the importance of actually telling us the subtleties of what Stoner is feeling; he is not embarrassed to call emotions by their names and to linger over them…”

I have read the novel twice and blogged about it each time and will no doubt read it again. After my first reading I wrote that it was one of the saddest novels I’ve ever read. It is also, as one reviewer put it a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.” Another called it a “joy to read.”

William Stoner was raised on a farm in Missouri that was a constant struggle to maintain. He entered college to learn modern agricultural techniques. Early on he was so profoundly moved by a course on Shakespeare that he decided to change his studies to literature.

“But the required survey of English literature troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before.”

“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.”

After completing graduate studies he became a teacher of English at the University of Missouri. From the beginning though he found it difficult to establish himself in the department and gain the respect of his students and colleagues.

Stoner never advanced beyond the assistant professor level, although there were times when he was a rather popular teacher. Yet he was held back by a bitter dispute with another member of the department who also had the power to expose a close and deeply felt relationship Stoner had with one of his students.

“Lust and learning, Katherine [the student] once said. That’s really all there is, isn’t it?”

His life took few truly happy turns. His marriage soon grew stale: “In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one persona attempts to know another.”

After he dies, Stoner is scarcely remembered by those in his department: “Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.”

Stoner wanted so much out of life. He loved his work, the books he treasured in the library and the great pleasure in spending hours there, he cherished the joy that literature brought to his life. And yet he knew that “what he wished was impossible, and the knowledge saddened him.”

He knew that it was the love of a thing that was essential and that he truly loved the life he led. He knew that without that kind of devotion no one would ever achieve any degree of distinction. He never abandoned this belief and so through it all he had retained to the full his integrity.

Stoner seems rather passive in tackling head on his misfortunes and, in his review, Oatley complains that he sits back, takes his punches and hasn’t a clue to how to overcome them. He asks: “If reading literature does not allow us to more clearly, or more economically, or more thoroughly, or more compassionately think through and take action in our life, what good is it?” An excellent question.

After my second reading I was led to wonder why we don’t hear more about Stoner? I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who has read it or seen more than a handful of commentators write about.

C. P. Snow’s explanation is that “…we live in a peculiarly silly age and it doesn’t fit the triviality of the day.” Earlier he said, “Very few novels in English, or literary productions of any kind, have come anywhere near its level for human wisdom or as a work of art.”

There is something else about Stoner that led me to feel similarly moved. It has nothing to do with its structure or how it was written or the fact that Stoner’s life in the university bore a certain similarity to my own. Rather it was the way in which literature transformed his life, gave him a new life and identity.

“His teaching excels not because he is brilliant of creative, or flashing—none of which he is, as the novel shows—but because he is witness to such a consciousness and is dedicated to the literature that has brought it into being and because he demands much of his students.”

Note: In an interview a few years before he died, John Williams said he viewed Stoner as a "real hero." A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad... life. I think he had a very good life...He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important.