Stoner, by John Williams

“Who are you? A simple son of the soil, as you pretend to yourself? Oh no. You, too, are among the infirm — you are the dreamer, the madman in a madder world, our own midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky. You’re bright enough — brighter anyhow than our mutual friend. But you have the taint old infirmity. You think there’s something here, something to find. Well, in the world, you’ll learn soon enough. You too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world. You’d let it chew you up and spit you out, and you’d lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you’d always expect the world to be something that it wasn’t, something he had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn’t face them and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong. And you have no place to go in the world.”

It started gently at first. I was enjoying the sparse, readable prose. But the more I read, the more involved I became. Taking time to properly read the back cover and its potential spoilers, I was reminded of the bleakness ahead. Suddenly it became unbearable : the unfairness, the cruelty thrown Stoner’s way. I leafed a bit ahead, caught a glimpse of the ending. Something about its peaceful resilience comforted me, and I read on, until the end. I savored the writing.

It is so simple, with ellipses wisely placed. We follow an academic from his modest, agricultural upbringing to his lonely death. He has become a professor, has married, has had a daughter and an affair. But somehow, the loneliness that pervades his life never abates. Williams keeps a distance with his narrative, a fond, empathic one, but a distance nonetheless. His prose is factual, and even his most lyrical parts are somewhat impersonal and this reinforces the bleak loneliness of the life he recounts. It is not a bad thing in my book, I think it was perfectly apt for this story. This is a dissection, a pulling apart of the threads of one man’s life, possibly inspired by the author’s own experience. Williams analyses the twists and turns of Stoner’s life to conclude that this is the way things were meant to be. There is no escape, no solution for a man so out of this world, he has to be crushed by it in the end. All his epiphanies are short lived, and his strong moral compass constantly does him a disservice in our crooked universe.

“Nothing had changed. Their lives had been expanded in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligence numbed. Now they were in the earth to which they had given their lives; and slowly, year by year, the earth would take them.”

I must confess, I am not totally convinced that Stoner was completely innocent, a victim of his too rightful ethos. I think he sometimes chose his battles unwisely, stubborn for trivial matters and bending down too easily when the stakes were high. I think his passiveness amounts to cowardice, and his choosing to privilege the life unfolding in himself hurt the ones he was supposed to care so much about.

But none of this matters in the end, what is important for him when his last hour approaches, is that he knows who he is. This strong sense of self is probably the most striking element of the novel. Stoner discovers his self, his vocation, quite lately; but once he does, well he can endure everything. Loss and injustice can numb his enthusiasm but his mind never breaks because it has found its place and purpose.

In the introduction, it is mentioned that Williams thought his character a “hero” and his life, a “very good” one. I have not yet found the interview from which these quotes are pulled, but I guess if he is a hero, it is in his unwillingness to compromise. If the novel is to be seen as an indictment of the academic milieu and its compromissions, Stoner is the hero that stands against that. Because the university is a sacred sanctuary to him, he is intent on upholding its values at all costs. Unfortunately in other aspects of his life, he gives up too easily.

“Almost without regret he looked at her now; in the soft light of late afternoon her face seemed young and unlined. If I had been stronger, he thought; if I had known more; if I could have understood. And finally, mercilessly, he thought : if I had loved her more.”

He gives up on Edith, his wife, a complex and broken character. The trauma she has suffered is hinted at, even developed in some aspects, and although in parts she is depicted as the vilain, one can’t help but feel empathy for her. A corseted young lady, possibly victim of abuse, she was coerced into passiveness for a long time. When at last she finds her voice, she uses it rashly and somewhat unwisely. And I think in this Stoner does not help her, his fatalistic attitude is a betrayal of his wife, but also (and most acutely) of his daughter, Grace. Not that he was supposed to save Edith, but standing up to her may have helped balance her and also preserved Grace. I guess husband and wife find an understanding in the end anyway. Grace, on the contrary, literally dissolves. A calm and happy girl, she becomes indifferent and drowns her uneasiness in alcohol. Regarding his daughter , I can definitely not see Stoner as a hero. Grace is the victim of her mother’s relentlessness and her father’s fatalism.

“He was glad she had that, at least; he was grateful that she could drink.”

Whatever your opinion on Stoner’s personality, the novel is a wonderful reading experience. Smooth, gentle and rich. Not a lot happens, and yet everything does. Birth, death, and everything in between. The intellectual awakening of Stoner may be the focus, but all the experiences that happen in the background as a result of it are exceptionally well drawn. I am sure this is one that will benefit from rereadings, a gift that will keep on giving.

“So we are of the world, after all; we should have known that. We did know it, I believe, but we had to withdraw a little, pretend a little, so that we could–“

Stoner, published by NYRB in June 2006

Series: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 9781590171998
304 pp

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