by John Williams
People have been lining up to praise this novel. Press reviewers like the New York Times Book Review ('a perfect novel'), fellow bloggers Kevin From Canada ('may be the most overlooked novelist in American history') and John Self ('quietly magnificent') have been joined by Tom Hanks who was quoted in Time magazine a few months back - 'It’s simply a novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher. But it’s one of the most fascinating things that you’ve ever come across.' The only problem with praise like that is that it can be crippling. First the anxiety - what if I don't like it?! - and then the comfort of assuming it will of course be brilliant and can therefore sit on the shelf until such time as brilliance is required - which means it can sit on the shelf for an awfully long time.
Well, I finally got it down. It is brilliant. Thank god. It is one of those books where the author does nothing less than give you the entire life of the title character. I don't mean literally following him from birth to death, but the kind of rich reading experience where we feel that we have been witness to the essence of a real person. Not all novels do this, even the great ones don't always succeed in pulling it off, but you will recognise the sensation of having to remind yourself that the person you're reading about isn't actually real. The last time it happened properly for me was when I read The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page (incidentally another nyrb classics title) by G.B. Edwards, but that book had the advantage of first-person narration. The third-person narration of Stoner keeps us at the distance of an observer but it is a gap that I often wanted to close down so that I could grab hold of William Stoner, sometimes to give him a shake, other times a hug.
William Stoner was born in 1890 on a small farm near the village of Booneville, Missouri. Born into a life of hard work which has made his father look fifty at the age of thirty, 'stooped by labor', his school lessons were 'chores only somewhat less exhausting than those around the farm.' But when the University in Columbia opens a new College of Agriculture, his parents determine to sacrifice what it will take to send their son there. As part of his course, along with all of the other students, Stoner is required to complete a semester survey of English literature, something that fills him with apprehension. It is under the tutelage of Archer Sloane that his affinity with literature is unlocked and the transition from farmhand to bibliophile begins.
Sometimes he would pause, remove a volume from the shelves and hold it for a moment in his large hands, which tingled at the still unfamiliar feel of spine and board and unresisting page. Then he would leaf through the book, reading a paragraph here and there, his stiff fingers careful as they turned the pages, as if in their clumsiness they might tear and destroy what they took such pains to uncover.
Unknown to his parents at first he switches his courses; science and agriculture are replaced by history, philosophy and literature; he learns basic Greek and Latin in a year; his progress is swift but to what end he doesn't know. It takes Sloane to finally open his eyes to what, for him, is obvious.
"But don't you know, Mr. Stoner?" Sloane asked. "Don't you understand about yourself yet? You're going to be a teacher."The contrast between learning and working the land was well used by Allan Seager in his sadly forgotten novel, Amos Berry, where a poet seeks to understand what might have driven his farmer father to commit a seemingly motiveless shooting. Here it is more about watching the transformation of Stoner, not that of a butterfly or a budding flower, which would be far too romantic, but a man slowly settling into the role that he seems destined for.
Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," Sloane said softly.
"How can you tell? How can you be sure?"
"It's love, Mr. Stoner," Sloane said cheerfully. "You are in love. It's as simple as that."
He suspected that he was beginning, ten years late, to discover who he was...He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book was 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.
Slowly is an important word at this point. The pace of the book is unhurried even though the same number of pages might cover a single event or the passage of several years. The prose is uncluttered, never flashy, but always finding the important gesture or the telling phrase in dialogue. I was reminded of William Maxwell, a similarly patient writer, and his novel Time Will Darken It. By coincidence the first lady of book blogging, dovegreyreader, recently read and reviewed the book here, but it seemed to me that Austin Wright in that book has a similar character flaw that leaves the reader unsure whether he is kind or foolish, passive or well-mannered, weak or restrained. Stoner as we have seen is sent off to university, told what he should become and lives his life within that institution. The one occasion when he can certainly be said to have exercised his will is when he marries Edith Bostwick (and perhaps even then we would have to say that his falling in love is what dictates his choice) and it proves to be a disastrous choice.
His marriage to Edith is one of the most terrifying portraits of married life I have ever read. That may sound terribly dramatic, something along the lines of Martha and George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, when in fact it is almost the opposite. It is a relationship that begins with minimal communication, physical alienation, and the quiet sense that a battle is being fought at all times. Tiny gestures or utterances become significant, loaded with import or meaning. Even the conception of their first child is an act of aggression, one that signals the way in which their daughter will continue to be used as a pawn. The restraint with which Williams charts the constant decline in their relationship is masterful and just one of the fronts on which Stoner is forced to fight during his life. Having used his position to avoid fighting in the war he finds more than enough hostility to make up for it, both at home and within the university. And what makes this quiet conflict all the more heartbreaking is our suspicion that, despite all his faults, Stoner is genuinely driven by a force that we can only call love. Even when circumstance has forced him to shut down, to protect himself, he recognises what has been the common driving force in his life and we realise too that Williams has given us something of an existential hero.
Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there. In his youth he had given it freely, without thought; he had given it to the knowledge that had been revealed to him - how many years ago? - by Archer Sloane; he had given it to Edith, in those first blind foolish days of his courtship and marriage; and he had given it to Katherine, as if it had never been given before. He 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. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.
Stoner is one of those books that you immediately feel you could recommend to a wide range of readers, each of whom would find something different to specifically connect to. Its universal appeal comes from the humanity contained within. For either of those reasons I urge you to read it too.