John Williams’ “Stoner”

by Jess

I was unaware of the hubbub surrounding the reprint of Williams’ novel Stoner until a recent Google search for reviews and information about the book. Regrettably, I had never heard of the author or the novel, and I only picked it up because it is this month’s book club selection. On second thought, though, perhaps not so regrettably. After all, that’s the way we discover new (new to us, anyway) works of literature, isn’t it? It’s a bit like marveling at a glorious, clear night sky; you’re hardly the first person to experience the magnitude of the heavens, but that doesn’t detract from your personal sense of wonder and awe.

I apologize for waxing a bit poetic. I’m sitting here on a lovely warm November afternoon, having tea and Welsh cheddar and figs, and I’ll have written two (2!) whole blog posts this week, which is a feat I don’t accomplish very often anymore, and, well, I’m just feeling fine.

So, Stoner. The book is named for the protagonist, one William Stoner, a Missouri farm boy turned English professor. Everything about him seems slow, stoic, emotionless. When Stoner is still a student, his mentor-professor, Archer Sloane, asks him to explain Shakespeare’s seventy-third sonnet (significantly, Williams reprints for us the poem in its entirety, the “bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang,” the “glowing of such fire, that on the ashes of his youth doth lie”), and we read: “Stoner’s eyes lifted slowly and reluctantly. ‘It means,’ he said, and with a small movement raised his hands up toward the air; he felt his eyes glaze over as they sought the figure of Archer Sloane. ‘It means,’ he said again, and could not finish what he had begun to say.” Yet Stoner falls in love with literature, though he is aware throughout his teaching career that he rarely manages to adequately convey his passion. It’s something that just inhabits him. “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.”

The desolation of Stoner’s lonely childhood and early years of higher education were particularly affecting to me. I felt a lump in my throat at nearly every scene where Stoner interacts with his parents: when they decide to send him to the agricultural program at the University of Missouri, when he tells them that he has switched to the English program, when he marries, and, much later, when they die. I would excerpt some of the scenes for you, but it really takes the full weight of Williams’ prose to see the scene so vividly and to feel the raw emotion so intensely. Similarly, some of the scenes with his loveless wife Edith are like the blows of a hammer. Yet, as Morris Dickstein points out in his very excellent New York Times review: “few stories this sad could be so secretly triumphant, or so exhilarating. Williams brings to Stoner’s fate a quality of attention, a rare empathy, that shows us why this unassuming life was worth living.”

I saw someone compare Williams’ clear, clean prose to paintings by Edward Hopper. I think the NYRB did well when they chose a portion of Thomas Eakins‘ painting “The Thinker” for the cover art. Eakins’ work is somewhat darker in tone than Hopper’s, which I think is fitting for the novel. Because it is painfully depressing at times–buoyed up here and there by moments of beauty or lightheartedness, like when Stoner begins teaching graduate-level Medieval rhetoric to his freshman comp class. And as always, it is borne along on the fresh stream of Williams’ beautiful writing. There are quite a few excerpts from the novel at this blog. I agree with some comments I read online that Williams has a few irritating habits, such as the way he summarizes a great deal of action, or the way he uses, “Stoner said something,” in place of actual dialog. But these are quibbles. As Laura Benedict discovered, the novel is easily forgiven for any real or imagined faults.

I am grateful to have read this novel. It is a quiet and very moving depiction of one man’s life. Dickstein goes so far as to call Stoner “something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.” (Incidentally, he calls it the only real successor to Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, and the coincidence of my having discovered both of these novels just in the past couple of months is very amusing to me.) I think you will find Stoner to be a very rewarding experience, best read under a nighttime sky of sparkling stars.

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