Thursday, 29 May 2014

John Williams' Stoner: A review

It is very difficult to come by a negative review of John Williams’ Stoner. Originally published in 1965 in the U.S., the novel apparently went out of print after 2,000 copies had been sold. It was re-issued in 2003 again to little attention. Reader interest mushroomed in 2011 when a very successful French novelist read it in English and had her publisher buy the rights to the translation. On the cover under the title appears “Read, loved, and freely translated by Anna Gavalda”. This past Fall, Stoner was on the bestseller lists in several European countries and Israel and was selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Many reviews by literary figures of note (Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Bret Easton Ellis, Nick Hornby, C.P. Snow, among others) have hailed the merits of this soon-to-be 50 year old novel, and lesser known writers at publications from the Texas Observer to the New Yorker to Der Spiegel have found Williams’ novel compelling in theme, language, and feeling. 

The first thing that reviewers often note is how utterly depressing the events in William Stoner’s life are and the second thing they note is how he experiences deep feelings and sometimes even joy in spite of those events: (major spoiler alert for the duration of this review) his childhood days spent with reticent and joyless parents, his backbreaking labor on a Missouri farm until the age of 18, his penniless days as a university undergraduate and graduate student, his passionless marriage with a wealthy but vindictive woman, his alienation from his only daughter ostensibly largely because of the wife’s machinations, the deaths of his father and mother, his marginalization by the administrative powers that be at the university where he is a professor of English literature, his stunted publishing record, his being forced to leave his mistress because of the plotting of an ideological enemy in his department, and finally his illness and death at precisely the moment when it is most convenient for the departmental plans of that enemy. Then reviewers note how this contrast helps us, the reader, toward a deeper understanding of love, death, disappointment, compassion, and other important concepts and experiences. 

 I, too, find much to commend in Stoner. Williams presents a beautifully clear language with no pretention or arabesque to it, shows an unwavering commitment to representing William Stoner’s inner experience honestly, and imposes an acute sense of passing time that reminds one of the human need to iteratively reflect forward and back in an attempt to find meaning in the episodes of our lives. I would highly recommend reading this novel, because 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, and there is a convincing authenticity to this unfolding in language that is very appealing.

But there are two problems here. The first one is noted by one of the few negative reviewers of this work, the British novelist Alex Preston, who finds the prose “dead” and the novel “dreary.” Preston notes, “Stoner’s academic pursuits are kept entirely separate from the blank misery of his life.” This is not entirely true: Stoner experiences strong emotions when planning the writing of his second book: “he was in the stage of planning his study, and it was that stage which gave him the most pleasure – the selection among alternative approaches, the rejection of certain strategies, the mysteries and uncertainties that lay in unexplored possibilities, the consequences of choice….The possibilities he could see so exhilarated him that he could not keep still” (121), and at the moment of his death, he is not holding the hand of a loved one, but is riffling through his copy of the one book he published: “The tingling came through his fingers and coursed through his flesh and bone; he was minutely aware of it, and he waited until it contained him, until the old excitement that was like terror fixed him where he lay” (278). Stoner also experiences a pervasive and authentic joy while teaching at certain moments: “The love of literature… the loves which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly” (113).

I think the implication of what Preston is saying, though, is right: Stoner may experience positive feelings about working with literature, but any insights he may experience from reading and writing about the finest literature the English, Latin, and Greek traditions have produced do not incite, encourage, mandate, or even gently suggest to him that he make adjustments, small or large, to his own personal life. Remember that long list of awful things that happened to him? With one exception discussed below, not one of them does he do a damn thing about. Indeed, it wasn't even his initiative to go to university in the first place, but the proposition of a county agent looking for good candidates for the agricultural program. It is true that Stoner finds love with a visiting junior instructor (specifically, a woman interested in just his area of research), but the affair occurs more as a result of her initiative than his. 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 own life, what good is it?

One could argue that Stoner’s sense of virtue is his happiness, that he is a Stoic at heart and he doesn’t need literature to help him fix problems that he does not perceive as such. But, really, he is often miserable, and even if he were a Stoic in self-consideration, he is not such in consistency and tenor of response. One could also argue that he does reflect and make changes from time to time. For example, Stoner takes a stand when he discovers that an extremely weak and pretentious graduate student has found a mentor and protector among Stoner's colleagues, and Stoner attempts to block the student from continuing in the doctoral program. But that act stands in bleak isolation in this story, and as soon as the student's faculty supervisor retaliates, Stoner acquiesces. Stoner does not take a stand when the great care he has taken to be a good father to his daughter in her youngest years is completely undermined by his wife’s subsequent directives that leave their teenaged and then adult daughter unable to relate intimately with others and unable to survive without drinking heavily on a daily basis. Shouldn’t a lifelong engagement in reading and commenting on excellent literature allow him to see the merits of choosing the second battle over the first?

The second problem with Stoner, is, I admit, not really the novel’s problem, but more my own wish for this beautifully reflective novel to be something it is not. When I read Lydia Millett, Elizabeth Strout, and Marilynne Robinson, for a few examples, it seems to me that the author loves each character: the characters crucial to the plot, the characters not so crucial, those who appear mainly for comic relief, the characters who care and are long-suffering, the characters who are immoral, the characters who are amoral – these authors, somehow, seem to love them all. In Williams’ novel, it seems to me that the author loves Stoner very much, really likes Gordon Finch and Dave Masters (Stoner’s two best friends), and uses the other characters’ lives to show his love for those who seem to be his favorites. The injustices suffered by Stoner at the hands of his intimates and colleagues seem disappointingly balanced by the lack of depth of characterization and the specter of reduced authorial empathy suffered by all the other characters at the hands of their creator. In spite of these problems, do read the book. The narrative will force you into a vast array of uncomfortable spots, because Stoner finds himself in so many such spots and lets us know how each feels. Despite his great learning, he hasn't a clue as to how to productively approach any of them, and sometimes that's exactly what reality feels like.  

Williams, John. (1965). Stoner. New York: New York Review Books.
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Matthew Woodman said...

Thanks for your coverage of this novel. I have twice tried to finish it, but the protagonist's passivity/stoicism keeps me from being able to truly engage with the narrative. While the novel is written with an objective, clinical precision, it is also a cold book, one that depresses me each time I re-engage.

Rebecca Wells Jopling said...

My guess is that John Williams himself would support your decision not to continue reading a book that doesn't engage you. Williams is reported to have responded in a 1985 interview to the question: "And literature is written to be entertaining?" by responding, "Absolutely. My God, to read without joy is stupid." I think back to all the novels I finished because I unreflectively felt it was the thing to do and realize Williams' insight is absolutely right and liberating for readers. Better to use that time engrossed in a novel one actually enjoys. Thanks for your comment, Matthew.

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