Thursday, January 02, 2014

Stoner by John Williams

"Stoner" was 2013's literary sensation, a bestseller across Europe - firstly in France - of a book that was first published in 1965. It tells the story of William Stoner, a bright boy from a poor farming family who becomes a student at the University of Missouri in 1910. His family want the best for him, but he initially goes to the university to study agricultural methods. During his first year there he takes a class in English Literature, and can't begin to understand it - and in that gap of understanding comes a lifelong passion, that sees him drop his original Major to study a field of the relatively arcane. His Professor realises that his love of the subject is ideal for further study, and this he duly undertakes, becoming a graduate student, then a tutor, and then a tenured academic at the same institution. He lives through the first half and a bit of the 20th century and Williams tells us the story of his life.

Emerson once wrote that the "mass of men live lives of quiet desperation" and William Stoner is unknowingly one of Emerson's sons. Yet, he has found a place in the world - even if its one that exists somewhat outside of the world, in the cloistered ivory tower of a University. Though the 20th century is there in backdrop - both World Wars take someone from his life, whilst the 1929 crash impoverishes and destroys his father-in-law - Williams wants to give us a very different kind of novel. This is a "campus" novel only in terms of its subject. Stoner's commitment to his work - to his vocation - is almost religious in its intensity, even as it becomes humdrum or distancing. We see his life in intense psychological detail - a sort of localised third person, which occasional strays to the perspective of others, but always comes back. His subject - the influence of the classical on renaissance literature is deliberately arcane, and when a particular student - a chancer who has no love or knowledge of the subject, but a great way of bluffing his way through - calls into question whether or not ancient figures can really be "influences" on greats like Shakespeare who may not have read them, there's a positioning of opposite worlds. If Stoner has echoes of a Casaubon, poring over his arcane texts, in reality Williams is giving us a character study of a minor hero in the midst of a dreadful century. Stoner is a toiler, not just in terms of understanding knowledge - but, as a teacher for 40 years, his research neglected as he falls foul of the University's politics - a disseminator of knowledge to generation upon generation of students. It is this quiet dignity that Williams so successful gets over; yet we are being asked not to just applaud this toil, but to wonder what kind of man Stoner was.

For this is a life story where the incident is slight. Like the brothers in Chatwin's "On the Black Hill" he rarely leaves home; and poor choices in terms of marriage and his stubborness about playing at University politics, means that his life is one that hardly deserves a telling - and that is Williams' brilliance in this quiet novel. For here is a life that at the very beginning he points out would not seem much to the younger colleagues and students that knew him, yet is as valid of our attention as that of a more heroic creature. Although there is something Jamesian about his accumulation of the psychological detail of Stoner's life, I'm also reminded, particularly in the first half of the novel, of Sherwood Anderson's small town America in "Winesburg, Ohio." Here too is a life that is not so much constrained by events, as unaware that it has any chains. Yet, Stoner himself is a strange amalgam of the determined and the devastated. Like many a self-made man, it is his lack of a sense of entitlement that sees him stay with Edith, his distant, mentally-unstable wife; or fall stubbornly foul of the English department's manipulative head, Lomax. If this was the American century, Willy Stoner sees very little of it. There's not a mention of any of the usual signs of modernity - cars, films, travel - and like Ishiguro's butler, we have not so much an everyman as a dogmatic loner.

Is Stoner a good man? The reader certainly roots for him; yet also despairs a little as he lets life happen to him - for in many ways he's selfish and unbending. His lack of communication at crucial points seems almost pathological - yet a contemporary anti-hero like Walter White in "Breaking Bad" has some similarities you feel. Here's a man trying to keep the one pure thing in his life - this love of a particular subject of human knowledge - against the crassness of the world. It is a heroism of sorts, even if he's well aware that what he's added to the world is so much less than he had hoped.

Williams is a sprightly writer, elegant sentences are on every page, and if there's an occasional Jamesian hubris to certain sections, its quickly shaken off. The novel, in many ways, is anti-modern - and I wonder whether this was both part of its relative obscurity, and it now returning to unexpected popularity? There's not a linguistic trick in the whole book. You can see why writers like McEwan, Barnes and McGahern have praised it, for it seems to be the kind of natural morality tale that our post-ironic age will hardly allow anymore, yet which books like "On Chesil Beach" struggled to achieve.

Its in many ways a sad book. For Stoner's life is one that seems curiously unemotional - a life of duty and dedication, in a world where such virtues are still preached but are out of fashion. When his old friend never comes back from the war, or his grown up daughter becomes an alcoholic, there's no sense of a world that could have been changed. In this - Stoner's the coldest of cold fish's, yet Williams portrays this man without sentiment; an everyman, yes, but also a unique man. In this sense its a highly humanist novel (is it notable that religion is entirely absent from these pages?)

One can only wonder at our need for such unadorned stories in the second decade of the 21st century, but having read it in a single sitting, I think "Stoner" resonates because its simply an excellently written novel, a quiet, powerful tale, that's perhaps more relevant now than when it was written half a century ago.

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