A good deal of media attention has surrounded the recent “rediscovery” of “Stoner: A Novel”, by John Williams, first published in 1965, which languished for a long time out of print. On the back jacket of my copy Julian Barnes is quoted as finding it “A terrific novel of echoing sadness”, and Colum McCann as thinking it “democratic in how it breaks the heart.” This is the sort of pseudo-poetic hyperbole one expects from literary types, but how does the book stand up for the literary nobody who writes this blog?
The novel charts the life of William Stoner, who spends his entire educational and professional career at the University of Missouri. He arrives as a freshman in 1910 and dies there in 1956 as an assistant professor. On the first page the author summarises this working lifetime as follows: “Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.” The author’s apparent intent is to present an outwardly anonymous and undistinguished life, which nevertheless has an intense underlying humanity.
On the evidence of this book there is no doubt that Williams, who died some twenty years ago, was a writer of exceptional skill, power and clarity. The narrative pulls you along, even though little of real moment happens for long periods. But I was increasingly bothered by the passive, almost vacant way in which the central character is tossed to-and-fro by events. Stoner comes from a simple backwoods Missouri farming family whose land is harsh and arid. One day his father suggests that he goes to the state university, at Columbia, to study agriculture, which he does. Having taken a supplementary English literature course, which he’s useless at, he switches his studies from agriculture to English literature under the influence of a peculiar but inspiring teacher. He becomes good at it, and it’s suggested that he might stay on to teach, which he does. It’s suggested that he enlist in the army to fight in the First World War, which he doesn’t do. Then he meets a girl, who he clearly has no rapport with whatsoever, and immediately marries her. As the reader anticipates, their marriage is a disaster, but when his wife wants them to have a child he agrees. His parents die and he buries them in their arid ground, without ever becoming close to them while they were alive.
Something the author writes about Stoner’s wife strikes me as applying rather more to Stoner himself for long stretches of the book: “Her life was invariable, like a low hum…”. Things just seem to happen to him, usually bad ones, and he never seems to consider in advance whether his various life choices are likely to be sound. The very first time he and his intended are alone together, “he felt that they were strangers in a way that he had not thought they would be, and he knew that he was in love.” A rather perverse thought process, one might think. In fact, his wife turns out to be inadequate and malevolent to an almost cartoonish degree. On the suicide of her father, she sets aside every object the man’s ever given her and systematically destroys it. After neglecting her for years, she suddenly takes an oppressively controlling interest in their daughter Grace, purely, it seems, to destroy the previously warm relationship existing between father and daughter. (Though my mother, who’s smarter than me, has an explanation for this: She speculates that the wife was abused by the father as a child – hence her destructive display on his death, and the withdrawal of her own daughter from Stoner in case he should prove an abuser also.) She casts Stoner and all his belongings out of his study, previously his only refuge in their house, and forces him to squat on a leaky glazed-porch with bad temperature control.
Though his pursuit of her was ill-advised in the first place, Stoner’s wife does go into their match voluntarily and it’s not clear why she comes to hate him so much. Despite a conflict with them, it’s also not clear why a student and an academic superior at the university are so hostile to him that they come near to destroying his career at one point. If Stoner has objectionable qualities that attract such ill-feeling, they are never spelled out. Indeed, how Stoner comes across as a personality to others is never made plain. He only ever seems to have had two close (male) friendships, and even these relationships are shown as lacking real intimacy. He seems uninterested in any pastimes or diversions aside from his profession. We are encouraged to think that he feels something elemental about his studies, but the actual business of academia is presented as solidly sterile and unenlightened. Stoner later has a love affair with a colleague, but she does not manage to relieve the “low hum” of his life to any great degree, and their relationship is ended by the nasty academic superior who apparently has an undying antipathy towards Stoner (though, strangely, the superior pays tribute to Stoner on the latter’s retirement, perhaps through guilt?).
I’m afraid that the “echoing sadness” sensed by Julian Barnes in the novel often strikes me as contrived and manipulative, and in my case the novel was not democratic enough to “break the heart” (whatever that over-used phrase might actually mean in the context of simply reading a book). I’m never really sympathetic to William Stoner, nor ever find his wife more than a man-hating caricature. The author apparently wants to present his hero’s as an ordinary life that has a kind of nobility in spite of itself, but in doing so alternates between the mundane and the melodramatic. So, having said all this, I’m not sure why I found the novel such an excellent and compulsive read.