Stoner by John Williams

It's all Mr. Waggish's fault.

Since the marvelous book publishing arm of the NY Review of Books reprinted John Williams's little-known novel Stoner, I've noticed mentions of the book here and there, and I had even picked it up a couple of times in bookstores. There was something mysteriously attractive about the cover (part of a Thomas Eakins painting). But I always hesitated because the novel was praised for its realism, and because the central character is an unexceptional professor at the University of Missouri in the first half of the 20th century. (No, the book is not the sort that has a sequel called Pothead. It was published in 1965 and the central character's name is William Stoner.) The people praising the book, I figured, were probably the sorts of people who truly like books about unexceptional professors at midwestern universities. I am not that sort of person.

But then Waggish wrote about it. Mr. Waggish has extraordinarily good taste, is better-read and more intelligent than I, and every book I have sought out because of him has been satisfying (indeed, I owe some of my enthusiasm for Christopher Priest's works to him -- and in a nice bit of overlap, NYRB is bringing out a new edition of Priest's The Inverted World next month with an afterword by John Clute).

So I went out and got a copy of Stoner. And it is, indeed, the most satisfying novel I have read in a long time, a novel that reminds me more of Virginia Woolf than of the realistic academic novels it ostensibly resembles -- regardless of its setting, characters, props, and prose, the experience I had of reading it felt in some ineluctable way like the experience of first reading Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse.

In the introduction to Stoner, John McGahern quotes an interview with Williams by Brian Wooley. "And literature is written to be entertaining?" Wooley asked. "Absolutely," Williams replied. "My God, to read without joy is stupid."

I'm sure that there are many things about reading, writing, and teaching that Williams and I would have disagreed about had we had the opportunity to discuss them (he died in 1994, the year of my high school graduation), but I love that: "My God, to read without joy is stupid."

And the marvelous thing about Stoner is that it is a joy to read, as compelling a novel as any thriller, I think, though certainly in a different, and far more nourishing, way. That this is true is a small miracle, because it is, after all, a novel about an unexceptional professor in the first half of the twentieth century, and it contains many of the basic elements of the most soporific and trivial novels of its genre: skirmishes amongst the faculty, a bad marriage, successes and failures in the classroom, an affair with a student.

Waggish is right that much of what allows Stoner to work so well is its "unremitting gravity", but there are novels about similar characters, settings, and situations where the unremitting gravity succeeds at nothing other than squashing the petty into the trivial. Williams, though, is a master of applying the gravity in the most effective ways: to the details, to the sentences, to the narrative structure. McGahern in his introduction is correct to note that Williams's portraits of his characters are complex and affecting, and that even the minor characters grow vivid in our imaginations. The contexts of those characters' lives are equally important -- the novel begins with Stoner's childhood life on a farm, moves to his life at the university, and glimpses the world beyond that he is isolated from: the world of wars and commerce. Despite his isolation, the world reaches in at him, dropping death and desperation.

When young, Stoner and his only two friends discuss what they think is the purpose of the university. His friend David Masters says, "Stoner, here, I imagine, sees it as a great repository, like a library or a whorehouse, where men come of their free will and select that which will complete them, where all work together like little bees in a common hive. The True, the Good, the Beautiful...." Then Masters offers his own view:
It is an asylum or -- what do they call them now? -- a rest home, for the infirm, the aged, the discontent, and the otherwise incompetent. Look at the three of us -- we are the University. The stranger would not know that we have so much in common, but we know, don't we. We know well.
He then points out what they each have that makes them fit only for the world of the university. Of Stoner, he says:
Who are you? A simple son of the soil, as you pretend to yourself? Oh, no. You, too, are among the infirm -- you are the dreamer, the madman in a madder world, our own midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky. You're bright enough -- brighter anyhow than our mutual friend. But you have the taint, the old infirmity. You think there's something here to find. Well, in the world you'd learn soon enough. You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you'd fight the world. You'd let it chew you up and spit you out, and you'd lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you'd always expect the world to be something it wasn't, something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn't face them, and you couldn't fight them; because you're too weak, and you're too strong. And you have no place in the world."
Not much later, Masters goes out into the world and gets blown to bits by the Great War. Stoner stays in school and lives, but his life takes few truly happy turns. He marries impulsively and badly, he makes an implacable enemy who soon has power over him until nearly the moment of Stoner's death, he finds his only moments of lustful, sensitive joy with a woman who will have to flee from him to save them both.

Yet Stoner is not the tragic character in the book. If there are tragic characters, they are some of the people around him, particularly his wife and daughter. Stoner's talent is his adaptability, his passionate passivity. He loses much of what he has, but at least, for a while, he has it -- his wife and daughter seem never to have anything, though it's only partially Stoner's fault. More than any person, circumstances and society are to blame, and one of the wonders of the book is that even its most vicious characters seem trapped in their roles, helpless against the forces and systems that shape them into who they are. Everyone is marginalized in one way or another and grasping at whatever edge they can crawl across to make their way toward some imagined center.

Stoner, then, is a novel about power and its damages, about figuring out ways to live when you're not cut out to live in the world.

Except there's more to it than that, and reducing the book to its power dynamics is much too reductive indeed. Because even though this is a novel about a man who limits his life to the asylum of the university, it has an expansiveness to it. Part of this expansiveness, this vastness comes from the narration -- while we are mostly stuck inside Stoner's mind and perceptions, we are not limited to his mind alone. Now and then we see things he could not see, and the narrator breaks into omniscience every few chapters. From the very beginning, we are offered Stoner's life as a whole, a kind of bio blurb that is the first paragraph:
William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: "Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues."
The rest of the book will add complexity to this portrait, but will never entirely contradict it (though it becomes clear that there are times when Stoner is a relatively popular teacher). The complexity the following pages add is not simply that of details of Stoner's life, but rather a complexity built from attention and lyricism. Our interests are directed, our attention is manipulated. We discover the individual in what is superficially unexceptional. As Stoner's portrait grows fuller, the words used to create that portrait gain poetry. We slow down and zoom in, and therein the magic lies. Here, for instance, is the end of Chapter XI (of XVII), a paragraph that loses something out of context, but which will, I hope, give a glimpse of the beauties herein:
Once, late, after his evening class, he returned to his office and sat at his desk, trying to read. It was winter, and a snow had fallen during the day, so that the out-of-doors was covered with a white softness. The office was overheated; he opened a window beside the desk so that the cool air might come into the close room. He breathed deeply, and let his eyes wander over the white floor of the campus. On an impulse he switched out the light on his desk and sat in the hot darkness of his office; the cold air filled his lungs, and he leaned toward the open window. He heard the silence of the winter night, and it seemed to him that he somehow felt the sounds that were absorbed by the delicate and intricately cellular being of the snow. Nothing moved upon the whiteness; it was a dead scene, which seemed to pull at him, to suck at his consciousness just as it pulled the sound from the air and buried it within a cold white softness. He felt himself pulled outward toward the whiteness, which spread as far as he could see, and which was a part of the darkness from which it glowed, of the clear and cloudless sky without height or depth. For an instant he felt himself go out of the body that sat motionless before the window; and as he felt himself slip away, everything -- the flat whiteness, the trees, the tall columns, the night, the far stars -- seemed incredibly tiny and far away, as if they were dwindling to a nothingness. Then, behind him, a radiator clanked. He moved, and the scene became itself. With a curiously reluctant relief he again snapped on his desk lamp. He gathered a book and a few papers, went out of the office, walked through the darkened corridors, and let himself out of the wide double doors at the back of Jesse Hall. He walked slowly home, aware of each footstep crunching with muffled loudness in the dry snow.
Though Williams has been compared to Willa Cather, and I can certainly see the comparison, here I again think of Woolf, and this time not the novels, but rather one of the most wondrous essays ever written: "The Death of the Moth". The comparison has something to do with the quality of time, the squeezing of an entire universe of living and dying, breathing and seeing, moving and resting and falling and flying -- squeezing an entire universe into a moment of perception.

There is much else to remark on, much else I would like to quote and celebrate within the book, but I'll stop with a final observation: Stoner's specialty is Medieval literature, and his world is one in which the Medieval (though not only that) assumption that physical characteristics are reflections of interior states is a true one. This is most clear with the character of Stoner's nemesis, Hollis Lomax, who is first described as "a man barely over five feet in height, and his body was grotesquely misshapen. A small hump raised his left shoulder to his neck, and his arm hung laxly at his side." Later, Stoner's entire career will be nearly ruined by his trying to hold a student accountable who has become a favorite of Lomax -- a student who has, Lomax himself says, "an unfortunate physical affliction that would have called forth sympathy in a normal human being." Both men are portrayed as physical and ethical cripples (the word occurs multiple times). Every other character of any importance also possesses physical traits that reflect their personalities, and their bodies change when their personalities do (most strikingly in the case of Stoner's daughter). Names of characters, too, are often suggestive, if not specifically allegorical or ironic (Stoner, his daughter Grace, Masters, etc). In the real world of morality, such ideas are at best quaint, at worst genocidal (phrenology, anyone?), but within the let's-pretend world of a novel, the effect is, if not mitigated, at least mixed with the coherence it provides to the book as a whole: the physical world is an extension of the interior world and vice versa; those worlds are also expressed in the world of all that is named. Within this world -- so realistic on its surface, so much a fantasy when probed -- the signifier and signified are alligned and unified.

Unity is one of the themes of the book, the difficult-to-obtain unity of flesh and spirit, mind and heart -- a unity essential to life. Toward the end of his life, Stoner reflects on the passion that has often seemed to elude him:
Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there. ... 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.

*Or maybe it was just that it's published by NYRB -- I have sometimes bought their books purely because of the packaging. If there were one series of books I could have a complete set of, it would be these. Aside from being tastefully packaged, they are well chosen -- a number of books I've wanted to see back in print have found their way through NYRB. (My edition of J.F. Powers's stories, though, completely fell apart, so I'm a bit skeptical of the bindings of their bigger books, but I've had no trouble with the fewer-than-500-pages ones.)

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