Stoner by John Williams
(New York Review of Books)


I recently read John Williams’s fifty-year-old novel Stoner. William Stoner is born into a Missouri farm family at the end of the nineteenth century and eventually enters college to study agronomy. He ends up being inspired by his professor and falls in love with literature. He later becomes a literature professor at the same university. Through a series of ordinary experiences throughout his very ordinary life, we come to know and feel for Stoner, in spite of the fact that as discerning readers we know he could have made several different, wiser decisions along the way. What we glean from Stoner himself is the deeply rooted desire to study and teach literature, to live in the world of books, to embrace and take pleasure in what is ultimately a solitary existence. Although he meets and falls in love with the girl he later marries, has a daughter, and goes through a number of other natural human experiences, he is almost always distant (his wife is no better, really), and seems fearful of, even indifferent to, the necessary evil of confrontation to redirect the waters of his life so that he won’t come out feeling like his life had no purpose or value, that he has nothing to show for it when Death takes him, which it eventually does.

This novel hit me on several levels, least of which is the narrative technique (third-person objective) that of late I have become so enamored of. I think the best narrator is one who keeps his thoughts to himself. The beauty of a neutral narrator who observes and records a character’s life and world without intruding is that he/she perceives without interfering in our reading, in our interpretation/judgment of and relationship with the characters, and the author is akin to God as creator, who has given us the tools to live and survive, to make something of ourselves, who has made us sufficient to stand, yet free to fall. The story of our lives, as of every multidimensional character in fiction, is one in which we must connect with others, create and maintain intimate relationships and friendships outside our family, beyond the walls of the great halls and classrooms of university life, and face head-on the tragic-comic beauty of the human condition’s complexity within both the private, domestic sphere and the social, public sphere.

William Stoner is wholly unwillingly to do this. He is full of fear and indifference, and only raises a row when the literature department is about to let a young, egotistical graduate student continue on and obtain his doctorate, despite his heated protestations as to the student’s professionalism. By letting this student, who he sees as unfit to teach the depths and beauties of literature, continue on with his degree, Stoner sees the sacred world of literature, which is his oxygen, slowly becoming tainted and degraded; he perceives the dream-filled solitude in which aging male professors engage with the literary word as gradually becoming defiled, a ruin, a utopia fallen into the dust, because of this young man, who is a symbol of the younger generation’s lack of decorum and true appreciation for literature.

The unfortunate truth, however, that Stoner seems never to register, is that the solitary life within the walls of the university that he dreams of, wherein he kneels and worships at the altar of language and literature, studying it with a profoundly philosophical mind, is an illusion, a utopia that doesn’t exist despite his poor efforts to make it a reality. In his necessary interactions with students and fellow professors (for this is part of the work of being a professor, which involves more than just sitting and reading a text in one’s office) as well as outsiders and his own family, he is forced to live in the real world each day, despite his desire to have it otherwise. And the real world is a place in which we must fight but also compromise, communicate and listen, but these are realities Stoner has no wish to bend his will and his illusions to.

Stoner’s singular devotion to literature comes at the expense of his marriage, his relationship with his daughter, and his relationship with pretty much everyone, including the former student with whom he has an affair, who later becomes a professor as well. Barring the fact that his wife, Edith, is a miserable wretch, Stoner’s indifference to everything and everyone beyond the imaginary border of books (except his daughter, with whom in her childhood he shares a happy solitude in his study), along with his romantic vision of the university life, is the catalyst behind his failures and disappointments in life. Stoner’s desire to cut a figure of solitude and to have literature alone as his companion (one that is an endless river of words but remains eternally silent) leads him to live an unhappy, dull life that is void of communion and communication with all but his beloved literary word and its world. Stoner has no care for the world or for human society, and so the world and society have no concern for him. What you put into the world you will receive, and Stoner seems to put nothing but his own sterile dream of being forever surrounded by an unscalable fortress of words.

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