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Stoner by John Williams – my review


John Williams


Republished by the New York Review of Books in 2003


Williams Stoner939Stoner’ by John Williams reads like admiring the smooth patina of a dessert meringue doused in maple syrup, and then seeing it devoured by a pack of hungry hyenas. It is a fine novel, told with the utmost elegance and gravity, and with a gentlemanly undertone of destruction. And I could not put it down.

Williams recounts the slow story of a man whom he sentences to a life of insignificance from the first page on, and yet he is able to make it absolutely riveting. The novel has a stark, unremitting elegance, and follows an essentials-only line. Stoner is someone whom you could admire for his stoic, assiduous and gentlemanly qualities as he plucks his way through post-war America, gently, like not wanting to be noticed, not wanting to crack a twig on the forest floor; as with the novel, so has Stoner slipped through history like a flitting shadow on the wall of his school campus, and only now is he revealed as a contender for being the statue of his time.

As much as I liked its prose and the careful rendering of a portrait of society, I cannot deny having some nagging problems with the style in which the story was written. Whatever these problems may be, I have decided that it is okay to admire something for its contributions to literature and to also have trouble, at times, with the use of language or the plot-rendering style. I’ll make the effort to just get some order into those ideas, here on paper.

What I deeply admire in this novel, is the character William Stoner. He is a gentleman and a peacemaker. He pursues his calling in life with religious duty; he lives a private life with his work. He is a peacemaker because no person that tries to unsettle his devotion to literature and teaching will succeed. He is a benign man. Every assault by his attackers, these being mainly his wife Edith and English department chairman Hollis Lomax, is absorbed like the sea absorbs the sand without complaint. Stoner just carries on with the plodding perseverance of a labourer with a true love for his work, waving the onslaught of these people away as if they were bothersome flies around his head. The certainty of this character is both a central theme and an excellent unassuming quality. With his grace he renders his enemies defenceless. In the end, they all have to give up.

With regard to style, the wonderful thing about this novel is how it uses all manner of sensual experience to express the protagonist’s world: visual, kinetic, audial. On one hand the story comes across like a painting by Edward Hopper. I found myself ‘gazing’ at the scenes that the words were making me visualize. I could feel the heat coming off of those white walls soaked in summer sunlight, where he walked. The passage in which Stoner is confronted by Archer Sloane during a lecture in his early years as a student, and he realises that he is enthralled and mystified by language and literature, is a good example of this sensuality:

“He looked away from Sloane about the room. Light slanted from the windows and settled upon the faces of his fellow students, so that the illumination seemed to come from within them and go out against a dimness; a student blinked and a thin shadow fell upon a cheek whose down had caught the sunlight. Stoner became aware that his fingers were unclenching their hard grip on his desk-top.”

(Stoner, J. Williams, NYRB, 2003, p 13)

Complementing the character in his loveless tale, the storyline has a bare-essential elegance about it. Stoner lives his life with elegance and good form despite all his grievances. And it is these same qualities that are conjured up in the reader as we unravel his story. The setbacks do not make a bad man of Stoner, he just carries on. Those who wage war against him are left frustrated to the point of agony: no matter what Edith does – spend months in bed without apparent illness, buy a house on his name, chase him out of his study, mutilate his manuscript – nothing gives Edith the satisfaction she wants: to see him suffer within; he does not. Stoner maintains his integrity throughout. All the visualisations and images that the book evoked had one thing in common with the major theme: that of essential and unforced well-mannered-ness.

Only in one instance does Stoner turn from his forever passive role in life to an active one: in the case of the arrogant student Charles Walker. The young imposter brings on a true vehement reaction in Stoner, who opposes Walker with a passion beyond himself. This is remarkable for its being almost ‘out of character’: in his interaction with Walker, Stoner is not representing himself, but instead stands up for the relationship between a faculty, its curriculum and their relationship to the student. It is all third person; as Stoner sees it, it has nothing to do with him. The moment he senses that Charles Walker is bluffing his way through university, he gets into action, regardless of what the consequences may entail for him personally. In a talk with his friend Gordon Finch, Stoner says:

“It’s not a matter of my saving face, Gordon. […] It’s Walker. It would be a disaster to let him loose in a classroom.” (p167)

It is a great book, but what stops me believing that a masterpiece has been unearthed from the archives of literature with this book? My problems with this novel are in first line the ‘and-then-and-then-and-then’ quality of the prose. A new passage will start with: “And it all worked out as Edith planned” (p 242), or “When she was seventeen years old…another transformation came upon her.” (p 236) A new chapter can start with “And he had not heard the last of it.” (p 149) This somewhat clumsy way of introducing new developments is further enhanced by passages that pre-empt the next turn the story will take. For instance, after Stoner’s scuffle with Lomax about him failing Charles Walker, Lomax bears a bitterness toward Stoner, refusing to ever speak to him again. (“I want to have nothing to do with you at all. And I will not pretend otherwise.” (p 177) The reader is left thinking Will they ever talk again? We can of course be held in suspense as to if this will hold true. Unfortunately, several lines later, Williams lets us know:

“And for more than twenty years neither man was to speak again directly to the other.” (p 177)

This, in my opinion, is like a spoiler, and the book is riddled with them. I think it is safe to assume that a reader will have the necessary patience to see for himself. We will read and we will wait to see how events will transpire. In fact, I believe that unravelling the implications of a story should be a task reserved for the reader. It is the work we have to do – to see through perhaps vague and literary implications, discover the underlying cohesion, and arrive at our own conclusions. In a passage about how Edith uses her daughter to undermine her husband:

“This assault lasted less than a month; then Edith dropped her campaign and began the long slow journey to where she obscurely was going. But the effects of the assault upon Grace were out of proportion to its duration. After the assault, she spent nearly all her free time alone in her room…” (p 235)

Besides a slightly clumsy repetition of the word ‘assault’, Williams reveals too much about his story’s direction. When Grace returns home as an adult with a drinking problem a similar style is used:

“Though Edith did not suspect it or would not admit it, Grace had, Stoner knew, begun to drink with a quiet seriousness.” (p 246)

However loyal Williams is to his Stoner, on two occasions this novel makes a shift of point of view, shifting from Stoner’s p.o.v to that of his wife. This struck me as odd. For almost all of its pages, Williams follows his insufferable protagonist’s every move, every sensation, every deliberation, to then privately follow Edith, in two scenes. The first, after they move into the apartment together and Stoner has gone to work one morning, we stay with Edith, whose body is changing. Years later, Edith’s father dies, and she visits her mother at her family home. Again, we follow Edith into her childhood room where she burns some of her old things and undergoes change. Stoner did not accompany on the journey. For all his merits, Williams seems not to be able to find any other way of incorporating the changes that occurred in Edith successfully as seen from Stoner’s point of view. But this is not entirely true: When she returns to her husband and daughter from the trip there is a very strong scene in which Edith appears in a new style of clothing, wearing lipstick, and has taught herself to smoke. That passage had me on the edge of my seat, wondering what this scary, brutal woman was going to do next. In my opinion it thoroughly sufficed in convincing me that a change had taken place, with or without knowing that she had burned her dolls, etc.

“Edith laughed and got up from the floor; she whirled around, holding her hands above her head. “I have a new dress and new shoes a new hair-do. Do you like them?” Grace nodded dubiously. “You look different,” she said again. Edith’s smile widened; there was a pale smear of lipstick on one of her teeth. She turned to William and asked, “Do I look different?” (p 144)

I do not mean to trash John Williams’ Stoner. In fact, I really enjoyed it. There were no lines in which he deliberately revealed Edith’s true, underlying motives for being such an abominably self-centred woman – you decide on that yourself. Nowhere does it say that Lomax despised Stoner for flunking the physically disabled pupil Walker, with whom Lomax most certainly would have identified due to his own disability. These things are assumed, in telling, indirectly. Having finished it, I now already miss the comfort of its uncomplaining starkness. The chief accomplishment here, in my opinion, is the rendering of what otherwise may be called a story of misery, as a tale of endurance of love in an opposing world, of elegance where others fall prey to the sandcastles of their crumbling respectability. There is no misery here, just a man.

Amber Nowak

Delft, the Netherlands, April 2013.

Cover picture of the NYRB edition: Detail of ‘The Thinker, Portrait of Louis N. Kenton’ Thomas Eakins, 1900.

Pan’s Labyrinth (del Toro, 2006)

Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro 2006)

“A beautiful film!” said my friend Kees while I shrunk away into my cinema seat during a snippet of this bizarre film at our local art house cinema. A grotesque inhuman figure with eyes in his hands staggers after a small girl. If it had not been Kees I should not have believed it, but with his predicate I took the leap into a kind of film I would normally take the trouble to avoid. So doing, I now have discovered a real jewel of a film. I recommend this film!

Pan’s Labyrinth cleverly interweaves the hefty and strange imaginations of a little girl who must endure the Second World War in Spain as step-daughter to a fascist general. Out of sheer helplessness and fear she produces a character of her own creation (Pan) who is supposed help her and her mother out of the mess they’re in. How the pure and intelligent fantasies of a girl can be transformed by the insecurities of war is the thoroughly captivating central theme in this special production. She is the “Alice” of wartime.

My main apprehension regarding films with such vividly disturbing scenes, is that the director may be using violence casually, to appeal to a certain market. This is certainly not the case here. For me, this is a true piece of art, telling a legitimate story. Once I realized it, I was able to trust it as such. With the due further unease I accepted the grotesque and inhuman world that is HER WORLD. I realized that the source of her nightmare was the inhumanity and insecurity of war.

This film is not for children, or for the faint hearted, it must be said. The particularly violent murder of a peasant at the start of the film ensures you know who is good and who is bad here. If you can get over all of this, you may realize that it is not in her fantasy world that damage is done in this story, but rather in the real world around her, indeed: in our world.

Ivana Baquero and Doug Jones as ‘Pan’.






BANKSY – “Exit through the gift shop” 2010

A film about camera-holder Thierry “Mr Brainwash” Guetta: “It was behind my wildest expectations.

A film about Banksy – made by Banksy? My suspicion was soon kindled: a man who has carefully shielded his own identity from the public eye because his work speaks for itself; Banksy, who celebrates his right to perform Street Art – the perfect, uncensored medium, in his barely legal way, does not have a use for film to reach his audience to propagate his own material.

But the medium of film was useful now in another way, even if Banksy would only feature in the margin (with hoodie to darken his face), as narrator to the unfolding of a bizarre story. The story of ‘an accident’; a sort of fairy tale ‘gone wrong’. Because, it comes across like a bit of a foul joke when a good-natured, ForrestGump-ish-type character unwittingly does a scoop on the Street Art movement, leaving the genuine rebel artists at a bit of a loss for exactly had happened to their art form’s validity.

Exit through the gift shop’ is the story of how hapless Frenchman Thierry “Mr. Brainwash” Guetta, who started out as  side-kick cameraman to the sharpest, edge-seeking international graffiti artists of our day, and ended up causing a sensation in the art world of L.A. by imitating their iconoclastic style. And Andy Warhol’s. And just about anybody’s, who had produced anything worthwhile in pop culture in the last 30 years.

Thierry Guetta underwent transformation. He laid down his camera (thank GOD!), dubbed himself Mr. Brainwash”, and went forth to seize the former CBS-studios as location for a bombastic art event – “Life is Beautiful” – at which he claimed international recognition. Things had gotten a little carried away. But, funnily enough, he didn’t mean anybody harm. After all, the guy believed he was only acting on assignment. Banksy had tentatively said, ‘he should try it’.  But Thierry Guetta took that as an endorsing invitation, and seemed to think Banksy, Shepard Fairey and their peers had given him license to be an artist of the same rebel genre. Like the locksmith says to his son: “Son, one day you also will be a locksmith”.

The “ouevre” of Thierry Guetta was gargantuan. Hundreds of poster pop art paintings, installations and sculptures filled the endless halls. Well-willing assistants worked themselves into a stupor to realize the epic proportions of Guetta’s vision, a man who would sell millions’ worth of this “art”, and make an international name for himself, even landing an assignment designing Madonna’s latest cd cover (what makes her the authority on whats art?). The posse pushed their caps back and scratched their heads, wondering what had happened to the funny guy who had been following them around the last few years with a camera. Nobody could put their finger on what was the matter with this man’s success. So, they made a film about it, as if to ask us, the public, what we may think?

Well, I came out of the Theatre (‘Filmhuis Lumen’, Delft, Netherlands) feeling a little seasick after having been exposed to Guetta’s reeling footage, but quite arrested by the question at hand:

Why was he not really an artist?? Why could his success with the public not be celebrated by Banksy and his peers?

Well, my version of what ‘went wrong’ is this: Guetta showed genuine faith and loyalty to the art form. He understood and could appreciate the work they did. In his own simple way. He could see it; and when he started making it, he could emulate it, but he was not capable of producing anything original. It was the height of mimicry; he was posing as an artist, mistaking emulation for the goal.

The man had no sense of the concept of intellectual property, at all.

Who could have known that with a little push like that the man would leap so far? He had complete faith in their blessing; thought he was doing what they had destined him to do. It was a simple formula; a calling. And by discharging an enormous amount of material into circulation MBW exhausted the possible repertoire of the iconoclastic protagonist in one foul siege. Or at very least, defined fake art. ‘Exit through the gift shop’ is like a modern version of fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

Mention I must, that without his association to true artists like Banksy, OBEY and Invader, the man would still be Mr. Nobody.

It is in a sense perhaps even a blessing for Banksy and his posse: they can now accelerate into new fields, leaving MBW to run the media hype, and distract the ‘easily impressed’. This incident may narrow down Banksy’s followers to those who defy hype-boundaries and have true appreciation of an ever-rising rebellion against the mediocrity of mainstream social indulgence. I think that Guetta never suspected what the genuine motivation is for any of the artists that he knew by name, by profession, and whom he followed around. The sharp social observer that Banksy is, and the talent he has to put his interpretation of distinct social and political relationships into an available art form, will be the focus of any free-thinker, anarchist, and true believer. And it is free of charge. (Thank you!!) The mass-art consumer will go to Thierry Guetta, and that is fine.

Carry on, Banksy, you are the genuine article, and are also my voice in the streets.


The following is the opinion of “KIDPEN” Posted On: Thursday, Jun. 19 2008 @ 11:01AMplaced on the forum of the LA weekly Blog. Sorry, that I do not have your permission to reprint your opinion here, Kidpen. If you find yourself, please contact me. I think your opinion is spot on, and I take the liberty of sharing it on my space. Thanks.

Kidpen says:

Banal, boring, self indulgent, sensationalist “art” for the lazy, hipster masses. “Lets keep everyone in line for 2 hours for no good reason so that this show looks like it’s really important and relevant….”
On the street Mr Brainwashes graf’ is fleetingly diverting and mildly entertaining, in this space it’s overblown and dull. We’re told it’s “the bomb right now” so here everyone goes. We just love waiting in line in Hollywood for everyone to see, don’t we hipster masses ? – makes us feel like we’re important and that we’re not really sucking the cock of ‘The Man’ but really, we’re not and we are.

This show says nothing new about the frankly scary consumerist culture we are living through. The work is shallow, forgettable and lazy. Wake up people!

When are you gonna take off your fake wayfarers, wipe the sleep from your eyes and see that this isn’t good art. It’s pointless and insulting. One trick pony stuff that’s meant to speak to us about the culture we live in. There’s more important art in to be found in Ralphs and no watered-down Vodka.

But go and see it. You can whizz round it in 5 minutes, see everything, feel all cultured and sh*t then go down the road to Amoeba and listen to the real thing. David Bowie IS art – don’t accept a badly painted picture of Aladdin Sane. We should be wanting MORE out of our privileged artists and not accepting this vapid rubbish.

THANKS, Kidpen.


Until the End of the World – Wim Wenders 1991

Until the End of the World is German film director Wim Wender’s epic road movie – which came out at the beginning of the nineties and captured my heart for all my years of intense travelling. It is one of those films I would call a Real film. It drags you in to a surreal, impressionistic atmosphere set in a future which convinces easily due to understated acting and the deliberately casual way it deals with ‘new’ technology. Technology we now take for granted.

The delightfully imagined appliances come surprisingly close to the truth, with the added effect that no consideration is made to keep them clean, in a Star Trek kind of way. The world portrayed in ‘Until the End of the World’ is motley, wayward, apocalyptic, and the use of technology is brute; it can get dirty, is handled casually, but loved. In my opinion Wenders manages to accurately foresee how we would cherish and make use of technology to enhance our human activities. However, the main emphasis of the story stays close to human issues, desires, plight and joy.

The introduction to the film came by my good friend Gavin, in a video shop on Rockey Street, Yeoville, which is a very rough neighbourhood in Johannesburg. “This is one to watch”, he said. That was it. I saw the face of William Hurt on the cover, and had pleasant memories of ‘The Big Chill’, so I grabbed it. Since then, there have been occasions that I hired it in a random city, to watch at someone’s house, and was confronted with footage on the tape I had never seen before. Slowly, the story unfolded itself to me: it turns out, when watching the Warner Brothers version, you only ever see the tip of the iceberg: Wenders shot enough footage to make an 8-hour movie experience. The commercial value of such a long film may be slender, but Wenders must have been having absolute ball. Apparently he ran out of money before being able to cross over to Africa, and shoot in the Congo.

I was shocked to read on internet that Solveig Dommartin died of a heart attack at age 47. She was the wonderful, wise and wild leading female part in “Until the End of the World”. Dommartin was really special; her eyes; that secret smile, speaking English with a strong but elegant Euro-German accent (she was French), her moves. When I saw the film or listened to its fantastic soundtrack, I always ‘was’ her. Dommartin was never an icon, but she looked fantastic in the Australian desert with that hat on, and the flowing, brown skirt, face round and shining like a moon, wild shock of blond curls.

The foreboding apocalyptic scenario, caused by a nuclear satellite out of control orbiting the earth, set in a (then) future 1999, to a raging, tailor made soundtrack by some of the hottest rock and protopunk artists of the 1980’s, help superbly in releasing all one’s contrived ideas about the comfort of civil solitude. Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, U2, Neneh Cherry, Peter Gabriel, Patti Smith, just to name a few, actually sat down on assignment by Wim Wenders, and penned a song AS THEY COULD IMAGINE THEMSELVES WRITING EIGHT YEARS IN THE FUTURE, produced exclusively for this film. That in itself goes down as a superb idea, now doesn’t it?

I was satisfied with just 2 and a half hours’ worth of futuristic travel epic across 4 or 5 continents. I was living that kind of life at the time. For many years this film was the visual and soundtrack of my life. It is impossible for me to write down, with any accuracy, the feelings that I get when watching this film. Perhaps, I muse, this is where film as a medium comes in, made sublimely complete with accompanying music, together, in their finest moment, proving more apt to convey a touch and feel, and an odd recognition, than even the best poetry on paper. How could I say?

When Solveig died, a murmur passed through the press, like a passing breeze, leaving no trace. She had managed to star in the greatest road movie of all times, and then slip back into life as she lived it, unnoticed.

Well, I’ve noticed.


Lawrence of Arabia

Oh, Lawrence, with his woeful eyes. A hundred years ago he caught the world’s attention by wearing the traditional garb of an Arab, and unwittingly romanticising the Arab revolt with his blue eyes and fierce perseverance for the dignity for the Arab people.  Due to the excellence of his written English, his education in ancient civilisations and the depth and precision of his thinking, his story can still fall into unsuspecting hands today, and be immensely appreciated.

‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ (1926) is a compilation of military essays written by T.E. Lawrence about his designation as soldier and advisor in Arabia for the British Army during the First World War. A friend of mine said, it reads like ‘a boys’ adventure story’. Lawrence describes an endless desert of extreme weather conditions, riding racing camels, eating mutton boiled in butter from trays on the carpets of Bedouin tents, and sharing military tactics with the local tribal leaders in the hope of liberating them. All this, together with Lawrence’s wisdom, was brought to life in that book, and today is still given fresh legitimacy, in even in times of peace, by those who read it.

T.E. Lawrence was evidently a highly civilised man, who spoke many languages and was capable of immense transformation.  There was something very special, very unique about his quest and presence in Arabia, and how he earned the respect of the leaders of such a proud people in times of war. Even though he was a British Army delegate, he still remained an individual with a distinct presence and wisdom.

Notable however, is the fact that after returning to England after the war had ended, he died in a domestic accident. After having survived all the hazards of war, he swerved on a country road on his motorcycle (Brough Superior SS100), to avoid hitting a couple of teenage boys on bikes, went over his handlebars, and died of the sustained head injury six days later. His fatal accident resulted directly in research into the usefulness of crash helmets, by Hugh Cairns, the neurosurgeon that tended to him.

Lawrence of Arabia.