Republished by the New York Review of Books in 2003
‘Stoner’ 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.
Delft, the Netherlands, April 2013.
Cover picture of the NYRB edition: Detail of ‘The Thinker, Portrait of Louis N. Kenton’ Thomas Eakins, 1900.