John Williams’s Stoner isn’t what it sounds like: Stoner is the life story of William Stoner, a rather staid professor of English at the University of Missouri, not reefer madness. Stoner is my kind of novel, a portrait of an imperfect human whose life looks unhappy, even futile, from the first page – Stoner’s career is undistinguished and he experiences strife at work and home – but keeps on keeping on thanks to a lurking, low-key passion for life.
I know “passion” sounds horribly banal but I’m borrowing it from Williams, whose writing in Stoner is beautifully plain and understated, appropriate to its subject, as he characterizes Stoner, his colleagues, and family through actions and expressions. Here’s Stoner on his wedding day, looking at his wife with her parents :
“Then he saw Edith. She was with her father and mother and her aunt; her father, with a slight frown on his face, was surveying the room as if impatient with it; and her mother was weeping, her eyes red and puffed above her heavy cheekbones and her mouth pursed downward like a child’s.”
The match, of course, is pretty disastrous: Stoner is a country boy, raised on a farm and sent to college to learn about agriculture only to become an academic, and Edith is from a well-to-do St. Louis family. Edith misses her European tour, which must have been a particularly big deal just after World War 1, so she can marry Stoner. Their honeymoon is described with words like “isolation” and “prison.” Their daughter Grace is “happy with her despair” toward the end of the book.
But Stoner isn’t altogether dissatisfied, despite sometimes feeling numb or seeing “nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember.” He values the purity of academia, a place removed from the world and remembers how one of his friends said, in their youth, that academics are “better than those on the outside, in the muck, the poor bastards of the world.” The same guy calls Stoner “our own midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho.” Though Stoner realizes in middle age that academics are “of the world,” he still identifies himself with academia and cannot leave because he would be nothing.
At the end of the book, as Stoner dies, he feels pain, hears laughter, sees his wife’s face, and feels joy on a summer afternoon before he loses touch, literally, with what has given his life meaning. Williams gives Stoner – and Stoner, a beautifully crafted piece of existentialism – a sendoff that is fitting in its simple, melancholic but reassuring elegance. I’d recommend Stoner to anyone but think non-native readers of English might especially enjoy its uncomplicated, expressive language.
Up next: Maybe a report from Book Expo America. Next book post will be about Hans Keilson’s The Death of the Adversary.
Disclosures: I bought my copy of Stoner at the library book sale but should note that I have discussed literature in translation with New York Review Books. I look forward to seeing NYRB at Book Expo America this week!
Image credit: Photo of Jesse Hall, University of Missouri, Columbia, from Stevehrowe2, via Wikipedia.