Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Heart of John Williams’s Stoner

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.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Experimenting with Life in The Guinea Pigs

Do you ever finish reading a book, close it, open it back up, page through to refresh your memory, close the book again, and then think (or even say out loud) “Huh?” That’s what I did when I finished Ludvík Vaculík’s Morčata (The Guinea Pigs), in Káča Poláčková’s translation from the original Czech; Open Letter is reissuing the book this month.

The Guinea Pigs is a cryptic, not-so-long novel about Vašek, a bank worker, and his relationships with his wife, Eva; two sons, Vašek and Pavel; mysterious co-workers, and their guinea pigs. The mindless repetition of arranging banknotes in the same direction – and probably other stressful aspects of living away from nature in Warsaw Pact Prague – gets to Vašek. Not only does he cuff his sons fairly regularly (and even throw rocks at them once!) but he begins to conduct odd experiments on the guinea pigs, late at night while he toils over bank paperwork. There are also problems at the bank: “And for that matter, why not admit it, we do steal.”

I could write about the abundant black humor and absurdity in The Guinea Pigs but, for me, the most striking aspect of The Guinea Pigs is the storytelling itself. Vašek (Father) tells his story primarily in the first-person, often directly addressing his readers and making us part of his world: on the second page he refers to “the brighter ones among my readers.” Two pages later he calls us “my dear young readers,” and on the next page he writes, “A viper, children, is a poisonous snake.” The story, as you’ve probably deduced, blackens tremendously over 180 pages, beginning as a darkly humorous tale and ending with an unexpected eleven-word sentence that completes the book perfectly, peculiarly. Please, dear people, if you read this book, do not look at the last page until you finish the book.

I read The Guinea Pigs as a Soviet-era scary folk tale of a novel that, though hardly a bedtime story, uses common motifs from fairytales. Trust me, this is the nifty part: it’s fun and instructive to look at how Vaculík incorporates into The Guinea Pigs many of the 31 elements that Russian scholar Vladimir Propp found in fairy tales. For example, Number 2, “Interdiction: the Hero Is Warned,” comes early on, when one of Eva’s young pupils predicts that someone (human or guinea pig?) in Vašek’s strange household will die. The girl is a storybook-like character herself, a seer who even knows Vašek carries guinea pigs in his pocket. Many of Propp’s other “narratemes” appear in the book, such as the classic Number 11, “Departure: “The Hero leaves on a mission.” There are also Vašek’s attendant quest for truths and discoveries of nasty things. Fairy tale-like elements, like a cottage outside the city, also turn up.

Of course fairy tale motifs are inherently flexible, and Vaculík works creatively, making Vašek a dualistic character – both hero and villain – someone who seeks the truth about strange goings-on at the bank even as he does horrible things to animals and his own family. Though Vašek can narrate (most of) his own story, he’s not fully in control of his destiny –none of us are, but he’s in the Soviet bloc, too – plus he has some complexes, too:

“The hardest thing in the world, girls and boys, is to change your life by your own free will. Even if you are absolutely convinced that you’re the engineer on your own locomotive, someone else is always going to flip the switch that makes you change tracks, and it’s usually somebody who knows much less than you do.”

Vašek offers another take on free will later in the book, tossing out this gem of a line, “The only thing anybody can kiss, when I select a book of delicate poetry from the bookcase, is my ass.” He continues his rant about doing as he pleases, then asks, “Was this enlightened thought [about free will and its limits] what my colleague Karásek had in mind when he brought up the significance of guinea pigs?” Yes, I think it is. Vašek lets his mind wander freely as he picks his nose, comparing (I think) the peculiar meaninglessness of human lives and guinea pig lives. It all reminds me of a college classmate who referred to the Habitrail of her life, though she did not invoke the taboo of nose picking. In the end, the root of our limited free will is, of course, the old inevitability of death, foretold by the pupil – and it is death, too, that grounds this mischievous existentialist laugh of a novel about the experiment of life.

Disclosures: I received a review copy of The Guinea Pigs from Open Letter; the book is a May 2011 release. A big thank you to Chad Post!

Up next: I’m not sure.

Photo credit: Portrait of Fori, from rosym, via