Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Stoner, by John Williams

A great deal has been written about this book recently. Steve Almond wrote an admiring review in Tin House, and Morris Dickstein wrote an appreciation recently in The New York Times. There was a huge list of holds at the library and it took months for me to get a copy. I wish I had just bought it, because I definitely want to own it now. It is a wonderful book.

The plot is easy enough to summarize. We first meet William Stoner at 19, on a farm in Missouri with his parents. He goes to agricultural college and discovers, accidentally, a passion for literature. He continues studying and becomes a professor, makes a marriage that proves to be a painful failure, has a child, writes a little-noticed book while continuing to be a devoted teacher, has a few conflicts in the English department and one beautiful experience that I will not give away - and then ages and dies. Most people would describe the book as grim; and its prose style and atmosphere it reminded me somewhat of Revolutionary Road, the Richard Yates novel.

Revolutionary Road, however, is a book that I am almost scared to re-read, because its vision leaves no room for joy of any kind. There is also a horrific inevitability to everything that happens in that book; one never for an instant thinks that these people might break out of their destructive patterns, because the author's mark of death is on them from the moment they appear. Whenever a character in that novel insisted that it was time for a change, I felt like the author was playing with me, because it was clear that happiness was not a possibility in the author's vision of the world.

Stoner has very little of this feeling of inevitability, and it has immense power partially because we realize that this is a world where joy is entirely possible. If most hopes fail, finally, to materialize, it is not because the author feels that this is simply the truth of life; they are dashed simply because certain human beings happen to act in certain ways. I approached the end of Revolutionary Road only with a sort of dull horror, but I finished Stoner with a real sense of tragedy.

The very few parts of the novel I felt were flawed were places where I felt a grim destiny was being forced on characters unnecessarily - Stoner's daughter, for example. It is also immensely difficult to sustain a sense of character while narrating an entire life. Most people, I think, feel like their younger selves were almost different people; when you stretch a life out to several decades, it can't help feel like there are multiple people involved. And the old Stoner does end up feeling like a different person in his old age. The secondary characters in the book actually hold up better, because they are basically nuanced grotesques who can strike only a few poses.

As for the prose, it is immensely refreshing to find an author who has too much respect for the reader and his story to attempt to wrestle anyone for their attention. The book's style, like its subject, is quiet and plain. It celebrates a deep internal vitality - the quiet joys of scholarship and study - that makes no show of itself. The only moments of semi-extravagance come in dialogue. There is also another quality that Stoner shares with many of my favorite works of art: as I finished the book, I had very little sense of what the author might be like. The world the writer created had entirely overwhelmed whatever his personality and attitudes might have been. There are some hints here and there, as there always are, but there was no person rattling a cage behind every sentence - or any sentence, for that matter. I think it takes immense humility to achieve this.

I took a break after reading Stoner - I wanted to think about it for a little while - and didn't pick up any other books for a few days. I had Washington Square lying around, so I started reading it on the subway. And there was old Henry James, smirking out of every paragraph and patting himself on the back for every cleverly turned phrase. I felt an immense sense of revulsion (the book was actually slammed shut) and gave it up after five pages. James's gifts as a writer are so immense - in terms of the actual construction and pacing of a story I can't think of anyone better - but the little I read felt so phony, so far from real human life, that I couldn't keep going. And it struck me that not possessing a great deal of ingenuity can be a real blessing for a writer - "set down with as much modesty as cunning," Hamlet tells the players. (I might even have changed it to "more modesty than cunning.") Williams only wrote three novels in his life but I will definitely seek them all out; I can't imagine any of them being less than extremely good after this book.


miette said...

I finished Stoner a few days ago and, after the requisite couplefew days of fastingly sitting-with-it, jumped online, starving, to see what I could gnaw. It was one of those that has left me blinking hard, several times, incredulous it's escaped me for this long, and your review shows exactly why. Thank you.

Linda said...

Stoner left me exhausted and overwhelmed. The sheer intensity and beauty of the language was a tour de force. Rarely has there been such a sympathetic character as William Stoner. I wept several times but at least Stoner got a glimpse of ecstasy before he died.
Thank God. With a wife like who would blame him?