#WhatImReadingNow: Stoner

Two weeks after that conversation Stoner received a memo from Lomax’s office which informed him that his schedule for the next semester was changed, that he would teach his old graduate seminar on the Latin Tradition and Renaissance Literature, a senior and graduate course in Middle English language and literature, a sophomore literature survey, and one section of freshman composition.

It was a triumph in a way, but one of which he always remained amusedly contemptuous, as if it were a victory won by boredom and indifference.

XV

And that was one of the legends that began to attach to his name, legends that grew more detailed and elaborate year by year, progressing like myth from personal fact to ritual truth.

In his late forties, he looked years older. His hair, thick and unruly as it had been in his youth, was almost entirely white; his face was deeply lined and his eyes were sunken in their sockets; and the deafness that had come upon him the summer after the end of his affair with Katherine Driscoll had worsened slightly year by year, so that when he listened to someone, his head cocked to one side and his eyes intent, he appeared to be remotely contemplating a puzzling species that he could not quite identify.

That deafness was of a curious nature. Though he sometimes had difficulty understanding one who spoke directly to him, he was often able to hear with perfect clarity a murmured conversation held across a noisy room. It was by this trick of deafness that he gradually began to know that he was considered, in the phrase current in his own youth, a “campus character.”

Thus he overheard, again and again, the embellished tale of his teaching Middle English to a group of new freshmen and of the capitulation of Hollis Lomax. “And when the freshman class of thirty-seven took their junior English exams, you know what class had the highest score?” a reluctant young instructor of freshman English asked. “Sure. Old Stoner’s Middle English bunch. And we keep on using exercises and handbooks!”

Stoner had to admit that he had become, in the regard of the young instructors and the older students, who seemed to come and go before he could firmly attach names to their faces, an almost mythic figure, however shifting and various the function of that figure was.

Sometimes he was villain. In one version that attempted to explain the long feud between himself and Lomax, he had seduced and then cast aside a young graduate student for whom Lomax had had a pure and honorable passion. Sometimes he was the fool: in another version of the same feud, he refused to speak to Lomax because once Lomax had been unwilling to write a letter of recommendation for one of Stoner’s graduate students. And sometimes he was hero: in a final and not often accepted version he was hated by Lomax and frozen in his rank because he had once caught Lomax giving to a favored student a copy of a final examination in one of Stoner’s courses.

The legend was defined, however, by his manner in class. Over the years it had grown more and more absent and yet more and more intense. He began his lectures and discussions fumblingly and awkwardly, yet very quickly became so immersed in his subject that he seemed unaware of anything or anyone around him. Once a meeting of several members of the board of trustees and the president of the University was scheduled in the conference room where Stoner held his seminar in the Latin Tradition; he had been informed of the meeting but had forgotten about it and held his seminar at the usual time and place. Halfway through the period a timid knock sounded at the door; Stoner, engrossed in translating extemporaneously a pertinent Latin passage, did not notice. After a few moments the door opened and a small plump middle-aged man with rimless glasses tiptoed in and lightly tapped Stoner on the shoulder. Without looking up, Stoner waved him away. The man retreated; there was a whispered conference with several others outside the open door. Stoner continued the translation. Then four men, led by the president of the University, a tall heavy man with an imposing chest and florid face, strode in and halted like a squad beside Stoner’s desk. The president frowned and cleared his throat loudly. Without a break or a pause in his extemporaneous translation, Stoner looked up and spoke the next line of the poem mildly to the president and his entourage: “‘Begone, begone, you bloody whoreson Gauls!”’ And still without a break returned his eyes to his book and continued to speak, while the group gasped and stumbled backward, turned, and fled from the room.

Fed by such events, the legend grew until there were anecdotes to give substance to nearly all of Stoner’s more typical activities, and grew until it reached his life outside the University.

John Williams, Stoner (Viking Press, 1965)

Some thoughts on this book:

• A few years ago I read some article about the best book I’d never heard of, or some such thing. And I thought, hmmm. I like discovering unheralded gems. Then last year two separate reader friends of mine recommended the book, so I loaded it to my Kindle, and that was that. If you poke around on the interwebs, you can see plenty of raves of this best-book-ever nature—and they do say things like “You should seriously read Stoner right now” (New York Times). But I’ll be frank: I didn’t particularly enjoy it. That said, I didn’t give up on it, either, which I am very quick to do these days. So make of that what you will.

• The blurb: “William Stoner is born at the end of the nineteenth century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life, so different from the hardscrabble existence he has known. And yet as the years pass, Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments: marriage into a ‘proper’ family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude.

“John Williams’s luminous and deeply moving novel is a work of quiet perfection. William Stoner emerges from it not only as an archetypal American, but as an unlikely existential hero, standing, like a figure in a painting by Edward Hopper, in stark relief against an unforgiving world.”

• The story is moving, in spite of the fact that I didn’t enjoy it. Which is to say, it’s freaking sad. Heartbreaking. The reviewer in the New Yorker says: “Despite its pellucid prose, ‘Stoner’ isn’t an easy book to read—not because it’s dense or abstruse but because it’s so painful. I had to stop reading it for a year or two, near the middle of the book, when Stoner’s wife, Edith, undertakes a deliberate but unselfconscious campaign to estrange him from his daughter, the one person he truly loves. Later on, after his daughter has been lost to him, Stoner finds real love again with a young student, his intellectual equal—and once again an enemy, seeing his happiness, sets out to take it from him. Williams contrives to forcibly deprive his hero of happiness in his marriage, his daughter, his lover, even his vocation. It all feels grindingly inevitable, like the annihilating whim of the gods in Euripides.” That pretty much covers it for me. The protagonist never fights back (well, OK, once, as quoted above). He just accepts what comes to him, over and over, no matter how unfair. Yes, I understand that life is “unfair.” I just don’t necessarily think it makes an interesting story.

• It is beautiful prose, yes. The Guardian says the “prose is clean and quiet.” The novel “flows like a river, calm and smooth at the surface of its unruffled prose, but powerful and deep,” the reviewer at the Independent says. I could go on and on in this vein, but I’ll just say this is why I kept reading. There was a rhythm, a mesmerizing-ness to it. It felt like something written a hundred and fifty years ago—not fifty—and I mean that as a good thing.

• That said, it’s all telling. All narrative. Everything that is felt or thought by the protagonist is told to us, rather than shown. It is an unusual book.

• There were two things I thought a lot about as I read Stoner. First, that a lot of “my people” (that is, family) come from Missouri, in the area where the novel is set, and are there still. My father’s mother, furthermore, was of the same generation as William Stoner (born in the 1890s). And I don’t think the things that happened to this protagonist were all that unusual in that generation. So there is truth in this story. The second thing I thought about also had to do with truth—the truth of teaching as a vocation, how it was more respected in Stoner’s time, how difficult it is for academics now. (I have some personal experience with this, but this article in the New Republic encapsulates my thoughts on this topic. If you read any link at all from this post, read this one.)

• If the reviews or the blurb speak to you, if you think this book might be for you, then don’t let me talk you out of it. Clearly lots of readers have loved it. It just wasn’t for me.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Chiara says:

    Interesting…I have never heard of this book either, though it seems like something that would be right up my alley. I will say that I once found a book by John Williams called “Augustus” in the thrift store which turned out to be a surprisingly great read. It is the story of the rise of the first emperor as told through exchanges of letters between him and his real life friends and confidants. Worth checking out if you are a Roman history buff!

    • jamiechavez says:

      Oooh! I love an epistolary novel! And yes, I bet you WOULD like this one. It’s of its time.