Saturday, December 13, 2014

Stoner Redux

Recently Mary sent me a New Yorker article by Tim Kreider, The Greatest American Novel You've Never Heard Of  (published last October) as a wake-up call to read John Williams’ Stoner. 

The book had been rediscovered abroad, and brought back into print by the New York Review of Books.  One of my favorite UK novelists, Ian McEwan, has championed the book across the pond when interviewed for an article; Literature needs more Lazarus miracles like Stoner

It was republished with an insightful essay by John McGahern who, sadly, died at about the time of this paperback edition was published (2006).  The author of Stoner, John Williams, died in 1994, never to see his greatest work become critically acclaimed.

When Mary sent me the New Yorker link, I immediately ordered the book, although I was continuing to read William Trevor’s short stories, so many of them and so delightful, that it will be on my reading plate for some time to come.  So the intention was to put Stoner in my reading queue which is building, and building.  But when the novel arrived, the New Yorker article kept reverberating, and I was fascinated by the cover of the paperback (apparently you CAN tell a good book by its cover!) and I found myself putting it at the top of the queue and, ultimately, interrupting reading the Trevor collection.

One of the points made in the New Yorker article is somewhat inexplicable to me: 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….  Yes, it is painful at times, but much of Dickens and Hardy can be painful too but still compulsively readable.   How anyone could put this compelling novel aside is bewildering.  The author of Stoner articulated the very reasons I “fell in love” with the protagonist.  John Williams was once interviewed and said:

I think he's a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important ... The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner's sense of a job.  Teaching to him is a job-a job in the good and honorable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was ... It's the love of the thing that's essential. And if you love something, you're going to understand it. And if you understand it, you're going to learn a lot. The lack of that love defines a bad teacher ... You never know all the results of what you do. I think it all boils down to what I was trying to get at in Stoner. You've got to keep the faith. The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilization.

The essence of the story is about a man who grew up working with his parents on their farm.  The time is before the onset of WW I.  He knew nothing else but scratching out life from the fields, his worn hands those of a laborer.  It was hard work and there were diminishing returns from the land so when his father heard about the state college having a program to study Agriculture, so he sent his only son there, with the hope he would emerge with new techniques which would lessen their burdened lives. But William Stoner would never return to his former life, becoming instead a teacher of English. 

Here the exterior story and the inner story run parallel but at odds with one another.  His life is besieged by an unhappy marriage, isolation from his wife Edith and daughter Grace, and plagued by an enemy in his English Dept, its Chairman, Lomax (as evil a character towards Stoner as Claggart was to Melville’s Billy Budd), and by Lomax’s favorite student, Walker, who Stoner thinks unworthy of becoming a teacher.   He argues this with his one friend, the Dean, Gordon Finch, “it would be a disaster to let him [Walker] in a classroom…..if we do, we become like the world, just as unreal, just as….the only hope is to keep him out.”  But Finch is also now part of the real world and he has become increasingly removed from Stoner.  Then finally the real love of his life materializes, Katherine, a student, but ultimately it is to be a love denied.  Meanwhile his inner life is blossoming, finding in literature a certain kind of perfect harmony and tranquility. 

Both the New Yorker article and the Introduction to the NYRB edition quote the same nearly opening lines as I bracketed in pencil in the book.  It sets the tone and the themes like a piece of sculpture captures the essence of its subject.  It foreshadows the very end at the beginning, unusual for opening lines: An occasional student who comes across the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

His discovery of the love of learning and literature comes at the end of his college years (he thought of the years before, the distant years with his parents on the farm, and of the deadness from which he had been miraculously revived). And he comes to his profession almost by accident, his mentor, Professor Sloane saying “but don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?...Don’t you understand about yourself yet?  You’re going to be a teacher.” Suddenly Sloan seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded.  Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” Sloane said softly.
“How can you tell? How can you be sure?”
“It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love.  It’s as simple as that.”

The joys of learning, teaching, moving forward in intellectual endeavors, counter balance worldly affairs.  The University is a refuge from life itself.  And then he finally discovers he is indeed a teacher: The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print - the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly…..He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man. It was a knowledge of which he could not speak, but one which changed him, once he had it, so that no one could mistake its presence.         

However, his personal life is not what he imagined it would be.  Edith, his wife, is reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Zelda (and as the New Yorker article astutely observes, you could almost describe [Stoner] as an anti-“Gatsby”).  Edith is unstable, almost child-like, and like Zelda ultimately tries to find some self identity in the arts.  They are totally estranged from each other, although living under the same roof. As one would imagine, their daughter, Grace, is impacted by this, ultimately getting pregnant to escape their home, moving to St. Louis, her husband (who she marries after she finds she’s pregnant) dying in WW II  (in fact, the novel bridges WW I and WW II).  She remains more or less in a trance, answering most questions Stoner asks with “it doesn’t matter,” over and over again, perhaps homage to Melville’s Bartelby similarly saying “I prefer not to.”  She becomes an alcoholic.

The absolutely exquisite, compact writing is what makes this novel great.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, where we come from and where we go during this brief encounter with life resonates in the pages.  Shadows, light, darkness, death, and nature figure prominently in the narrative, particularly the farmers’ fields Stoner comes from. Here he is burying his father:  They buried his father in a small plot on the outskirts of Booneville, and William returned to the farm with his mother.  That night he could not sleep. He dressed and walked into the field that his father had worked year after year, to the end that he now had found. He tried to remember his father, but the face that he had known in his youth would not come to him. He knelt in the field and took a dry clod of earth in his hand. He broke it and watched the grains, dark in the moonlight, crumble and flow through his fingers. He brushed his hand on his trouser leg and got up and went back to the house. He did not sleep; he lay on the bed and looked out the single window until the dawn came, until there were no shadows upon the land, until it stretched gray and barren and infinite before him.

After his mother dies, he lays her beside his father, and probably this is where the novel’s prose is bleakest, but rings so true. Their lives had been expended in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligences numbed.  Now they were in the earth to which they had given their lives, and slowly, year by year, the earth would take them.  Slowly the damp and rot would infest the pine boxes which held their bodies, and slowly it would touch their flesh, and finally it would consume the last vestiges of their substances.  And they would become a meaningless part of that stubborn earth to which they had long ago given themselves.

But counterbalancing the dark aspects of life pushing Stoner along (sometimes the reader wondering whether he is a participant in his choices), is Stoner’s euphoric discovery that his choices are one of the mind, not in day to day living:  But choices is what excited him in his work, such as when he was planning his own book, an esoteric study of the English Renaissance.  He was in the stage of his planning his study, and it was that stage which gave him the most pleasure – the selection among alternative approaches, the rejection of certain strategies, the mysteries and uncertainties that lay in unexplored possibilities, the consequences of choice….The possibilities he could see so exhilarated him that he could not keep still.

And it is his love of his work, in spite of the slings and arrows dealt by his exterior life, which grows and grows in the novel.  He stands up for academic integrity, at a great cost to himself, but on his death bed has his doubts about the meaning of it all: He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance.  And what else? he thought. What else?

It is a remarkable novel, doubly remarkable that it went unnoticed for so long.  As the New Yorker article points out, so was Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.  The latter I discovered for myself (and reprinted when it was long out of print). 

 John Williams' Stoner can easily stand besides Yates’ work as one of the more important American novels of the 20th century.