Published in 1965, this is a classical novel about academic life that has been out of print for a while now and, like many other worthy yet recently neglected books, has been reprinted by the New York Review of Books. And so it made its way onto my shelves and yesterday in a train to East Germany I read it and it’s one of the best books I read this year. John Williams’ slim body of work contains 4 novels, among them a Western (Butcher’s Crossing), a historical novel (Augustus) and this one, the life story of a man from the Midwest who comes from hardscrabble circumstances, enters university in 1910 and finally becomes teacher at the University of Missouri, specializing in Latin, Greek and Middle English. It starts in his youth and ends with his death and between these it describes a remarkable life in a way that never fails to move.
Williams’ language is not dazzling, he is not a great stylist, but he’s a good one and that’s quite enough. His , style is never just perfunctory, it leads us straight into the heart of the story and into Stoner’s, by being always clear yet not cold. Williams is always warm, so much so, indeed, that at times he toes the line between warmth and cliché, indeed, between warmth and schlock, without ever descending into the latter. Williams never bores the reader and, at times, moves him to tears. Stoner is a beautiful novel, sad yet not depressing. A light melancholy, a constant sense of defeat drifts through the novel, but it’s not devastating defeat, it’s more like the usual brand cultural pessimism, particularly common in the academe. We have all heard this before, often connected to the advent of the different kinds of structuralism and postmodernism. Why can’t we just analyze or read the text. Soon we’ll be at a point where the pessimists will co-opt the hilarious and well-known line of criticism Empson had to confront upon the publication of the “7 Types of Ambiguity”.
I digress. Back to the novel. “Stoner”’s plot is simple enough. It concerns a young boy from a poor family which cannot afford even farm hands so he is used to hard farm work and is reluctant to leave the farm when his father offers him the prospect of attending the new agricultural college at the University of Missouri. Finally, he leaves, but university is a surprise and propels his life in a direction he could not have expected. Attending an introductory course on English literature he falls in love with books. Soon he drops all his scientific and agricultural courses and reads literature and philosophy. He becomes a bookish person in the best sense of the word: someone with a passion for books and a brain to make that passion work. He learns Greek and Latin and writes his M.A. thesis on prosody in a story in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. While learning and writing he is offered the opportunity to teach undergraduates as acting instructor.
While it’s true that Stoner is a born scholar and a passionate reader, his true vocation, we soon learn, is teaching. In a scene at the end of the book, when he’s honored at a banquet and is asked to give a speech he is speechless and overwhelmed and the only thing he manages to say, from the depth of his heart, is
“I have taught at this university for nearly 40 years. I do not know what I would have done if I had not been a teacher. If I had not taught I might have-“ He paused, as if distracted. Then he said, with a finality, “I want to thank you all for letting me teach.”
Stoner is a dedicated and gifted teacher. As the opening of the novel makes clear, this is no reason for him to be respected by his peers. His colleagues held him “in no great esteem while he was alive” and they “speak of him rarely now”. Stoner did not bend to the fashions of his time, he tried to teach what he thought right which, for a brief period, makes him a very popular professor yet puts him at odds with the heads of the university and the department and cripples his academic career.
Sad though this might be, Stoner is among the least vain characters in fiction I have ever encountered. He does not particularly care about these things, preventing them in effect from becoming personal defeats or tragedies. His personal tragedies concern his life as a man. Soon after obtaining his M.A., while studying towards a doctoral degree, he falls in love with a peculiar and beautiful girl, well-off, from St. Louis. After a brief period of courting her, she consents to marry him, and from then on his private life is ruined, because the woman is profoundly disturbed. Incapable of love, neither emotional nor sexual, she is passionate only for a few months when she decides to become pregnant. In the first half of the novel she appears for me to be the vastly more interesting character. Stoner is bland, the novel lets his love for books, language and knowledge characterize him, he *is* his teaching. His wife, though, is fascinating. From the first time we meet her she is aloof, detached, yet she manages to hold on to Stoner almost as if in an afterthought. She is such an introverted character that we can safely assume her extroverted behavior in the latter half of the novel as a show put on as part of her piecemeal war with Stoner.
Their daughter, Grace, is severely damaged by her mother’s attempts to hurt her father. She punishes the girl, forces her to stop spending time with her father, dress “girly” in order to become “popular” which then meant the same it means today. Until her daughter manages to break free with a truly desperate act, she appears to be the spit image of her mother, damaged in the exact same way. The women are a never ending source of fascination, they are the most ‘three-dimensional’, the most vivid, most mysterious characters in the novel, although they are rather treated in an offhand fashion. There is a young instructor who’s madly in love with Stoner and begins a short but doomed affair with him, who at times seems to be a Randian heroine and at others glitters with something more. It’s a testament to William’s enormous gifts as a writer that his female characters, hidden in the shadows as they often are, are such a success. The few blacks stand out, although in a different way, they are marked: it’s the “Negro farm hand” and the “Negro servant” and the like.
Again, Williams’ novel is too brilliant not to make a few good points on these matters as well. When Stoner at the beginning arrives at the university, he does so practically in blackface, with dirt caked onto his face (remember Bergson?) and when he visits his parents in the summer he finds they have had to hire a “Negro farm hand” to replace him. There are innumerable complexities to this novel, such as his concept of how bodies work. Again, ideologically, the novel’s on the shadowy, mens sana in corpore sana, side of things, with all of Stoner’s male adversaries being either fat or “cripples” or limping. As with the women and the blacks, this simple account hides complexities, too intricate to discuss here. Suffice it to say it’s never as easy as all that with Williams: he’s too good a writer for that. The novel is accessible and appears simple (not simplistic), yet on closer reading it unfolds and turns out to contain deposits of deliciousness, none of which weighs this enjoyable read down. It was moving, thoughtful, and Stoner’s love for books was the best description of an amorous relationship I have had the honor of reading in months. I will most certainly read his other novels. If they are as good as Stoner, I am in for a treat.
I’ll have to add, as a tiny postscript, that the novel appeared less sad to me than it may to others. The life of Stoner, who spends all his life teaching at university, had a utopian ring to my ears. As I contemplate my academic future gliding slowly away, this novel’s proceedings had a melancholy air to me, like reading of a dying civilization. Ah, well.