29 January 2012

Stoner (John Williams)

Stoner by John Williams (New York Review Books, 2006)

"Every man contains within himself the entire human condition," says David Shields (quoted by Tim Parks in a recent post in NYRblog). William Stoner, a professor of English literature, proved that statement. In the novel after his name and in which he lived like a true human being, novelist John Williams portrayed his character as entrenched in quiet and world-changing upheavals. World-changing because Stoner's experiences shaped him and changed him along the way, and a reader could sense the world of conflicts silently residing in a human heart.

Stoner came from a poor family. He was given a chance to study agronomy at the university to eventually help his parents with farm work. But the allure of another subject caught him unawares. He "fell in love" with the written word.

   It was as simple as that. He was aware that he nodded to Sloane and said something inconsequential. Then he was walking out of the office. His lips were tingling and his fingertips were numb; he walked as if he were asleep, yet he was intensely aware of his surroundings. He brushed against the polished wooden walls in the corridor, and he thought he could feel the warmth and age of wood; he went slowly down the stairs and wondered at the veined cold marble that seemed to slip a little beneath his feet. In the halls the voices of the students became distinct and individual out of the hushed murmur, and their faces were close and strange and familiar. He went out of Jesse Hall into the morning, and the grayness no longer seemed to oppress the campus; it led his eyes outward and upward into the sky, where he looked as if toward a possibility for which he had no name.

This epiphany—"a kind of conversion, an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words"—occurred to him right after his teacher Archer Sloane told him that he was destined to be a teacher of literature. The hypersensitively observed details (imagining the feel of "the warmth and age of wood", "the veined cold marble" seeming to "slip a little beneath his feet", the closeness and strangeness and familiary of students' faces, etc.) were signs and symptoms of "love". This love carried all its manifestations within it: the love of literature, the love of life, and the love of a woman.

Many years later, after enduring various circumstances that tried and tested his life, he will look back on this momentous realization and feel anew the same "tingle", the same profound force of feeling.

Suddenly it was as if she were in the next room, and he had only moments before left her; his hands tingled, as if they had touched her. And the sense of his loss, that he had for so long dammed within him, flooded out, engulfed him, and he let himself be carried outward, beyond the control of his will; he did not wish to save himself. Then he smiled fondly, as if at a memory; it occurred to him that he was nearly sixty years old and that he ought to be beyond the force of such passion, of such love.
   But he was not beyond it, he knew, and would never be. Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there. In his youth he had given it freely, without thought; he had given it to the knowledge that had been revealed to him—how many years ago?—by Archer Sloane; he had given it to Edith, in those first blind foolish days of his courtship and marriage; and he had given it to Katherine, as if it had never been given before. He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life, and had perhaps given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.

He was alive, and in the novel's pages he lived not a perfect life, but a perfect existence. We comprehended Stoner's lifetime of loving as it was dragged and weighed down by personal challenges a man in his position could face—an unhappy marriage, difficulties at work, problems with students and colleagues, teaching, infidelity, raising a child, and (even if they were waged in the far distance) world wars exacting tolls on the mind.

Stoner was a work of restraint. Its flashes of feelings and quiet devastation were wrought in the controlled and leisurely rhythms of a mindful prose. It was the kind of writing that evaluates and explores personal ideas even as the characters were drawn in situations of truths and consequences. The plot moved its characters as they carry kindling to the fire, until the fuel wood runs out and one is forced to observe the last flickers of a life.

The precision of the writing in Stoner reminded me of the stories of Peter Taylor (A Woman of Means, A Summons to Memphis, "Dean of Men"). Like Taylor, Williams dispensed insights and visions that allow his characters to recognize the predicaments they found themselves in and the general sense of futility surrounding them. And also like Taylor, Williams could capture in a single luminous sentence or in a short passage the whole of the novel's breadth and reach.

Williams had a way with descriptions. His writing was never dry, even while detailing the quirks of minor characters, the words were always game for descriptive reinvention.

Rutherford was a slight thin gray man with round shoulders; his eyes and brows dropped at the outer corners, so that his expression was always one of gentle hopelessness. Though he had known Stoner for many years, he never remembered his name.


He was a thin young man, intense and pale, with slightly protuberant blue eyes; he spoke with a deliberate slowness, with a voice that seemed always to tremble before a forced restraint.

"Gentle hopelessness", "forced restraint"—priceless expressions, especially given their droll context. These fine descriptions accumulated in the novel, accompanying momentous discoveries and transformations of self. Discoveries that, to stretch the original idea, reflected the human condition and would equal the discovery of the world or of the transformative role of individuals in it.

The book was particularly lovely for its elliptical and allusive nature. Its themes circled around, returning to look at ideas in another way. For example, Shakespeare's "Sonnet 73"—reproduced in full in the book when Stoner's teacher, Sloane, recited it—carried a resonance throughout the novel.—

In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourisht by.
   This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

These lines were echoed when Stoner visited the burial grounds of his parents, keeping in mind that they devoted their years to tilling the land for a living: "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 ... 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."

A key incident in the novel concerned a cripple student named Walker(!) who attended Stoner's lectures and with whom he had some problems in class and during an oral examination. The scenes with Walker were some of the most powerful in the book. Stoner was opposed to accepting Walker as graduate student as the latter represented for him the kind of duplicity and pretension that must not be allowed to prosper in a university.

"He said—something about the University being an asylum, a refuge from the world, for the dispossessed, the crippled. But he didn't mean Walker. Dave would have thought of Walker as—as the world. And we can't let him in. For if we do, we become like the world, just as unreal, just as . . . The only hope we have is to keep him out."

This idealistic belief that the schoolroom is a place to be shielded from the "unreal" in the world contained Stoner's academic ethic. In a brilliant rejoinder to the notion of the individual as world, Stoner admitted to his lover (when he was forced to break up the affair after being found out by university officials) that they were not exempt from this category: "So we are of the world, after all; we should have known that. We did know it, I believe; but we had to withdraw a little, pretend a little ..."

Every person contains within him the entire human condition because he is a world unto himself. This person conducts wars inside of him every time he made consequential decisions that affect his future and the future of those who depend on him. Stoner, whose life was given up to literature, is the imperfect, fallible world. The richness of his experiences enabled him (and the reader) to perceive his life as undeniably, inescapably, of this world.


  1. Rise - vey nicely done post. Stoner (the character, not the book) really does seem to contain the entire human condition, or at least provides an acutely conscious example of what it means to be alive, committed to something outside of one's self, and mortal. I read this last year and joined the near unanimous of praise for it, even though Stoner's moving defense of his dissertation cross-examination of Walker made me contemplate quitting blogging altogether. I'd been reading, at the same time, Mark McGurl's The Program Era, a critical work on the influence of creative writing programs and academia on contemporary American literature, and thought it a shame that Stoner wasn't included in his illuminating discussion, which in part centers around both the academic settings of so much American literature and the emphasis on craft - of which Stoner is a near perfect example. Williams' Augustus is currently making the rounds at my house, and winning effusive praise from a critic far tougher than I.

  2. Made you think of quitting blogging?! I think I can imagine that kind of feeling. Thank god it didn't cross my mind while reading it; I was so absorbed by the harrowing scene itself. Augustus and Butcher's Crossing jumped to my wish list on the basis of this novel. Their subjects, so far from life on campus, are quite promising too.