John Williams, Stoner (1965, NYRB 2006)
Published in 1965 and rediscovered by the New York Review of Books in 2006, this novel is currently having a big day in the sun, and our Book Group has its metaphor-mixing finger right on the pulse.
Before the group met: I loved this book, though I find it hard to say why with any confidence. William Stoner, born late in the 19th century into a grim farming community is sent to university at age 19 because his father grasps that education in agriculture will help the farm to survive. He has an epiphany part way through his second year of study when a lecturer recites a Shakespearean sonnet, and he changes course. He goes on to complete a PhD in literature and then to a life of teaching at that same university. He marries unhappily, has a daughter who doesn’t turn out well, makes powerful enemies in academia who stymie his career, endures a major heartbreak, lives on and finally dies. Grim, grim, grim, you might say.
What’s more, William Stoner is no man of action: he chooses not to enlist in the First World War, not to leave his intolerable marriage, not to challenge lies being circulated about him. There’s a moment near the end when he has a chance to speak in public, to communicate something of what matters to him: he says six words – words that are moving to the reader, but must sound almost completely inconsequential to his listeners. He is exactly not the ideal protagonist of a Hollywood movie.
Which may be his appeal. He isn’t noteworthy because of any great achievements, but he is a man who falls in love with a vocation – the vocation to teach – and is true to it for the rest of his life. Even though for long stretches he is a mediocre teacher, he finds a deep spiritual nourishment and meaning there, and at key moments chooses to sacrifice his chances for advancement or happiness in order pursue it.
The book is beautifully written. Every now and then, I’d forget that I’ve only got so many years left and so many books still to read, and just linger over a turn of phrase, a sentence, a paragraph. Like this:
In his extreme youth, Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.
After the meeting: It’s winter: one man was down with a heavy cold starting a second round of antibiotics, two were off in the European summer, a third had an early flight to Manila this morning, one who works for an environmental organisation had urgent work sprung on him (whether because of the good news from the State government or the continuing torrent of bad from Canberra he didn’t say), and yet another had been intending to come but mysteriously failed in the attempt.
So four of us drank from crystal glasses and sat down to far too much food and a sustained and animated conversation about the book, which we had all read (a rare event) and were all enthusiastic about. I think everyone read something, each picking out a different bit to hold up for the collective enjoyment.
Someone said that he wept in public as he read it; that when Stoner found love in middle age it was as if the novel changed from black-and-white to colour, and then, wretchedly, back again.
One of the passages that was read out was the account of Stoner and his wife’s sex life in the early years of their marriage. Be warned this might trigger sexual abuse memories:
Out of an unspoken stubbornness they both had, they shared the same bed; sometimes at night, in her sleep, she unknowingly moved against him. And sometimes, then, his resolve and knowledge crumbled before his love, and he moved upon her. If she was sufficiently roused from her sleep, she tensed and stiffened, turning her head sideways in a familiar gesture and burying it in her pillow, enduring violation; at such times Stoner performed his love as quickly as he could, hating himself for his haste and regretting his passion. Less frequently she remained half numbed by sleep; then she was passive, and she murmured drowsily, whether in protest or surprise he did not know. He came to look forward to those rare and unpredictable moments, for in that sleep-drugged acquiescence he could pretend to himself that he found a kind of response.
Williams doesn’t shy away from the word ‘violation’, but ‘love’ isn’t just a euphemism either. As someone in the group said, your heart breaks for both of them.