Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 12, 2014

Stoner, by John Williams


StonerIn the moments after I finished this book, I found myself musing on two books from the story: the book that Stoner wrote in his youth; and the book dedicated to him.  They seemed so real that I could imagine myself coming upon them in an OpShop or second-hand store, finding them a bit battered and faded and holding them briefly in my hands before putting them back on the shelf.  Not knowing their worth or their meaning beyond the words on the page.

What a loss that would be, not to know the story of Stoner and these two books.  One written for the sheer joy of scholarship, by a young man who had grown up expecting to be an impoverished farmer but by chance and his own hard work became instead a teacher at a university – and the other written by one who loved him and taught him that it was possible to reconcile the life of the mind and the life of the senses and that he did not have to choose between them.

But that brief joy was an illusion.  Stoner was married to someone else, and there could be no resolution that would preserve what he and Katherine Driscoll meant to each other.

He leaned back on the couch and looked at the low, dim ceiling that had been the sky of their world.  He said calmly, ‘If I threw it all away – if I gave it up, just walked out – you would go with me, wouldn’t you?’

‘Yes,’ she said.

‘But you know I wouldn’t do that, don’t you?’

‘Yes, I know.’

‘Because then,’ Stoner explained to himself, ‘none of it would mean anything – nothing we have done, nothing we have been.  I most certainly wouldn’t be able to teach, and you – you would become something else.   We would both become something else, something other than ourselves.  We would be – nothing’.   (p. 231)

Some readers, I suppose, may wish Stoner to grasp a chance at Hollywood happiness, to ditch his poisonous marriage, and to run away with Katherine and write books in romantic poverty somewhere.  But John Williams (1922-1994) has firm control of his character.  Stoner cannot be who he is, and have Katherine too.  It would damage them both, and he pays Katherine the respect her academic potential deserves.  (She is the only female academic in the book).

Towards the end of the book, the author reminds the reader that Stoner’s stoicism derives from his bleak childhood.  He does not expect to be happy, not even content:

But William Stoner knew of the world in a way that few of his younger colleagues could understand.  Deep in him, beneath his memory, was the knowledge of hardship and hunger and endurance and pain.  Though he seldom thought of his early years on the Booneville farm, there was always near his consciousness the blood knowledge of his inheritance, given him by forefathers whose lives were obscure and hard and stoical and whose common ethic was to present to an oppressive world faces that were expressionless and hard and bleak.  (p.266)

This inheritance forms the man.   Stoner’s father sees beyond that inheritance only dimly when he makes his son the astonishing offer of a place at agricultural college.

‘I never had no schooling to speak of,’ he said, looking at his hands.  ‘I started working a farm when I finished sixth grade.  Never held with schooling when I was a young ‘un. But now I don’t know.  Seems like the land gets drier and harder to work every year; it ain’t rich like it was when I was a boy.  County agent says they got new ideas, ways of doing things they teach you at the University.  Maybe he’s right.  Sometimes when I’m working the field I get to thinking.’  He paused.  His fingers tightened upon themselves, and his clasped hands dropped to the table.  ‘I get to thinking -‘  He scowled at his hands and shook his head.  ‘You go on to the University come fall.  Your ma and I will manage.’ (p.4)

None of them at that moment could imagine that Stoner might stumble into an English class and fall in love with words.  This beautiful book traces the transformation of farm boy into scholar,  and the course of what might otherwise seem an unremarkable life.  The opening lines of the novel tell us that Stoner entered the University of Missouri in 1910,  and completed his Doctor of Philosophy degree eight years later.  He accepted an instructorship, wrote a book, taught at Missouri till he died in 1956, and then faded into obscurity.  In the course of his life, he was married, had a child, and had a brief affair.  But the unremarkable trajectory of this life is transformed into a novel of astonishing power.  Melancholy in tone, Stoner is a celebration of victory over the self and the dignity of a quiet, honourable life.

Although Stoner is not a ‘campus novel’, the machinations of university administration impact on the life under examination.  Like many a man Stoner faces pitfalls in his career, and there comes a moment when his integrity forces a choice that halts its progress.  Few readers will not then pause for reflection to ask that eternal question: what would I have done?  The pitiless vanity and malevolence of power is exquisitely rendered with not a trace of irony.  Stoner suffers that in his disastrous marriage to Edith too.  The novel is firmly anchored in place and time so there is no question of freedom through divorce, but it is Stoner’s stoicism that guides his decision, not any fear of scandal.

There is a wealth of reviews out there, but I particularly enjoyed Rohan Maitzen’s at Open Letters Monthly.  An academic herself, she examines the book through that lens, and though I don’t agree with her in her summation of Stoner’s relationship with Edith as a flaw in the novel, it’s a thoughtful review with insights that clarified my ideas about the book.

Stoner was first published in 1965 and reissued in this edition as a Vintage Classic.

Author: John Williams
Title: Stoner
Introduction by John McGahern
Publisher: Vintage (Random House), 2014
ISBN: 9780099595762
Source: review copy courtesy of Random House

Availability

Fishpond: Stoner: A Novel

 

 


Responses

  1. I too enjoyed this quiet book which said many things to me. It may be the best “academic” novel I have ever read since it included both the realities of administrative pettiness and the power of the life of the mind. I came to Stoner after reading another novel by Williams, Augustus. Very different and also very good.

    • I’m really surprised that Stoner isn’t in 1001 Books, I think it’s wonderful. I’m going to get a copy of Augustus too, it sounds great from what I’ve read about it.
      Don’t you love it when you discover a new author?!

  2. It sounds interesting Lisa, and I have put a request in for it at my library.

    • I hope you love it too:)

  3. After reading all kinds of great things about this book recently I bought it and the poor thing sits patiently on my shelf unread. I’ll have to get to it soon it sounds beautiful, don’t know how you get so many read Lisa :)

    • Ah, things will get back to normal next week when I go back to work and can’t loaf about with books all day!

  4. An excellent review, Lisa, and I so glad you liked ‘Stoner’. I completely agree with you when you say this is a novel of astonishing power. It’s such a moving story, and I found myself fully emotionally invested in Stoner’s character by the end.

    • Thank you, Jacqui:)
      You know, it’s not what people call a page-turner, but I couldn’t wait to get back to it once I started reading it. I started it on Friday over coffee when I had two hours to kill between the dentist and getting some new tyres on my car, and then I read more while they were doing the tyres, and was almost sorry when they’d finished. Then it was more at bedtime until I just couldn’t stay awake any longer, and I finished it the next morning instead of getting up to do School Stuff. (Which I am now rushing to finish ready for school on Monday, but who cares, it was worth it!)

      • Some books just have that effect, don’t they? I completely agree with you here; once I’d started ‘Stoner’, I couldn’t wait to get back to it, savouring the time I could spend in the company of these characters.

        I don’t know if you’ve read Wallace Stegner’s ‘Crossing to Safety’, but it reminds me a little of Stoner in that it’s an exceptional novel about relatively unremarkable lives. Its strength is in the characterisation. If of interest, I’ll be reviewing it in a couple of weeks.

        • I’ll keep an eye out for it. I’ve heard about Stegner, but never read him.

  5. What a wonderful review Lisa. Despite hearing the book mentioned many times, I’ve never gotten around to reading it. I am going to get it from the library first chance I get so I don’t forget.The excerpts you chose to include in your review brought a tear to my eye.

    • That’s what I love about blog reviews: there’s no word or column limit so we can share excerpts that show the author’s style and bring meaning to the things we say about the book:)

  6. I read this last year after getting a free copy from Kim from Reading Matters. I wasn’t quite sure what I felt about it when I finished reading it – I was torn between feeling frustrated by and understanding the decisions Stoner makes. It has settled down nicely in retrospect, though, and your review has brought back all of the good things about the book for me.

    • I understand that frustration. We are lured into liking Stoner, and wanting him to be happy. Maybe now that values have changed in some ways he could make different choices that could offer happiness in his relationships, and maybe that wish for him impacts on how we would like Williams to have written the book. I think it’s very hard for us to understand the stoicism of lives born into grinding poverty at the turn of the 20th century because western countries are now so privileged by comparison.

  7. Sorry Lisa, I missed this post when it went up so I am a little late into the comment game.

    I discovered John Williams a few years back before he came back into popularity — I said then that for my money he ranked as America’s best, but least known, author. I can say with confidence that the “least-known” label no longer applies. And I heartily recommend both Augustus and Butcher’s Crossing, his only other two works.

    And do try to find time for Wallace Stegner, who is every bit as good. My personal favorite is Angle of Repose but I like everything that I have read. One feature of Angle of Repose that I think you would appreciate (and has a number of Australian comparisons, particularly with Alex Miller) is that Stegner is particularly sensitive to the contribution of female characters in a frontier environment — his setting might be the Western U.S., but I think you would find many of his sentiments relate to your environment.

    • Excellent advice, as usual, Kevin – and I shall take it!

  8. Again thanks to your blog I was able to read another good book, Stoner. I love character driven stories and Stoner is a good man. He is unsure of himself at he beginning of the story and by the end of the story he has grown into a strong person. I loved the writing of this book and it engaged me from the first page.

    • I’m so glad you liked it, it’s nice to get that feedback:)
      American writing at its best, I think!

  9. […] Physical Books: Stoner by John Williams Recommended by Lisa Hill! […]


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