Stoner, by John Williams

What a find! Many thanks to NYRB for reprinting this 1965 novel and to my book club for selecting it. My interest was piqued immediately by the cover, which I recognised as a reproduction of a portrait by Thomas Eakins, thanks to the wonderful show of his work that Cynthia and I attended a few years ago. At a recent meeting of the publishers’ association to which I belong, we were talking about the importance of the cover design and some of the principles for different genres. This portrait, from 1900, of a man dressed in black, apparently deep in thought, tells you that the book will be serious, will reflect its time, and will, despite its apparent simplicity, convey deep and complex emotion.

And it’s all true. The very first paragraph gives us a summary of William Stoner’s life: a student and professor at the University of Missouri who is barely remembered after his death. Not a remarkable life, apparently, yet I was completely engaged by this story, drawn in by the author’s honest and compelling depiction of Stoner’s thoughts and emotions. Growing up at the end of the 19th century on a poor clay farm in Missouri, Stoner expects nothing more of life than the unending labor his parents, and even he as a child, expend on their arid, hardscrabble farm. His parents are patient, reticent people, accepting of their failure to do more than get by. “In the evenings the three of them sat in the small kitchen lighted by a single kerosene lamp, staring into the yellow flame; often during the hour or so between supper and bed, the only sound that could be heard was the weary movement of a body in a straight chair and the soft creak of a timber giving a little beneath the age of the house.”

All this changes when the County agent mentions to Stoner’s father that there is a new College of Agriculture at the University. As an agriculture student, Stoner takes a required survey of English literature course which troubles him because it requires more than the rote learning of his science courses, trouble which comes to a head when the professor one day demands that Stoner explain what a particular Shakespeare sonnet means. The discovery, for this man, of the peculiar intoxication of literature moved me profoundly. The author summons my response by talking around this sublime moment, like a mime creating walls and tables out of air, as Jane Hirshfield says, leaving me to fill the space with my own memories and experiences.

I cannot say enough good things about this book. The characters and their lives reflect their cultural context, reminding me about a nearly forgotten time and place when Puritan influence was still strong, making almost a fetish of work. Even as Scott and Zelda were partying across Europe, farmers were fighting day after day to make hard clay yield some kind of crop; assistant professors worked to find ways to pass on their knowledge and love of learning to students; ordinary and obscure men and women struggled to make their lives mean something. Not so different after all, perhaps. I thought about my grandfather, who died when I was a child, a serious and reticent man, and felt I understood him a little bit better.

Stoner’s life may be easily summarised, but the joy of this book is in the detail. Although a stolid and quiet man, Stoner’s thoughts and feelings run deep. Some of the characters seem almost too grotesque, yet of course such people exist. One of my book club members found her own troubles reflected in Stoner’s battles with university politics, and another recognised the portrait of Stoner’s wife. We talked at length about Edith, the wife, trying to understand how her formal and lonely childhood could have yielded such a woman, a woman who had “no knowledge of the necessity of living from day to day”.

My book club disagreed as to whether Stoner’s life was a sad one or whether it was, as the author himself described it in an interview quoted in the Introduction, “a good life”. I’ve mentioned before how depressing it can be to traverse an entire life within one small novel, seeing how disappointingly short the characters fall in achieving the goals they once dreamed of. It is seldom enough in life that we meet the expectations we have for ourselves. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what constitutes a good life. Perhaps it has to do with the trying, with persistence. While it could be said that Stoner ultimately fails at everything he tries, he does not give up. He does not run away. He stays and does his best. And at the end there is a sense of himself, of being his own person. His dreams may be simple, but he is not a simple man.

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