Book-o-the-Day: Stoner by John Williams
Ah, the university novel. You know them, lined on the shelf in luxurious elbows: Lucky Jim, Straight Man, Death in a Tenured Position, Wonder Boys, I Am Charlotte Simmons, The Gaudy Night, etc. (I am sure you can name many others–go right ahead.)
We get the usual ideas of the Ivy Tower, layer after constructed layer, grazing grey skies of tile, the empty smiles (can I get a motion? I second that motion!), dusty classroom to cramped office to bewildering department meeting of the bewildered, a city made of suffering elephants, a Matryoshka doll (stop that metaphor!) of sad absurdity. (Here I am addressing English Departments, as do most of these novels. Makes sense, I suppose: Write what you know, and for many writers, the U is nursemaid, benefactor, sad (or happy?) reprieve.
Sad X 2 above, as device, for emphasis. Sad is the one cloistered within, wrapped in gauze and weak coffee, kept from the wobbles and needles and very real pains of the Real World, to fade, fade away…into self-laugh, self-hate, into nothingness.
But Stoner is not like these other novels (at least not the ones I have read).
Stoner seems 19th century to me, oddly refreshing in its sweep and command, a bit of “Dear, reader, take my hand…” the authoritative, confident voice of a Tolstoy, etc., a strict but kind narrator, leading you along because He honestly feels this will do you Good. This felt refreshing, possibly due to much modern reading of a certain type on my part, the keen One, the blitzed to life, the bored, the stumbling, oh gods, the ironic. Published in 1965, Stoner seems to have arrived from 1865 (or 1895, more likely), and from Russia (or at least some small town on a vast plain, some tectonic yawn), lyrical prose, a clarity of setting scenes, then sweeping philosophical statements, again, just plainly stated, just written as if True:
Of one character: “Like many men who consider their success incomplete, he was extraordinarily vain and consumed with a sense of his own importance.”
And later: “Oh, proper we seem to ourselves when we have no reason to be improper.”
Later: “The dying are selfish, he thought; they want their moments to themselves, like children.”
Stoner is clever this way: We follow William. We actually hear his lectures, attend his very classroom. Did you know from late Hellenistic times to Middle Ages, grammar was considered much more than a mechanical disposition of the parts of speech? (I bet you did—the people who read this site are too damn smart.) Grammar was actually a study of poetry, “…an exegesis of poetry both in form and substance.” And what exactly are the principles of versification? Ah, Shelley…
Stoner can be funny in ways I admire.
“It’s gone sour,” she said. “And I hate sherry.”
(She then finishes off the bottle.)
Stoner has a structure of Form=Function, the dancer and the dance. Lives as jump-sparks in a low fire, built upon several key incidents, several Decisions (caps intended), as opposed to a natural flow, cradle to grave.
1.) The moment William Stoner, as a young man, must decide if he will return to his parent’s destiny, one of tedious, hardscrabble farming on an arid patch of land. Will he crush his family, their ideas and practical need, by choosing to pursue a graduate degree and teaching career at the university?
2.) The moment his friends decide to leave the university to fight in World War One. Does Stoner do the same?
3.) Will he marry out of ignorant lust, or out of something more significant?
4.) Will he pass/not pass a fraudulent graduate student’s dissertation, while pressured by all sides, by his colleagues, the university administration, his family, his career?
On and on, and what do these moments share? They are occasions of essence. They define a person. Hemingway’s “moments of grace.” A car skids and caterwhomps off the road in front of you…What would you do? Stop, ignore, something in-between? That word: integrity.
To use the list above to get at the core of the novel. Which of the list is the most important? War, you say. No, the marriage. Certainly family…
No. It is number four, concerning itself with Work.
Stoner is a rhetorical text; it argues for honest (as in you know and believe in what you are doing) work; specifically, for an authentic and passionate and worthy life as a teacher.
Here is author John Williams (a professor, a founded of a CW dept, etc) on his protagonist, Stoner:
“I think he’s a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing…Teaching to him is a job—a job in the good and honorable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was…It’s the love of the thing that’s essential.”
Williams recognizes the oft folly of university life, but he addresses the subject head-on, and then constructs an existence of meaning for Stoner within the Ivory Tower. In the opening, the subject is taken to task, as three instructors (with newly printed grad diplomas, just entering this world of academia as teachers) sit over boiled eggs and beer (an excellent medium for critical discussion) and pick the bones of the university, its purpose.
Is it “…a great repository, like a library or a whorehouse, where men come of their free will and select that which will complete them, where all work together like little bees in a common hive. The True, the good, the Beautiful. They’re just around the corner…”
Or is it, “…a kind of spiritual sulphur-and-molasses that you administer every fall to get the little bastards through another winter; and you’re the kindly old doctor who benignly pats their heads and pockets their fees.”
Or maybe, more damning: “It is an asylum or—what do they call them now?—a rest home, for the infirm, the aged, the discontent, and the otherwise incompetent.”
(Note he is talking of the professors here, not the students.)
Williams says possibly so, possibly so, then Stoner lives a life in an attempt to say, No. No. Certainly no.
Love, or is it so? Love as real, as lost, as mythology. (I would like to speak to romantic love here–all its real and unreal, wonderful and terrible fragments–but I am trying to avoid writing a book about a book. Do note, it is the second rhetorical subject, the second argument…
“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person ones loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”
But I digress, and I do not mean to. Stoner is about teaching. The novel argues for teaching English as you might feel about writing and reading English: a creative act, a loved labor, the mind’s joy of taking on the difficult. The love of learning, and of passionately passing on this learning to another. Sounds flaky; it is not in these pages. Many who write are going to one day teach. (Many writers are forced into teaching who do not want to, but that is whole other discussion about CW programs and comp class needs.) This book is not smart or cute or ironic or hip; it is simply relentless in its argument for love–want, need, being present–as key to teaching, and the teaching life.
William Stoner retires. He is old and tired, and hardly able to rise from his seat (at his own university dinner) to give the final speech of his academic career.
“I have taught…” he said. He began again. “I have taught at this University for nearly forty years. I do not know what I would have done if I had not been a teacher…” Then he said, with a finality, “I want to thank you all for letting me teach.”
This book will take you 4 hours, 11 minutes to finish. You might want to clear your calendar and read it twice.
That is all.