"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 5, 2014

John Williams: "Stoner" (1965)

How is it possible that one of the greatest novels of the 20th century has been almost forgotten until recently?

John Williams' novel Stoner was published about fifty years ago in the United States and at that time didn't cause any ripples in the literary pond. Although it was respectably reviewed and sold 2,000 copies, the publisher soon allowed it to go out of print. Occasional reprints followed, about which critics wrote positively, but there was no great stir. Until last year, when Stoner became an unexpected bestseller - in several European countries, such as the Netherlands, Germany, France and Italy - as well as in Israel. In the Netherlands alone, 200,000 copies were sold, many times more than the original ever sold in the much larger market of the U.S. Sales in Europe were also helped by the enthusiastic push given by famous authors as Ian McEwan in England and Arnold Grunberg in the Netherlands.

Now Stoner also in the U.S. is called a "perfect novel," and "the greatest American novel you never heard about."

[John Edward Willams, photo Wikipedia]

But, really, Stoner is more European than American. There is nothing flashy about the book, which like European literature is focused on character rather than plot. Stoner could be called "anti-Gatsby" (something I very much applaud) - it is not about the rich jet-set, but its protagonist is an unglamorous, hardworking academic at a mid-Western university, whose life to all appearances is a failure.

William Stoner is born at the end of the nineteenth century as the only son of a dirt-poor farming family in Missouri. He is sent to state university to study agronomy, but falls in love with literature and silently switches to the English department. There his tutor recognizes his talent and love for literature and so the farmer's son starts a scholar's life. But the years to come have many disappointments in store for Stoner.

He falls in love and marries, but realizes already within a month that the relationship is doomed - almost his whole life he is pestered by his nervous and hysterical wife, who also turns their only daughter - whom he adores - against him. He enjoys teaching and is good at it, but an antagonistic head of department, with whom he is in a permanent state of war (Stoner is a traditional philologist, the department head a "New Critic"), has him drudge away at first-year classes. At the same time, his many teaching duties and the noise at home leave him no peace for further research after his thesis has been published. When he finds new love and happiness with a young woman, a researcher in his department, the affair is broken up by the threat of scandal. Finally Stoner falls ill, dies, and is soon forgotten.

But, the wonderful thing is, that in fact Stoner's life was not at all bad - isn't this the average life full of compromises that most of us lead? In fact, Stoner had a better life than many other people - he was able to do what he wanted to do, after being gripped by a Shakespeare sonnet in his young years, he could spent the rest of his life in the pursuit of literature. Literature gave him “the epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words.” He was proud of his job as a teacher and did his best to be a good one (his courses on medieval literature are dry, but passionate) - this gave him his own identity and made him what he was.

The son of dirt-poor Missouri farmers, Stoner also has a deep resilience. He is patient and earnest and has an inner strength that helps him overcome the many blows that fate deals him. He lives without delusions, yet also without despair. Driven ever deeper into himself, he rediscovers the stoic silence of his farmer-forebears and is able to bear his solitude.

For readers this deeply moving novel is not always an easy book, as there are scenes of shattering sadness, when you again see the next blow of fate coming. But Williams writes a lucid and precise prose that never becomes maudlin and his work possesses a quiet perfection in both style and structure.

John Williams (1922-1994) was an academic himself, like Stoner. Raised in Texas, he fought during WWII in Birma and India, and in 1954 obtained his Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Missouri (where the novel also takes place). But Williams pursued his academic career at his original alma mater, the University of Denver, where he became assistant professor and director of the program of creative writing, until his retirement in 1985. Besides pursuing an academic career, Williams wrote two poetry collections and four novels. Of these, Stoner is the best; Butcher's Crossing (1960) is a Western (or rather, anti-Western) and Augustus (1972) is a historical novel about ancient Rome.

Stoner concludes with one of the most beautiful death scenes in literature: instead of being with his wife or daughter from whom he is estranged, Stoner is alone and caresses the copy of the book based on his thesis, the only book he ever wrote. Although he realizes it is already forgotten even in academic circles, it still contains a small part of him... "Then the fingers loosened, and the book they had held moved slowly and then swiftly across the still body and fell into the silence of the room."
Stoner has been published by New York Review Books (a wonderful series that is worth exploring also for other literary jewels. On top of that, the books are just beautiful - paper, print, covers - and a pleasure to have.).