For a long time now I’ve meant to read the mid-century American novel Stoner by John Williams. NYRB Classics publishes two of Williams’ books (Stoner and the National Book Award winner Butcher’s Crossing), and Scott Bryan Wilson, a very trusted fellow reader, has long recommended the book.
I finally got around to Stoner while in Canada, and it was an absolute pleasure. Simply put, the book is about nothing more and nothing less than a human life. You can get a sense of the novel’s aims in its very first paragraph, which reads:
William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of eighteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, whre he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.”
There it is, a life in all its mediocrity and banality. Writing a very first paragraph like this is almost a challenge to the reader: Williams dares us to read on, to see if we will find some reason to justify following for 273 pages of what sounds like a completely un-novelistic life. It is a daring task to set yourself as an author, to declare your intents so openly in the first paragraph and then to proceed apace before the reader’s eyes. Williams succeeds masterfully in simply telling the story of a life so well that we want to know it, no matter that the life is merely average. Stoner is the kind of book to give simple literary realism a good name, a book that shows that the genre still has secrets to offer up to us and where perhaps not a single word is out of place.
Williams makes Stoner’s life one that is both worth living and worth reading about without resorting to high adventure, sentimentality, or even so much as unconventionality. Stoner comes from a farm; he originally goes to university to get a degree in agriculture, but halfway through he becomes arrested by literature. To his parents’ shock (beautifully and impassively underplayed by Williams), upon graduation Stoner reveals he will not go back to the farm. As he grows more estranged from his family and the life he previously knew, Stoner’s life becomes a sort of struggle for this man to discover a place for himself in a world that he has thrust himself into, behind schedule and ill-equipped.
In truth, Stoner’s life is in many ways underwhelming: his marriage fails, his daughter’s life is depressing, his career as a professor is average at best. Yet the novel Stoner seethes with what beauty can be had in the everyday, and in these moments it is one of the best-observed novels I have read in a long, long while. Williams is a master of understatement, of the simple, carefully wrought sentence that communicates beyond its means. Here, for instance, is what happens when Sloane, Stoner’s mentor, is buried:
Sloane had no family; only his colleagues and a few people from town gathered around the narrow pit and listened in awe, embarrassment, and respect as the minister said his words. And because he had no family or loved ones to mourn his passing, it was Stoner who wept when the casket was lowered, as if that weeping might reduce the loneliness of the last descent. Whether he wept for himself, for the part of his history and youth that went down to the earth, or whether for the poor thin figure that once kept the man he had loved, he did not know.
Eventually what comes of this spectacularly structured, carefully manipulated novel is much more than the events of Stoner’s life. It is something that spills over with humanity, a book that is by turns touching, absurd, confounding, and beautiful. Without ostentation, the book simply celebrates the everyday as something worth living for. It is also an aesthetic treat, a book that any student of the novel would do well to examine closely.
I’ll also note that in celebrating this novel I am in very good company.