Thursday, April 30, 2015

Reading group: Stoner by John Williams

Another book very much liked and admired by everyone present at the meeting. Suggested by John, this novel, published in America in 1965 to only moderate sales and soon falling out of print, was revived in 2003 and has since become a bestseller across Europe - a surprise bestseller, since it deals with the quietest of subjects, the life of a university teacher of English stoically suffering obstructions in his academic career and an unhappy marriage.

John said that he had found the book as riveting and compulsive in spite of his subject matter as has been generally reported, and we all agreed. Firstly, the prose is so clean and spare and acute, and the insight into protagonist Stoner's stoical personality is deeply moving. John was very impressed by the control of the material and the finely-tuned selection of significant events and characters in the depiction of a whole life, a point later reiterated by Clare. Both John and Hans had been reading it for the second time, and both said that they had enjoyed it even more a second time around, and had got even more out of it. Clare said she would definitely like to read it again, a feeling that I believe was general. John commented that the book is in fact traditional in style - realist, linear in structure and measured in tone - and wondered if its publication in the same era as Jack Kerouac and the Beats had caused it at the time to be dismissed as merely old-fashioned (as well as unexciting). In fact, the book is hugely prescient in its study of the beginnings of the breakdown of the academy, the squeezing by more sinister worldly forces of the intellectual integrity that Stoner personifies, the failure of sincerity, as well as prefiguring the potential pitfalls of political correctness. Stoner's ability to keep steady through vicissitudes both professional and personal his own moral compass and his faith in the life of the mind and of literature, is perhaps heartening in an age when, as Julian Barnes puts it in his own article about the book, the inner space of the individual is assailed and monitored on all sides. In fact, the book has still not taken off in America in the way it has in Europe, and John suggested that, in its controlled, contemplative tone and its insistence on the life of the mind, it is in fact more European in flavour than American.

Significantly, Stoner's origins are simple and rural, embedded in the straightforward and the essential. A farm boy sent to agricultural college in order to learn techniques for the revival of his parents' spent land, he takes a compulsory literature course and falls in love with literature, after which he embarks on a literary academic career. Naive and inexperienced, however, he is soon doomed to marriage to a self-centred and manipulative wife. Potential happiness is constantly thwarted: a close relationship with his only child, a daughter, is spoilt when his wife decides to come between them; the daughter's life is subsequently blighted by the tensions and barrenness of her upbringing, and Stoner's wife engineers an estrangement from their grandson. The one sexually passionate relationship of Stoner's life, with a female fellow academic, founders on the quite evil machinations that already blight his academic life.

We discussed the fact that many people thus see Stoner's life as sad, and the book as a sad book, but none of us present felt it was that simple. We felt there was redemption, indeed something quite uplifting, in the way that through all of these troubles, literature remains a constant consolation to Stoner; as Williams himself said in an interview (quoted in John McGahern's Introduction to the Vintage edition), he has the satisfaction of continuing to do the one thing he loves most, study literature - not in fact caring for the professional advancement his enemies seek for themselves - and he never once loses his moral integrity. Stoner's professional enemy, the disabled Hollis Lomax, uses not only his own disability against Stoner, but a similarly disabled student Charles Walker, sending Walker to attend Stoner's tutorials where he is disruptive and fails to complete the academic tasks. Stoner fails Walker, and Lomax calls for a viva. When in the viva Walker appears to know his subject thoroughly, thus seeming to prove Stoner unjust, Stoner, rather than being sorry that he is apparently proved wrong and is thus falling into Lomax's hands, is glad - for the sake of the student, and for the sake of literature and the intellect; when, later in the interview, further questions show that in fact Walker knows little and, prepared for the viva by Lomax, has been merely parroting him, Stoner is disappointed rather than triumphant. There is redemption too for the reader in the uplifting quality of the prose.

John puzzled a little about the fact that it didn't seem on the surface a psychological novel: it is written in an objective third person, and although we take Stoner's perspective - apart from one or two occasions when we take that of his wife Edith - we do constantly see Stoner, as well as all the other characters, entirely objectively. We don't share his interiority, as Clare pointed out; at the most we are told Stoner's reactions and emotions, but most often often not even that: they are left unstated. We can however always infer them, and their causes, and, as Ann said, this book is a classic and supreme example of 'show not tell.'

There was now a lot of relishing of the events of the novel and discussion of the characters and their motives, situations and emotions. (Some people could see Edith's pampered yet restrictive female upbringing as creating her character, and thus felt some sympathy, but Clare said she was simply 'evil'.) John then wondered about the political correctness of making the disabled Lomax and Walker so evil. I said that I thought that the point was that Lomax and Walker used their disability precisely to manipulate by taking advantage of others', and in particular Stoner's, wariness of acting prejudicially towards them - in other words, it was an abuse of what we now call political correctness. Ann pointed out that Lomax and Walker are direct literary descendants of Shakespeare's Richard III, and that this was a conscious authorial reference: they even look the way the Richard III has frequently been depicted, and indeed Lomax is said by the narration to have the face of a 'matinee idol'. Trevor said he thought that the disability was a specific metaphor for race: Lomax and Walker stood for the black lecturers who he said could not have existed in white American universities at the time the novel is set (Stoner begins university in 1910 and retires in 1956), though no one else could subscribe to this or follow its logic. John pointed out that if Williams had been concerned with race he would have raised issues around the black worker whom Stoner's parents take on when Stoner does not return to the farm, but he does not do so, and Clare objected that black academics would have been outsiders and quite unable to insinuate themselves into positions of power within the white establishment as Lomax and Walker do.

One person, I think Jenny, said that one thing she did find missing in the book was a sense for the reader of the joy of literature that Stoner experiences. When the rest of us thought about it, we agreed (as fiction lovers ourselves, we had taken the joy of literature for granted), and John said that he had been surprised to be not much impressed by the Shakespeare sonnet that gives Stoner his road-to-Damascus revelation about literature: it was a sonnet he hadn't known, and thought it was perhaps not one of the best. Personally, I find poems very hard to read in the middle of novels: I think they require a different kind of reading and it's very hard to adjust to them in middle of the flow of prose, and the blank reaction of everyone else to John's comment perhaps means that others were similarly unable to give it the right attention.

After the meeting, Doug, who had been unable to attend, sent his comments, and he turned out to be one of those people who find the book too sad. Having started out enjoying the book with its initial story of 'a life seemingly preordained becoming suddenly full of unexpected possibilities', Doug began to be 'overwhelmed' by the many setbacks and what he saw as the pessimism of the novel: '...the sadness of the book seeped into me - that's not a good thing.'

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

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