What is a good life? This question stalks my reading, of fiction about older women, of feminist texts and of last year’s surprise success – Stoner by John Williams. I had read references to it in the end of year lists, and it was especially endorsed by Julian Barnes in the Guardian Review in December 2013. I was also drawn to it by its academic setting, having been employed for the last 20 years in a university.
This is not a novel that made an immediate impact, for it was first published in the US in 1965, and in the UK in 1973. Even today it is apparently more popular in Europe than in the US. I don’t know what made it become a word of mouth success last year, but it did. In his piece Julian Barnes describes how the introduction by John McGahern led him to the opening page and then how he was drawn in.
… And the prose was clean and quiet. And the first page led to the second and then what happened was that joyful internal word-of-mouth that sends a reader hurrying from one page to the next; which in turn leads to external word-of-mouth, the pressing of the book on friends, the ordering and sending of copies.
The narrative follows William Stoner entering the new University of Missouri at 19 to his death, at the age of 64 when he was an assistant professor of English Literature in the same university. His career, we are warned in the opening paragraph, was unremarkable and he was held ‘in no particular esteem’ by his colleagues. Why, then is his life the subject of a novel of nearly 300 pages?
In some ways one might perceive Stoner’s life as a slow accumulation of failure and disappointment. In the closing pages of the novel, Stoner is lying on his deathbed and considers his life.
Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be. He had wanted friendship and the closeness of friendship that might hold him in the race of mankind; he had two friends, one of whom had died senselessly before he was known, the other of whom had now withdrawn so distantly into the ranks of the living that … He had wanted singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died. He had wanted love; and he had had love, and had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality. (p285)
He considers his career in teaching, mostly he concedes as an indifferent one. And he asks himself repeatedly, ‘What did you expect?’ And the reader must ask this question, about the novel and about life.
Despite the apparent failure, (and we need to stress the appearance of failure, as Stoner does in the first sentence of the extract above) he has managed a life that is sad, but good. By relating Stoner’s life from boyhood to death in ‘clean and quiet prose’, Williams reveals its small actions, or inactions, all performed from a sense of integrity. His marriage is loveless and gives very little to either of them, and for much of their life together they can hardly be said to share anything. Even their daughter grows up to escape them through an early pregnancy and then alcoholism. She goes to live far away. Stoner’s career is overshadowed by a long feud with Lomax, who becomes his head of department, and they don’t talk for years. Lomax is vindictive, which Stoner accedes to (class schedules) for years until he finds a way to rebel. The breakdown in their relationship occurred because Stoner doubted the competence of a student favoured by Lomax.
He falls in love with a young woman, it is reciprocated and for less than a year he experienced love, companionship and delight with Katherine. Their behaviour was unacceptable in the 1950s, and they part. Their separation marks the end of Stoner’s only happy period.
And he becomes a teacher. He himself was overcome with the importance of English Literature when as an undergraduate he was exposed to Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet. Since that moment he has immersed himself in teaching the subject. For me, this was the weakest element of the book – not the moment of revelation, which leaves Stoner silent, unable to breathe or speak. But we get no sense of his classes, his relationship with his students, the pleasures he derived from teaching. We are told on the first page that ‘very few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses’.
John William’s writing is spare and even. He is able to provide insights into his character’s behaviour without flourish. Here, for example, is Stoner’s wife Edith. She is not a bad woman, but she was brought up in a way that did not encourage a decent relationship.
Her moral training, both at the schools she attended and at home, was negative in nature, prohibitive in intent, and almost entirely sexual. The sexuality, however, was indirect and unacknowledged; therefore it suffused every other part of her education, which received most of its energy from the recessive and unspoken moral force. She learned that she would have duties toward her husband and family and that she must fulfil them. (p54)
I think that just about sums up the moral education of young women for millennia, and why it has been so important to oppose it.
John Williams is very good a portraying awkwardness between people – Stoner and his parents, who hardly ever speak, with his wife and his head of department. I wished he had had the courage or the beliefs that would allow him to take on his wife as she manoeuvred him about the house as if he was an inconvenient piece of furniture. The prose is spare, never racy or dramatic, reminding me of John McGahern’s novels and also of James Salter’s All that Is. These writers are also skilled at retelling the lives of men who lived in difficult circumstances – not so far removed from our own experiences – and for whom everyday activities and concerns add up to decent lives.
In addition to Julian Barnes’ piece, I also recommend this review on the Vulpes Libris blog.
Have you read Stoner? How did you respond to it?
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