Tag Archives: Stoner

The Best Books for … a lockdown

I am thoroughly fed up with newspapers, booksellers even book tweeters assuming that they know what I want to read during the lockdown. By the time this post appears it will be more than 50 days into the restrictions, and although we may still be finding them hard, we will know more about how we cope than pop psychologists with their routines of resilience. I am dubious about the idea of reading being some kind of antidote to boredom and loneliness.

We are being recommended to read long books, or comfort reads, or books about restrictions and the plague, or books that offer escapism. But we may not want this. What everyone seems to agree on is that readers are reading more, and readers have more time for more reading. But I don’t want to work through a list of long books I’ve been meaning to read forever; I don’t want books to cheer me up; or to match any low mood; or books that pander to a reduced ability to concentrate. 

During the lockdown I have enjoyed a good mixture. So here’s my list of Best Books and I invite you to add your choices too. 

Quiet books

If you haven’t read Stoner by John Williams this might be a good opportunity. The main character leads an unremarkable life, which can be described as an accumulation of failure and disappointment. But it is a life worth reading about. You can read my review here.

Barbara Pym is another writer, but very different, who writes about the small things of life, the quiet people, everyday events. I really enjoyed rereading Excellent Women, and highly recommend it to you. It was the subject of the previous post. And for a book by her in the older women in fiction series you could read Quartet in Autumn.

A thoughtful writer

An early casualty of the cancellation of all my activities was an event in Bristol at which Rebecca Solnit was due to speak. What made it even more frustrating was that this was the second time she had cancelled a visit to Bristol. I’m not taking it personally. But I want to read more from Call them by their True Names by Rebecca Solnit. This was a gift from my daughter at Christmas, being a collection of essays. And in anticipation of that cancelled event I had obtained a copy of her memoir: Recollections of My Non-Existence. I have scheduled a post on this blog on her writing for the near future.

She always provides a wider perspective on events, allowing one to understand the world in which we live in more breadth and depth. You will find several posts featuring her writing (all non-fiction).

Comfort Reading

I don’t usually go in for comfort reading, but there is one book that I have read in the past during times of great personal difficulty. It absorbs my attention and flatters my focus as a reader, for I know the plot so well. I enjoy reading new details, of style, comment, interaction and so forth. It is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. And if the moments of personal difficulty follow too close together I will replace it with Persuasion. Neither novel comforts me because they end well for the heroine, but because they are so well crafted, such a treat for the reader.

Books I started and want to finish now

One book in this category has to be Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, which won the Booker Prize. I started it a few months ago, but it was called back to the library and so now I have my own copy I can continue to read it without the threat of being parted from it. I relished Mr Loverman, partly because it is set in Hackney, a part of London which I know well. And also because the people in that novel were, as it were, known to me. I had lived among them. In addition I attended a day course at the British Museum on which Bernardine Evaristo tutored. It was a good experience. That woman has serious talent.

And another book to finish is RC Sherriff’s A Fortnight in September. This is another book that I read a chapter of and now want to get back to. It regularly receives praise on social media, and I feel I should know it. 

Poetry

I am dipping into various collections and enjoying the work of a range of poets: Kathleen Jamie and Helen Dunmore for example. 

Novels on the theme of pandemic:

Maybe I will try one or more of these:

Lockdown by Peter May 

La Peste by Albert Camus

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

The Stand by Stephen King

But probably not.

And …

I am enjoying listening to Podcasts, for the discussions about books or words. And I’m pleased that Backlisted Podcast is now in production again. These podcasts feature, as the name implies, books that are on publishers’ backlists but still deserve attention. They restarted the series in April with a look at Barbara Pym.

And I continue to read chosen books for the blog, especially the series, my book clubs and because I have them on my shelves. 

Recommended by others

Five Comfort Reads from A Life in Books blog

Lockdown Reading by Anne Goodwin on Inspired Quill

Comfort Reading on the Guardian, chosen by various writers

There are lots of good suggestions there for people who like lists of recommendations.

Best Books for …

This was my third post in an ad hoc series which all begin The best book for …  Some other ideas are … reading in translation; … recommending to book groups; … taking on holiday; … when I am ill in bed; and so on. The first two were: 

The Best Books for … changing my life in December 2019

The Best Books for … giving in January 2020.

Over to you

So what books would you add to a list of the best books for the lockdown?

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Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell

I did not include Mrs Bridge when I wrote my recent post about fiction with titles in their titles: Books with Mrs or Miss in the title. Thanks to Simon Lavery for bringing it to my attention and for recommending it.

The American writer Evan S Connell has succeeded in the challenge of representing a life limited and circumscribed by convention and in which very little happens, in a way which captures the interest and the sympathy of the reader.

Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell a summary

Mrs Bridge lives in Kansas City and is married to a lawyer of considerable reputation and increasing wealth in the years after the First World War. He spends time working hard to provide his family with what they want, but depriving them of his presence. The family live in a big house in the Country Club district. It would be wrong to call Mrs Bridge a housewife as they employ ‘a young colored girl named Harriet to do the cooking and cleaning’ (6). She does very little.

It the early years she raises three children. The children grow up, and she understands them less and less and they grow away from her. She flirts with the idea of learning Spanish, does a little charity work, runs useless errands, socialises and gossips with her friends. One friend commits suicide. A birthday trip to Europe is interesting but cut short by German invasion of Poland. She finds herself bored and unable to find a way out of her situation.

The overwhelming impression of Mrs Bridgeis of a life that counts for very little, a person who is unable to make changes for herself and defers to her husband on all issues. Her one attempt to access psychiatric help is dismissed out of hand by Mr Bridge. An underlying theme is of change during her life. Mrs Bridge has some inkling of the social changes around her, but does not think them through: social, racial and gender inequalities, mental health issues, the war in Europe. Her life ends in the same inconsequential way as she lived it.

Mrs Bridge is no hero

This novel follows none of the rules that rooky novelists are nowadays encouraged to adopt. Make sure that the main character wants something strongly and battles for it throughout the novel. (Mrs Bridge wants nothing. She avoids battles.) And make the antagonist a rounded person also. (Mrs Bridge has no antagonist). Her struggle and its resolution should follow a strong narrative, with vivid scenes and a three or five act structure. (Mrs Bridge  has little narrative, and her story is not resolved in the conventional way). So how does it work?

In the first place, it is written as 117 short episodes. It started life as a short story. They build into a picture of Mrs Bridge who lives her life in short and often very insubstantial episodes: a book in a store window that raises her resentment (Theory of the Leisure Class); being a chaperone at a party; requiring her son to wear a hat; employing a chauffeur; reading the local socialite magazine …

Evan S Connell keeps us at a distance from his main character.

Her first name was India – she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. (3)

She remains estranged from her first name throughout the novel. She is always referred to as Mrs Bridge.

Evan S Connell writes in a spare style which brilliantly shows Mrs Bridge’s inability to take independent action. There is a great deal of restrained humour in the short episodes. The lines quoted above open the novel. Mrs Bridge wonders if her parents were hoping for another sort of daughter,

As a child she was often on the point of enquiring, but time passed and she never did. (3)

And another example, her first daughter is about to leave home:

Mrs Bridge tried to become indignant when Ruth announced she was going to New York, but after all it was useless to argue. (108)

It breaks many rules, but it is a small masterpiece. For another successful novel about an unremarkable life one might consider Stoner  by John Williams, published in 1965.

Evan S Connell

Evan S Connell was born in 1924 in Kansas City. Mrs Bridge was his debut novel. It has been suggested that the character wass based on his own mother, who lived a similar life to Mrs Bridge, in Kansas City. The novel was dedicated to his sister.

The publication of a debut novel at 45 years may seem quite late. Evan S Connell had enlisted as a pilot during the Second World War. He went on to write many more novels, poems and short stories including a companion novel, Mr Bridge, in 1959.  He was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in 2009. He died in 2013.

In 1990 James Ivory made the film Mr and Mrs Bridge, starring a married couple, Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman.

Simon Lavery’s comments about this novel can be found on his blog Tredynas Days: Mme Bovary of Kansas City: Evan S Connell, ‘Mrs Bridge’

Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell, first published in1959. I used the edition from Penguin Modern Classic published in 2012. 187pp

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Stoner by John Williams

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.

85 Stoner cover

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 Williams

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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