You could be forgiven for forgetting that Stoner by John Williams was the book I bought at the LRB Bookshop on a day trip to the metropolis recently, only to arrive home and find that another copy had arrived from Amazon that I had completely forgotten I had ordered. Drat the iTouch app that makes book buying so quick and simple it's scarily forgotten in nano-seconds.
So with two copies I made the choice to keep the rather nice New York Review of Books edition just to see if I could get my NYRB collection within a mile of all those 'Man Bloggers' who love them so much, and I would give the Vintage edition as a gift. Which I did to Karen of Cornflower when we met, and I'm now quite pleased I did because I know it's been read and passed on to a friend of Karen's as requested. In fact a feline-like commenter here who has a birthday today and who reads and haunts these parts and my hope is that the gift copy hasn't fallen apart in his paws as my copy has.
As I turned over to p100, *pop* out flew the next eight pages. I know there are worse things in life to fret over but I do find that quite disconcerting when it happens, it does something odd to the reading moment let alone the thought of the £11.99 you've paid for a paperback.
Expectations run high when John McGahern claims as follows in a recommend I came across while browsing my copies of The Reader recently (incidentally a journal that continues in the ascendant, if you love books, you'll love The Reader) and had delved as far back as Issue 5 Autumn 1999
'Stoner is...the best novel I know set in a university. Williams writes convincingly of that most difficult thing to write about, the experience of literature, and the experience of teaching literature...Among the subjects it touches are conflict (sexual and academic), perversion, careerism, idealism, faitfulness, love and death. The plot creaks a little here and there, but it does not matter. The triumph is in the purity and truth of its language.'
We might as well all go home now with that succinct and spot on encapsulation of the book.
So much written about Stoner around the LitBlogs, hither, thither and yonder where the book has been embraced with a tradition of love and fealty that I'm hardly likely to disrupt. Except it did subvert my expectations by being a quietly combustible page-turner, unlike Crossing To Safety by Wallace Stegner, the slow-burn read that, prior to opening this, had lasted me for weeks.
I had to stop myself reading Stoner too fast, it warrants careful deliberation but occasionally demanded some furious page-turning as Desperate of Devon couldn't wait to know how this was going to pan out.
For those who know little or nothing of the book, Stoner is an account of the life of William Stoner set in that period bridging both wars that provide such fertile fictional ground.
Stoner a quietly, introspective, single-minded young man, one on a seemingly very even keel, prone to no extremes, apparently incapable of excitement, lacking in social skills or confidence but somehow content in his shoes. In many ways an oddly gentle, unassuming product of his upbringing given its roots in poverty and hard manual labour on the family farm at Booneville, Missouri.
'It was a lonely household, of which he was on only child, and it was bound together by the necessity of its toil.'
It was too soon in the book for me to appreciate quite how much William Stoner must have owed these qualities to his poverty-stricken, hard-working parents, but much was to become apparent as I read on. Reflecting back on the book as I write, I now realise that very early on it became clear to me that
John Williams had that writerly skill I have long admired since first
discovering George Eliot's ability to do it... a writer who can have me
scurrying to judgement and then gently twist things around and make me see
John Williams was to do this many times over before I reached the end of the book, but masterly writing indeed if you have me biting my lip by the end of chapter two.
The forty mile journey to Columbia University might well have been akin to crossing the continent and William Stoner's ambitions towards academia hardly written in the stars, with an attitude to lessons much akin to the enforced labour of his chores on the farm. It is his parents' unexpected offer of the chance to study agriculture for four years at Columbia that will give their son the opportunities they lacked, but with the unspoken agreement that he will come back to the farm with that knowledge and carry on as before.
They hadn't bargained for the fact their son would be far more enamored by literature.
But that Shakespeare Sonnet 73, used by his tutor to humiliate William Stoner in an early tutorial, surely a portent of things to come
That time of year thou mayest in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon these boughs which shake against the cold
Bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west...
The sonnet that examines those fears of ageing and dying and with its final two lines urging us cherish it while we can
'This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.'
When his tutor asks him dryly,
'Mr Shakespeare speaks to you across three hundred years Mr Stoner; do you hear him?'
There is little doubt that Mr Shakespeare has indeed spoken and that William Stoner has been privy to a personal revelation in that classroom that will affect him for the rest of his life.
The closeted insularity of the collegiate world, for all its privileges, somehow mirroring the isolated life that Stoner had been used to, and once settled it's clear this will become his world and his life. Life will have to come to him, Stoner is unlikely to go looking for it and when love does appear... though what does this man know of love I asked myself (judging again, in the end her knows plenty as John Williams slowly reveals), it is laden with a sense of foreboding beautifully described in this vision of Edith on the day of their marriage.
'In her white dress she was like a cold light coming into the room...'
How few words were needed to tell me what frozen wastes may lay ahead.
John McGahern's perceptive introduction likens Edith to the women portrayed by Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams et al but I instantly thought of another writer.
Edith's sheltered, privileged life lived 'like a low hum' could easily have existed on the edges of the latter-day Edith Wharton milieu. Not quite wealthy enough to be the elite, but the Bostwicks, a St Louis banking family to whom money mattered first and foremost (I'd have loved a little Lindbergh reference to fly in somewhere) and clearly the 1929 stock market crash was approaching. Edith in some respects discreetly and surprisingly (more judgements dispelled) armed with all the capabilities of Wharton's femme fatale from The Custom of the Country, Undine Spragg, though with little courage or scope to use them to the full. Though John Williams makes it impossible to warm to her, there is something utterly tragic about Edith's life too.
There will be moments of joy for Stoner, this is life after all, consistently and completely miserable doesn't make for good reading; moments when he is afforded a glimpse of pure happiness, the what-might-have-been tantalisingly just beyond his grasp leaving a life over-arched by a wistful melancholia, yet hard to imagine a different course for a man so beset by his own inadequacies.
'He took a grim and ironic pleasure from the possibility that what little learning he had managed to acquire had led him to this knowledge: that in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter.'
And as John Williams makes clear in interviews about the book, Stoner was a man doing what he wanted to do and I would add it could be argued selfishly so. The same interview reveals something more as Williams complains about the changes in the teaching of literature and the attitude to the text ,
'as if a novel or poem is something to be studied and understood rather than experienced....to read without joy is stupid.'
For all its seeming sadness there is something very joyful about reading this book, with a fulfilled sense of completeness to the ending that I won't dwell on, but to be left with that sensation that you've just read a brilliant book, Stoner an experience to be treasured.