By Harvey Freedenberg
Stoner by John Williams (New York Review Books Classics, $14.95, 288 pages, paperback)
For a long time, some well-read Twitter followers have been urging me to pick up John Williams’ novel, Stoner. Even after all their lavish praise, I had nagging doubts that this novel, which sold 2,000 copies when it was published in 1965 and was out of print until it was rescued by New York Review Books Classics in 2006, could possibly be as wonderful as they claimed. Now that I’ve read it, those doubts have been swept aside. It’s the extraordinary story of an ordinary life and as close to a perfect novel as any I’ve read in many years.
Stoner is a deep character study that begins in 1910 when its protagonist, William Stoner, leaves his family’s modest farm to study at the University of Missouri’s College of Agriculture. He abandons that course of study for literature, joins the faculty, obtains his Ph.D., endures a loveless marriage that produces a daughter, has a passionate affair, retires after more than four decades of teaching and, a short time later, dies. While I’ve disclosed most of the plot in the preceding sentences, there are no spoilers, because Williams does pretty much the same thing in the two crisp paragraphs that open the novel.
The fact is that William Stoner is anything but a boring pedant. He’s intensely committed to the study of literature, passionately devoted to his students and, above all, possessed of an unflinching integrity that’s revealed in a fierce confrontation with a faculty rival that inflicts permanent damage on his career. As Stoner’s life passes, measured more by the change of semester than of season, Williams induces us to feel the same ache the teacher does at what he perceives as his lack of tangible accomplishment. In truth, as we grow to understand, he has lived his life honorably and well, bravely facing life’s inevitable disappointments and reversals.
So what is it that makes this quiet, outwardly (and deceptively) simple story about a man whom “few students remembered…with any sharpness after they had taken his courses,” and whose colleagues “held him in no particular esteem” so appealing? While the answer may seem elusive because of its mundane subject matter and the artlessness of Williams’ style, the novel’s ability to exert such a strong grip rests on a solid foundation: the acuteness of Williams’ powers of observation and his ability to capture a character, an emotion or a scene that gives us the feeling of rightness time after time. It’s as if we are experiencing real life, not merely words on the page.
That sense is felt most acutely in the many scenes that portray Stoner’s marriage to Edith Bostwick, the emotionally distant daughter of a St. Louis banking family whose fortunes are on the wane. “Within a month he knew that his marriage was a failure; within a year he stopped hoping it would improve,” Williams writes, with a chilly directness.
Elsewhere, he describes Stoner’s emotions as he gazes on a naked, sleeping Edith and how he “felt a distant pity and reluctant friendship and familiar respect; and he felt also a weary sadness.” But in Stoner’s final days, he and Edith “had forgiven themselves for the harm they had done each other.” For all literature’s portrayals of unhappy marriages, there aren’t many that do so with Williams’ level of psychological acuity and empathy for these characters.
There is a patient, unforced quality to Williams’ writing and an economy of language that draws us in. He’s capable of rapier-sharp insights, as when he describes Stoner and his lover, embracing as they are about to begin their affair, “as if any movement might let escape from them the strange and terrible thing that they held between them in a single grasp.” At the same time, his prose attains the heights of lyricism, here explaining how Stoner, as a college sophomore, falls in love with classic literature, already understanding it will be the one true passion of his life: “The past gathered out of the darkness where it stayed, and the dead raised themselves to live before him; and the past and the dead flowed into the present among the alive, so that he had for an intense instant a vision of denseness into which he was compacted and from which he could not escape, and had no wish to escape.”
By the time you finish this profoundly satisfying novel, you’ll feel like you know William Stoner better than many of the people who surround you daily. Still, even after reading this review, you may remain as skeptical as I was that you should rush out and purchase a book that made so little of an impression on readers half a century ago, it nearly vanished without a trace. If that’s the case, then all I can do is ask you to trust me. You’ll thank me when you do. I promise.