Thursday, 16 January 2014

"to read without joy is stupid"

'Stoner' by John Williams was recommended in a plethora of places as a newly rediscovered 'classic', and there was a queue for it as the library. In small ways it reminded me of Larry's Party by Carol Shields that I really loved, it is similarly a realist tale of one man's life, but William Stoner is more tragic and sad. In the story Stoner is the only son of hard working farmers who goes off to college to learn skills to help the farm, but instead he falls in love with literature and discovers things about life and himself that he had never considered before. He abandons his former life and eventually become a literature professor. Life however is a succession of disappointments to which he becomes merely resigned and stoical. He marries a strange girl, who turns out to be squashed down by her parents and apparently without imagination. His academic career is thwarted by a disagreement with the chairman of the university that spirals out of control and becomes a decades-long silent feud between them. His initial close bond with his young daughter is undermined and then obliterated by his wife's interference. He is unremarkable, the opening page says this of him:
"Stoner's colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers." (p.1)
and mostly he shies away from confrontation, allowing his wife to turn him out of both his study and his bedroom as well as his daughter's life, but when it comes to the university he makes his stand and manages to reassert himself in a clever and subtle way. Even when I felt frustrated with him because of his resignation, particularly the refusal to fight for his daughter, I guess I liked him because he is a good man. Literature becomes his escape, his inner life is truly more important than what could be viewed as the petty concerns of everyday life. It is his passion and what gives his existence meaning, and you have to ask yourself why is that any less valid than anything else he might have done with his life. He refers regularly to a friend from his youth who chose to enlist during the First World War and was killed; it is almost as if he wants to remind himself that life is so short and death so arbitrary, and what we choose to do is not so important as the integrity with which we do it. 

The book lingers regularly on his thought processes and it becomes something of a meditation on the nature of existence. Everything about it is understated, it lacks drama, even his wife's 'tantrums' seem muted by his lack of response to them. Periodically he sinks into a kind of depression that is then lifted by a renewed enthusiasm for his teaching; this quote I liked because it gives a good impression of Stoner's sense of unreality and meaninglessness:

"He heard the silence of the winter night, and it seemed to him that he somehow felt the sounds that were absorbed by the delicate and intricately cellular being of the snow. Nothing moved upon the whiteness; it was a dead scene, which seemed to pull at him, to suck at his consciousness just as it pulled the sound from the air and buried it within a cold white softness. He felt himself pulled outward towards the whiteness, which spread as far as he could see, and which was part of the darkness from which it glowed, of the clear and coldness sky without height or depth. For an instant he felt himself go out of the body that sat motionless before the window; and as he felt himself slip away, everything - the flat whiteness, the trees, the tall columns, the night, the far stars - seemed incredibly tiny and far away, as if they were dwindling to a nothingness." (p.185)

The book also felt as if it were an examination of the quote "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man" (regularly attributed to Saint Francis Xavier). There is not an extended description of Stoner's childhood, but it was hard and his parents are accepting of their place and lot in life, and the truth is that he never leaves this behind, it is ingrained on his personality and colours the way he reacts to the new life he makes for himself. I found this final quote is very moving, talking about Stoner's reaction to the Great Depression and shows the character as profoundly empathic, probably, on reflection, his strongest quality:

"And although he looked upon them with apparent impassivity, he was aware of the times in which he lived. During that decade when many men's faces found a permanent hardness and bleakness, as if they looked upon an abyss, William Stoner, to whom that expression was as familiar as the air he walked in, saw the signs of a general despair he had known since he was a boy. He saw good men go down into a slow decline of hopelessness, broken as their vision of a decent life was broken; he saw them walking aimlessly upon the streets, their eyes empty like shards of broken glass; he saw them walk up to back doors, with the bitter pride of men who go to their executions, and beg for the bread that would allow them to beg again; and he saw men, who had once walked erect in their own identities, look at him with envy and hatred for the poor security he enjoyed as a tenured employee of an institution that somehow could not fail. He did not give voice to this awareness; but the knowledge of common misery touched him and changed him in ways that were hidden deep from the public view, and a quiet sadness for the common plight was never far beneath any moment of his living." (p.226-7)

(Post title is a quote from the author as given on his Wikipedia page)

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