Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Individual Life & it's Consequence - The Resurrection of 'Stoner' by John Williams

This book has quietly wandered through the years, deeply affecting those who have read it but perhaps too 'ordinary' in its subject matter to gain popular momentum. It's recent reissue by Vintage Books meant that I stumbled upon it quite by chance - having casually entering a Twitter competition which resulted in it being sent to me. I am glad it was.

John Williams' Stoner (1965) is a classic in the realist style. It follows the apparently unremarkable individual life, tracing its journey from birth to death. It has no 'plot' as such beyond this, no dramatic contrivances- it is subtle, unsentimental and yet deeply affecting because of it. It is written in a style that could be called stoical or objective - it is not heavily emotive in its prose and imagery but this stark stoicism resonates emotionally with the reader who invests in the character - one many may recognise as themselves. Stoner works as a professor in Medieval Literature at the University of Missouri for most of the novel. His life is marked by his relationships with others, failed ones as with his wife and daughter, a fellow faculty member and his protege, his dead friend, and more successful ones with his one other friend and a young woman who attends some of his classes.

William Stoner really comes to life during his university experience and the birth of consciousness he experiences at this time. He stays at this university, the University of Missouri, until his 'death in 1956'. In the opening paragraph his life is downplayed, his achievements seem to be being claimed by a descent into the anonymity that greets most after their death:

'He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses... 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...' (3-4)

This paragraph lays out the key themes of the book, and those who find it off-putting can put it down at this point because they will probably not gain anything for it. Stoner stands for the human condition for the individual - caught in the throes of life, the fortunes and falls, the lack of recognition, the apparent mediocrity - you may wonder what the point is if this life seems to be so irrelevant. But it was a life lived, an individual who had to find meaning in himself when it failed with others. It is about the reader finding this meaning in the book and realising their importance in the scheme of things is itself perhaps unimportant. The character Stoner may not have impacted many people memorably, but there is still an impact to be had in an individual life immeasurable of the effect it has on others.

Stoner's life changes when he attends university to study Agriculture, intending to return to work on the family farm, and takes a module in literature. This is the moment of awakening, a point where he realises there is meaning to be found even if he never finds it himself. Williams writes such beautiful passages which are moderately harrowing in their clarity. At his mother's funeral, the language used as Stoner contemplates the impact of his parents' lives is unsentimental in itself and yet very powerful through its use of lists and repetition. The words are even derived from the semantic field of agriculture, describing simultaneously their lives and the business and process of farming - equating them. Stoner looks 'across the land in the direction of the farm where he had been born, where his mother and father had spent their years. He thought of the cost exacted, year after year, by the soil; and it remained as it had been -- a little more barren, perhaps, a little more frugal of increase. Nothing had changed. Their lives had been expended in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligences numbered. Now they were in the earth to which they had given their lives; and slowly, year by year, the earth would take them... finally it would consume the last vestiges of their substances. And they would become a meaningless part of that stubborn earth to which they had long ago given themselves.' (108)

Stoner has such reflections about his own life later in the book - I would call them life crises but they are hardly described in a way that justifies the term. Everything is calmly, objectively relayed - both by virtue of Williams's style and the third person realist narrative. Stoner sometimes feels 'that he was a kind of vegetable', longing even for 'pain' to 'pierce him' and 'bring him alive'. (179) He also seems very self-aware as a character - he recognises that the question of whether 'his were worth the living' is a question which comes to 'all men at one time or another'. It is an 'impersonal' question, one that comes from 'the accretion of his years, from the density of accident and circumstance... 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.' (179) This 'grim and ironic pleasure' is characteristic of Stoner - he does not seem to despair, or emote in a very forthcoming way. The narrative is not explicitly cathartic in this sense.

The ways in which this book is a fictional biography lend themselves to the evolution of the character over a lifetime - it traces the subtle nuances of day-to-day life, in marriage, in career, in aging. Every reflection is earnt. Stoner experiences that 'dissociation' from self, that feeling of observing himself as is if 'he were an oddly familiar stranger doing the oddly familiar things that he had to do' (181). It is his wife, Edith, who partly engineers this numbness in her cruel routine, one which encourages such dissociation from family and self.

Stoner is also a historical novel. Williams sets it to coincide over time with both World Wars, the Great Depression and various atrocities and hardships of the twentieth century. Stoner the character, and his way of perceiving the world, the kind of dulled emoting in the novel, is intrinsically linked to the state of affairs and circumstance around him. The war years are described as 'a driving and nearly unendurable storm' through which Stoner goes with 'his head down, his jaw locked, his mind fixed upon the next step', with a sense of 'stoical endurance' (245) yet also an inevitable sense of being disturbed. He is both drawn to and repulsed by the Holocaust, finding within himself a 'capacity for violence he did not know he had'. He feels dissociated, yearning for 'involvement', wishing for 'the taste of death, the bitter joy of destruction, the feel of blood... he felt both shame and pride, and over it all a bitter disappointment, in himself and in the time and circumstance that made him possible.'(245)

Mel Livatino, in his essay 'Revaluation: A Sadness Unto the Bone: John Williams's Stoner', writes about how Stoner is essentially 'a novel about university... writing the novel in the early sixties, Williams saw that the university was already starting to become the mouthpiece of political correctness'. This can be seen in the tensions between Stoner and his department chairman, Lomax, who is sensitive about his physical afflictions and those of his student protege, whom Stoner fails. Stoner is not the Keating of Dead Poet's Society, as Livatino points out, he 'does not love his students' and his reasons for loving literature are tied to 'how it has transformed his life from dumbness to consciousness'. Stoner is not heroic in the ways you may expect in a novel or a film. He is a hero for 'the reader who comes to know him... because against all odds he has overcome his parents' mute existence and against all obstacles nurtured a lifelong passion for matters of the mind and heart... he has prevailed in making himself into a superb teacher despite bored students, a repressive department chairman and his own innate muteness... he is a hero because he endures with decency and patience an impossible wife who is set against him from the outset and a daughter whose life turns tragic... the reader wants to scream into the pages of the novel 'Get out!'... and Stoner is destroyed - but he is not defeated' (Livatino).

I wanted to use Livatino's words because his essay, this part in particular, is so beautifully written and lists these reasons so poetically and emotionally. I found reading Livatino's essay quite cathartic in processing aspects of the novel. It is true that the reader longs for Stoner to escape from his life, his marriage - they long for his affair to continue, for him to enjoy those moments of happiness with Katherine - even for him to take his daughter and run but in so many ways he is held in chains, even by his own nature. The novel is tragic in some ways, perhaps individual existence often is, but Livatino sees it as 'happy in the sense the Stoics would have understood that word, for, against all the harm that comes his way, Stoner prevails in his integrity as a man, a teacher, a scholar, a husband, and finally as a human being of noble dimensions'. For all it's beauty Livatino's style is slightly hyperbolic, perhaps in reaction to the muted-ness of Williams's prose. There are also ways to criticise Stoner - the strength of the character is that he fails in many of the ways individuals do, he is passive at moments and drained by what goes on around him but he is certainly admirable for the reasons Livatino has given.

What's remarkable about this novel is that it was one of the most compelling books I've read even though on the surface it is just a fairly factual fictional chronicling of one man's fairly ordinary life. But alot of those terms seem redundant anyway. There is so much to admire in Williams's craft and I'm sure I will get more from it each time I read this book. It has relevance for every individual trying to make their way in the world, particularly the academic one. It is for the people who give and give, for the sake of something more than a thanks they will not receive.

Quotes and further reflections:

'In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.' 194

'In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion. toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. now in his middle age he began to know that i was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart'. 195

The following quote sums up why Stoner is such a remarkable character, in my opinion. For someone who received so little, he never stopped giving.
'It occurred to him that he was nearly sixty years old and that he ought to be beyond the force of such passion, of such love. But he was not beyond it, he knew, and would never be. Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there. In his youth he had given it freely, without thought; he had given it to the knowledge that had been revealed to him-- how many years ago?-by Archer Sloane; he had given it to Edith, in those first blind foolish days of his courtship and marriage; and before. He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life, and had perhaps given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance' 150

He 'saw the sickness of the world... saw hatred and suspicion become a kind of madness that swept across the land like a swift plague; he saw young men go again to war, marching eagerly to a senseless doom, as if in the echo of a nightmare. and the pity and sadness he felt were so old, so much a part of his age, that he seemed to himself nearly untouched' 251

Stoner understands and accepts the kind of contradictions inherent in individual life. The discrepancy between wish and reality. The sheer effort and the tragic failures which still did not defeat him and his ability to think and process and reflect:
'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 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... he had wanted the singleness and the still connected 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... and he had wanted to be a teacher, and he had become one; yet he knew, he had always known, that for most of his life he had been an indifferent one. He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance' 275

In this post I have cited:
1. Revaluation: A Sadness Unto the Bone: John Williams’s Stoner
Mel Livatino
Sewanee Review, Volume 118, Number 3, Summer 2010, pp. 417-422 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
DOI: 10.1353/sew.2010.0008