Saturday, April 26, 2014

the last book I read

Stoner by John Williams.

So, just to manage your expectations here, this is not the story of some guy who stumbles round California in the 1960s smoking a load of dope (a variant of that story can be found in the early stages of this book, if that's what you want). Instead, this is the story of the eponymous William Stoner, born into a poor farming family in the late 19th century and expected by both his parents and himself to inherit the farm and the associated backbreaking work and responsibility when the time comes. In an attempt to better himself he enrols on an agricultural sciences course at the University of Missouri, a course which comes with some compulsory English literature elements, and has something of an epiphany during his reluctant attendance at these extra classes on hearing a Shakespeare sonnet.

In the wake of this significant moment he immediately ditches the agriculture courses (and, with them, any aspirations of taking over the family farm) and switches to the full-blown English literature course. Not only that, but on completing his studies he immediately accepts a teaching post at the university, thus defining the course of his future life.

At the same time as he is committing himself to a life of teaching he is making equally irrevocable commitments to his future wife, Edith, a somewhat highly-strung young woman he has nonetheless fallen in love with, though (as was customary in the early years of the 20th century) without really getting to know her at all well. They marry, and it soon becomes clear to Stoner that he has made a terrible mistake. But, it's before World War I, so there's not much he can do about it. 

Clearly the personal and professional life of a university professor isn't going to involve much in the way of ray-gun battles or car chases, but some challenges present themselves nonetheless. Edith gives birth to a daughter, Grace, who Stoner dotes on until Edith mounts a concerted campaign to shut him out of her life. Meanwhile the new head of Stoner's department, Hollis Lomax, takes a violent dislike to Stoner after a disagreement over the merits of Lomax's star student, thus precipitating a feud that lasts for over twenty years. 

On the positive side, Stoner's teaching brings him pleasure and satisfaction, and in his forties he even embarks on a tentative love affair with one of his former students, Katherine Driscoll. In such a claustrophobic community it's impossible to keep such things a secret for long, but Edith seems unexpectedly mellow about the whole thing, possibly out of relief that Stoner is having his, hem hem, "needs" taken care of elsewhere. Hollis Lomax is less sanguine when he finds out, though, and makes sure that Katherine is obliged to pursue her academic ambitions elsewhere.

Stoner's health takes a turn for the worse after Katherine's departure, but he continues his teaching duties until eventually he is incapacitated by the cancer that eventually kills him in his mid-sixties.

And, erm, that's it. No light sabre showdowns, no last minute return of old lovers to declare everlasting love, no comforting reunion with his estranged daughter, no satisfying acts of vengeance against those by whom he had been wronged. But that's the point, really, it's just one man's life. A life that probably didn't work out the way he would have wanted it, either personally or professionally, but who's to say that it was a failure? He spent most of his life teaching the subject he loved, and while his marriage wasn't particularly happy he had his brief Indian summer of true love. And his problems with Hollis Lomax were mostly caused by his own admirably spiky integrity and dislike of pretence and bullshit. My only criticisms would be that it's never entirely clear what the basis for Lomax's hatred of Stoner is, or, to put it another way, why Lomax is so attached to his star student Charles Walker in the face of all the evidence that he is a liar and a bullshitter. Edith's motivations are never completely clear either; I guess we're meant to assume that the impossible situation women of marriageable age were put in in the early 20th century (and for some decades afterwards) has just sent her a bit mental.

So the point of the book is that anyone's life, however seemingly mundane, is interesting and remarkable if looked at closely enough. Williams himself was an English professor, so there's a suspicion that this is at least partly autobiographical, or at least inspired by his own life. Of course what the book also is is a hymn of love to literature, and to Stoner's own lifelong love affair with it. I suppose this does mean that it's a book likely to appeal to people who already like books, if that makes sense at all. In other words, if your question is "why would I read a novel?" this may not be the answer. I think it's a little low-key masterpiece, though, which is not to say I quite understand the extraordinary acclaim that's been heaped on it since its reissue in 2003 (it was originally published in 1965) - though, oddly, more in Europe than in America. I suppose the internet just accelerates the word-of-mouth effect. My Vintage paperback has a foreword by John McGahern, whose Amongst Women previously featured on this list

Echoes of other books, as always: the grimness of the brief descriptions of farming life at the beginning echoes My √Āntonia, and the excruciating awkwardness of the wedding night fumblings is very reminiscent of the pivotal scenes in On Chesil Beach.

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