Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 278 pages; 2003.
In the introduction to my copy of John Williams’ Stoner, Irish writer John McGahern says the one central idea of this novel is love: “The many forms love takes and all the forms that oppose it.”
But the message I took from it is to not be afraid to follow your passions, to stay true to yourself, to steer your own course and not fall under the influence of toxic people. This applies in all facets of life, whether love, work or play.
William Stoner, the protagonist in this novel, steers his own course when it concerns his career but lets others get the better of him in his personal life. It makes for a sometimes frustrating read, not least because you want to grab him by the shoulders and tell him NOT TO BE SO PASSIVE! Yet this is a wise and wonderful book about life and love on — and off — campus in the early part of the 20th century.
A rediscovered classic
First published in 1965, Stoner was “rediscovered” in the early 2000s and became THE must-read book for bloggers circa 2005, which is when I acquired my copy. It has since gone through another mini revival, in 2012, when Vintage reissued it again. By my reckoning it’s about time for another comeback, as it were.
The story charts the life of one man — William Stoner — from the time he begins university to study agriculture in 1910 to his death as a just-retired English professor more than 40 years later.
It largely focuses on Stoner’s career, which starts off full of promise and vigour but as the years wear on becomes slightly curtailed by university politics and his rivalry with another professor, Hollis Lomax, and contrasts this with his married home life, which also starts off promising but becomes toxic even before the honeymoon is over.
It’s written in a coolly detached manner but is rich in human insights and universal truths. There’s an intensity to everything that Stoner does, whether that be marriage or study or having an affair or hanging out with his beloved daughter. And always — always! — there’s a commitment to honesty.
A love of literature
When the book begins, Stoner is heading to the University of Missouri to study agriculture so that he can run the family farm when he graduates. However, in second year, that plan goes awry when he switches to literature, where a whole new world opens up to him. Later, his mentor, English instructor Archie Sloane, pulls him aside and suggests he stay on to do his Master of Arts:
“[…] after which you would probably be able to teach while you worked towards your doctorate. If that sort of thing would interest you at all?”
Stoner drew back. “What do you mean?” he asked and heard something like fear in his voice.
Sloane leaned forward until his face was close; Stoner saw the lines on the long, thin face soften, and he heard the dry mocking voice become gentle and unprotected.
“But don’t you know, Mr Stoner?” Sloane asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”
Which is exactly what happens. Previously a rather lonely, introverted person, as a tutor in the English Department he finds a kind of solace and develops friendships with other educated men who are his equals. Sadly, his best friend David Masters is killed on the battlefields of France during the Great War (Stoner refuses to sign up), a relationship he mourns long into the future.
And this, essentially, becomes the pattern of Stoner’s life: he finds something he loves, then it is either lost or becomes damaged or lessened in some way.
Case in point: his marriage to the beautiful and privileged Edith Bostwick, the daughter of a banker, who grew up in a big house with servants, turns sour very quickly. Edith, he discovers on the night of their wedding, is not interested in sex, and when they’re installed in a home of their own reveals herself to be a demanding and manipulative wife, encouraging him to buy property beyond his means, moving his study (without asking) into a poky glassed-in sun porch because she wants to use his room for her twin hobbies of painting and sculpture. Later, she uses their young daughter, Grace, as a way to hurt her husband even further.
Second case in point: his affair with Katherine Driscoll, a student in her late 20s, who asks him for feedback on her dissertation. The pair fall in love but the relationship comes to an abrupt end when its discovery is used against him as a form of blackmail by his rival in the English department. He never quite gets over this loss.
Anyway, you get the idea… Stoner’s personal life is pockmarked with these losses and tragedies, and these occasionally impinge on his career, which is, itself, plagued by political infighting and office dramas. Even when he nears retirement age, his desire to work beyond that has to be relinquished through events not of his own making.
Life of a lonely man
It’s easy to come away from Stoner thinking what a sad and tragic — and ultimately lonely — life he lead. Yet I never felt sorry for him; I simply wanted him to stand up for himself, to stop being so nice to his wife, to help his daughter when she needs it most, to push back against all the forces trying to keep him down.
Do we make rods for our own backs? In Stoner’s case, yes, that’s probably true.
But despite all that, Stoner is also an admirable person, not least the love he has for his daughter (although his inaction to help her out as an adult is questionable). Equally, his passion for literature and language, his dedication to his work and his desire to uphold academic standards against the face of interpersonal corruption is commendable.
As a whole, Stoner is psychologically compelling, tender, passionate and wise. I don’t know why it took me so long to read it.
This is my 16th book for #TBR40. For some reason I have two copies of this book — the Vintage Classics edition published in 2003 (purchased in the wake of “blogger buzz” circa 2005) and the reprinted edition from 2012. Mr Reading Matters also has a Kindle edition, which is the version I read.