Sunday, 8 November 2015

A Life: Stoner by John Williams

If it's plot you are after (or just a good time...) you could just read the first page of this remarkable American novel which summarises the whole thing in two paragraphs.  For in these words are the bare bones of the life of William Stoner an English Literature lecturer in a minor University.  The key dates are reflected through the prism of the University as he stayed there for the bulk of his adult life  from his enrolment as a new student in 1910 until his death in 1956.

The rest of the book really unpicks the cursory summary of that first page as over the next 300 it outlines the heartbreaking reality of an ordinary person's life.  It is not often a novel can catch you off guard but this work (advertised as the greatest novel you have never read) certainly did this for me.

Showing the minor tragedies, tensions and battles that an ordinary person has to deal with and how they have the same depth and importance of the highest drama of the Gods or nobles as outlined by the Greeks and Shakespeare was not unique to Williams.  Indeed by 1965 when this book was published Western literature and drama had established the tradition of the ordinary life of being worthy of artistic focus.  The drama of Arthur Miller from the 1940s specifically did this in American theatre.   In literature John Updike's Rabbit saga of a (very) flawed ordinary man began 5 years before.  Even the development of cinema in the States with the work of Chaplin focused on the "little tramp" as the everyman.

But what puts Williams' work apart (and perhaps ironically is the reason it has not had broader recognition or distribution) in my view is both its tone and its setting.  Stoner's birth is in the dying decade of the nineteenth century and he lives well into the post war period of the 1950s.  So most of his life takes place in the most tumultuous period of world history,  Well placed to view two brutal world conflicts and the dynamic growth of the strongest consumerist capitalist economy humanity has ever seen William Stoner seems to live in a still calm world framed from his dirt-poor rural background.  Thus although modernity is all around him that frenzy and struggle seems to be removed.   He does not participate in either War (although loses a son in law in the second conflict) and indeed his refusal to fight in WW1 - in character this is done in an understated quiet way - is quite a defining moment of his life.  This decision is inspired by his academic mentor Arthur Sloane who is a man out of his nineteenth century time but a witness to the destruction that total warfare can rage on civil society.  It can "kills off something in a people that can never be brought back".

Thus the contrast with the cocoon of Stoner's life from the events around him is one of the recurring tensions in the work.  At times this contrast reminded me a little of the distant and somewhat jarring tone that Hemingway adopts in his fiction - which often takes place right in the middle of the maelstrom of warfare.  To document life in the twentieth century with this voice is if not unique very different and gives a special tempo to Williams' novel.  It could be viewed as a little slow which may may give some readers pause but I think that space gives you time to enjoy the prose.

Almost to identify this historical isolation Stoner's own specialism is medieval literature.  His joy at writing - sparked by Sloane's recitation of a Shakesperean sonnet when ostensibly Stoner is there to study agricultural science is in sharp contrast with the rest of his life.  Perhaps the work does not fully explain the captivation which fiction has inspired in him but by engaging in the novel itself and the prose contained within it the reader themselves is  (to some extent) a witness to Stoner's happiness with the creation of written art.

The book is also incredibly precise in his description of human relationships.  Central to Stoner's unhappiness is his relationship with his wife Edith.  The courtship is awkward and distant as both are very shy but it never changes.  As of the times (the 1910s) the marriage almost happens by accident and is compounded by a clumsy and passionless consummation which really defines everything else that follows.  I noted Ian MacEwan's endorsement of the book and thought it must be an influence on similar interactions in On Chesil Beach,  They have a daughter but becomes a pawn between the two of them - a sadness heightened again by Williams prose.  His relationship with his silent and absent farmer parents is resonant as a symbol of the generational shift between centuries in the US - rural to urban.

As a minor academic (well recognised here!) Stoner's love of his subject has to be  tempered with the straitjacket of a university with its tensions of term - time, teaching all levels of student and petty rivalries.  It is a bit surprising given much of this work was set 70-80 years ago how little has altered in the tensions around University.   The disintegration of a friendship with an ambitious and bitter colleague (who ends up as an early form of a University senior manager) Hollis Lomax is brilliantly outlined.  The tensions  between the two are exacerbated by the treatment of a completely incompetent student who Lomax is very sympathetic to, it is hinted at that this is becauese he and the student have disabilities- the nuances of the seminar room and the god awful class room presentation are all here.  Lomax labels William as prejudiced. Stoner gains minor victories but the closing down of his academic love by the bureaucracy of his institution seems a constant struggle.  In contrast his almost life long friend Finch assumes a managerial role in the Uni but maintains his humanity and (crucially) his love of the academic discipline - thus their friendship survives.  Again another familiar figure in Higher Education - although sadly I think the numbers of these are shrinking.

The other "difficulty" I think this novel has which may be an issue for a broader readership is its unrelenting sadness.  The relationship with Edith is bad but it never starts with much promise.  Worse I think is the life of his daughter  Grace whom for periods of her early life he is the main carer for.  His closeness to Grace is ended by Edith and the disintegration and distance this causes is terrible to read.  As is the fast forward story we get of her teenage years, early pregnancy, marriage, escape from the sad home, death of her young and unloved husband in the Pacific and slow descent into alcoholism.  I found the stilted and awkward conversation between Grace and her father difficult to read but brilliant.

In his life (outwith literature and the early years with Grace) William has some stolen happiness with a brief affair with a work colleague  who has attended his class (where the awful student talk took place).  Given his enclosed life it is inevitable this is where Stoner would have any form of initimate relationship.  These stolen moments as lovers throughout the University year are bound to end but it contrasts with almost every over part of Stoner's life.  It is not remembered in the first page summary but it is here that Stoner experiences love that is endlessly outlined in the literature he has intertwined his life  with.  Thus the sadness intervenes in this part of the work as well.

The end when it comes as we know it must is relatively sudden and (inevitably) solitary.  Symbolically he dies amongst his book and one falls from his grip as he leaves the planet.  One man's life gone but his ordinary struggles and sadness have kept the reader rapt.  There is no first person narration here with the problems that brings for the writer but a distant eye of the author throughout.  A great work but dripping with sadness.  One life in a small university in Middle America tells us a lot about what it means to be a human and that is some achievement.