Wednesday, August 21, 2013

He could not endure in it

Everything you've heard about John Williams' Stoner is true. (Bryan Appleyard's review lists out many of the responses to this novel.)

It is remarkable for the clarity of its prose and its force. I have already quoted on this blog examples of the sharp portraits Williams renders.

It is the story of William Stoner, a very ordinary man who grew up on a farm and rather accidentally, fatalistically, becomes a professor of English. He makes his bed, he lies in it (although, "make" here is far too aggressive a verb to describe the passive flow of Stoner's life). Family drama and the politics at the university punctuate his otherwise very ordinary life. He tries to do right, he sometimes fails. Sometimes he tries to be a good teacher and succeeds, but he lapses into indifference easily. He is wronged several times over. He endures.

There's such plainness in the telling that the reader aches from its brutal sincerity.

If the novel has a shortcoming it's in its depiction of the three key women in Stoner's life: the wife, the daughter, and the lover. They are never explicated, but to be fair, the book isn't about them. (I for one would love to read the novels that tell their tales.) The wife is clearly a villain, but surely she is as ordinary as Stoner, only more disappointed, more unfulfilled. The daughter is deep well of still waters, the offspring of both her parents, that graces Stoner's life periodically, only as much as his wife allows. The lover verges on not quite believable — "My God, how I used to lust after you" (after Stoner!, reserved and stooped) has a streak of male fantasy about it. But the women are expertly drawn to the extent that the aim it to ensure that Stoner is cast as the hero of his own life.

Stoner reflects on the death of his mentor, Archer Sloane:
The coroner announced heart failure as the cause of death, but William Stoner always felt that in a moment of anger and despair Sloane had willed his heart to cease, as if in a last mute gesture of love and contempt for a world that had betrayed him so profoundly that he could not endure in it.
Stoner's death might be similarly perceived.

Clear, compelling, thoughtful, sometimes surprising, and a quick read. Recommended.

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