Stoner * John Williams (1965)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

‘A beautiful, sad, utterly convincing account of an entire life’ Ian McEwan

William Stoner enters the University of Missouri at nineteen to study agriculture. A seminar on English literature changes his life, and he never returns to work on his father’s farm. Stoner becomes a teacher. He marries the wrong woman. His life is quiet, and after his death, his colleagues remember him rarely.

Yet with truthfulness, compassion and intense power, this novel uncovers a story of universal value – of the conflicts, defeats and victories of the human race that pass unrecorded by history – and in doing so reclaims the significance of an individual life.

‘A brilliant, beautiful, inexorably sad, wise and elegant novel’ Nick Hornby

‘A terrific novel of echoing sadness’ Julian Barnes

So many people called this novel sad – and emphasised that the only thing that is happening is a farmer boy becomes a teacher and gets married and teaches until he dies. While yes, that’s the core of the novel, it’s the interactions with his peers, his family and his wife that put the meat on the bones and the crowning glory is his persistent search for meaning in his “uneventful” life.

“He had come to that moment in his age when there occurred to him, with increasing intensity, a question of such overwhelming simplicity that he had no means to face it. He found himself wondering if his life were worth the living; if it had ever been. It was a question, he suspected, that came to all men at one time or another; he wondered if it came to them with such impersonal force as it came to him. The question brought with it a sadness, but it was a general sadness which (he thought) had little to do with himself or with his particular fate; he was not even sure that the question sprang from the most immediate and obvious causes, from what his own life had become. It came, he believed, from the accretion of his years, from the density of accident and circumstance, and from what he had come to understand of them. 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.”

He survives both the Great War (without enrolling) and the Second World War (without joining again), closed up in his chambers at the university, teaching minds to open up and ask questions.

The two main plots of the novel are a dispute with one of his students who makes a terrible paper for his course and then proceeds to accuse him of discrimination when he fails – and the second one a love affair with a trainer – his only love I would assume considering his wife was somewhat frigid and unwilling to love.

I would also think he loves his daughter, but in a more quiet way – more when she was a child and would sit next to his desk to draw and read with her little desk and lamp lighting up her face.

When it comes to the villains of the story – I would say it’s the other head of department – Lomax, and maybe his wife? She runs a campaign to make him feel as unwanted as physically possible, emptying out his study while he was at work to make a studio for her sculpture hobby, cramming his things on a cold and windy patio and destroying some of his books when the windows broke.

When he is finally diagnosed with the big C, he tells no-one and his best friend and wife have to find out from his doctor who broke HIPAA confidentiality and spread the news about the esteemed professor dying.

I think the moral of the novel can be found in the last two pages as he looks back at his biggest regrets and biggest successes and wonders if he could have done anything different and what his legacy would be. Interestingly enough, he doesn’t pick people. He picks a book he wrote, doomed to be forgotten against many better ones as his legacy. He dies holding it, all alone in his room.

Dispassionately, reasonably, 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 that…

He had wanted the singleness and the still connective 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. Katherine, he thought. “Katherine.”

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. And what else? he thought. What else?

What did you expect? he asked himself.

In the novel’s introduction, John McGahern says Stoner is a “novel about work.” This includes not only traditional work, such as Stoner’s life on the farm and his career as a professor, but also the work one puts into life and relationships. It’s about his passion for teaching (discovered a few years into his position when he had a child he loved to explain things to). And once his passion comes to the surface, he can’t stand people like Lomax and his student snitch who like to talk in generalists without having the basic understanding of what they are talking about and no knowledge of the study material. It’s like a slap to the people who overly use grand words with no substance.

“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”

His affair with Katherine Driscoll was also a lovely addition to the book. It was destined to fail, even though the lovers took the best precautions, they were seen and rumors started. Even the wife found out but contrary to expected reaction, she took it with amusement – she didn’t love Stoner enough to care if he found love somewhere else and she knew that he would not leave his daughter or his position. In the end Katherine had to quit and move away before her reputation got a hit. Years later, she was still unmarried and she published quite a few good books. Based on Stoner’s reaction, the books she created were better than his.

“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.”

I loved this book. It’s a great present for educators, reminding them why they do what they do, and a stark reminder that life isn’t fair.

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