There are books that remove us from the mundane humiliations and drudgeries of everyday life by conjuring flights of imagination, but these are typically a temporary salve. While we may learn something of the world from them, or worlds we would never have thought to imagine, we learn little of ourselves. And then there are books that show us what we’ve likely expected, and even subconsciously understood all along, but take pains to mentally partition: that a life, at long last, is nothing much at all. It’s not what happens in fancifully invented mythologies and adventures, it’s more likely the opposite, the neutering of ambition, the slow viscosity of inertia. And the living in spite of that cold knowledge. It’s the hero’s journey writ infinitesimally small.
A book like John Williams’ 1965 novel Stoner, in recent years undergoing one of its periodic resurgences after having been translated by bestselling French author Anna Gavalda, and showing up ever since on best-seller lists around Europe, doesn’t deal with a violent, sudden clipping of a man’s wings, it shows that the decades perform rather a slow denuding, feather by feather. Behold: nothing. What do you make of that? it asks. It would be easy to misread that description as deflating, but it’s one of the more life affirming works I’ve had the peculiar pleasure of reading.
D.G. Myers explained its impact succinctly in Commentary a couple of years ago: “’Stoner‘ takes an outwardly nondescript life, the sort of life that many of us want to escape into fiction, and demonstrates that the real drama of human experience is in the daily refusal to escape, the uninterrupted renunciation of extreme situations, the muted decision to stay and do some good.”
Writing in the New Yorker recently, Tim Krieder took up the book’s cause, calling it one of the greatest American novels you’ve never heard of. It’s a book, he says, that feels as if it contains wisdom, one filled with moments that will make your hair stand up on your arms. Lofty praise, I thought, but now realize is almost an understatement.
Nothing much happens throughout the novel. It’s a story of a midwestern farm boy named William Stoner who comes to discover a love of literature, and goes on to teach for forty years at the University of Missouri during the early decades of the last century. It scarcely strays from the campus where he makes his life, and yet it encompasses the world.
It’s “something rarer than a great novel,” Morris Dickstein wrote in the New York Times in 2007, “it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.” .
What’s to account for it being largely overlooked then, Krieder asks? It’s a love letter to literature itself smuggled through in a plot about a man’s own love affair with literature.
“It’s possible Stoner is doomed to be forever beloved mostly among critics, academics, and authors,” he writes, “because at its heart is the ineffable fetish that afflicts them all: ‘the love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print.’
As Williams writes of Stoners’ burgeoning passion: “In the University library he wandered through the stacks, among the thousands of books, inhaling the musty odor of leather, cloth, and drying page as if it were an exotic incense.”
It’s about the impossibility of reconciling the truth, and the Truth, of literature, with the lie of existence, both of which are capable of breaking one’s heart, but in profoundly different ways.
“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;” Stoner reflects early on, “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.”
And later on: “He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which is simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man.”
Stoner’s efforts to make good on the promise of learning, despite the better efforts of his two main adversaries, his wife and a combative colleague (both of whose characterization might chafe contemporary sensibilities), comprise the bulk of the book’s plot. A second, more literal love affair reinforces the tragic irony contained in the pursuit.
The knowledge of this failing makes it all the worse. But like the cold, indifferent soil on which his farmer parents hardened his resolve, he digs in and waits for something to grow that may or may no ever come.
“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?”
Nothing else, and that’s everything. Stoner, like the rest of us, persists nonetheless. “…we have our pretenses in order to survive,” a friend explains to Stoner in his youth.” And we shall survive – because we have to.”
That surviving doesn’t make Stoner a failure, it makes him merely a man. Or maybe triumphantly a man, as Williams pointed out in an interview years after its publication.
“I think he’s a real hero. A lot of people who who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important … The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner’s sense of a job. Teaching to him is a job—a job in the good and honorable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was … It’s the love of the thing that’s essential. And if you love something, you’re going to understand it. And if you understand it, you’re going to learn a lot. The lack of that love defines a bad teacher … You never know all the results of what you do. I think it all boils down to what I was trying to get at in Stoner. You’ve got to keep the faith. The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilization.”
Living, like love, as Stoner realizes, isn’t an absolute state of being that one unlocks access to through the proper series of steps. Instead both are “acts of becoming”, a condition “modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.” It’s the following through of the steps that makes us human. Seeing the process through to the end, as best you can, is victory enough for any man’s life.