Stoner is “a perfect novel” said Morris Dickstein in the review that got it all going. Stoner himself is a “perfect protagonist” according to Ruth Rendell. The book stumbled upon first publication and has been reissued a couple of times since, but it wasn’t until its publication by New York Review Books in 2006 that it really took off. Here’s a Publishers Weekly story from April 2013 about the book’s success, which continues to this day.
Last week I went to a book event organized by The Community Bookstore at the Brooklyn Public Library on the 18th of November at which Ruth Rendell, Honor Moore, and Daniel Mendelsohn discussed the book under the moderation of Liesl Schillinger. It was an altogether excellent event. And it got me thinking that Stoner is a rather bookish book.
William Stoner, (Bill to his colleagues, Willy to his awful wife) deliberate, steady, slow-moving man, transfers from agriculture to English literature after a classroom epiphany, when he is unable to find the words to say what Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 “means”. Later, as a graduate student instructor “He found his release and fulfillment in the classes in which he himself was a student. There he was able to recapture the sense of discovery he had felt on that first day, when Archer Sloane had spoken to him in class and he had, in an instant, become someone other than who he had been. As his mind engaged itself with its subject, as it grappled with the power of the literature he studied and tried to understand its nature, he was aware of a constant change within himself; and as he was aware of that, he moved outward from himself into the world which contained him, so that he knew that the poem of Milton’s that he read or the essay of Bacon’s or the drama of Ben Jonson’s changed the world which was its subject, and changed it because of its dependence upon it.”
The story of William Stoner’s life, Stoner, changes the world which is its subject, Stoner, because of its dependence on him. Books are or stand for his deepest love, and books mark his life’s progress. In a book naked of metaphor, written in simple, slow-moving language reflective of the protagonist’s own internal dialog, the hidden surprise is that the entire work is a meta-metaphor. Stoner isn’t living his life so much as reading a book about it. Panelists spoke about Stoner’s passivity and lack of intervention in events going on around him. Events, often quite dramatic, do come up. Stoner, however, takes in the events reflectively and for the majority of us justly, and then turns to the next page. When his wife would rant at him “. . . Stoner looked upon it all—the rage, the woe, the screams, and the hateful silences—as if it were happening to two other people, in whom, by an effort of the will, he could summon only the most perfunctory interest.” His action consists in deciding not to act, as we all must do when reading a book. We sometimes feel like shouting “Bill, don’t do it” but we never do. We remain silent. Readers always remain silent, but not unchanged. Stoner is no different; he is reading the book of his life, the book of life.
Maybe it’s no more than a cheap coincidence, but if Stoner had been working in a British university his job title, as he never got promoted from assistant professor, would have been Reader.
Stoner published one book, a revision of his PhD dissertation. He took up the dissertation quite early in his difficult marriage and “decided that a book was possible; by early spring he was far enough along to be able to write the first tentative pages. ¶ It was in the spring of the same year that, calmly and almost indifferently, Edith told him that she had decided she wanted a child.” The baby girl and the book were both beautiful, and loved by their father. His attitude to his manuscript was typically self-deprecating — “. . . though he was not altogether pleased with it he sent it to a publisher. To his surprise the study was accepted and scheduled for publication in the fall of 1925.” “His expectations for his first book had been both cautious and modest, and they had been appropriate; one reviewer called it ‘pedestrian’ and another had called it ‘a competent survey’. At first he had been very proud of the book; he had held it in his hands and caressed its plain wrapper and turned its pages. It seemed delicate and alive, like a child. He had reread it in print, mildly surprised that it was neither better nor worse than he had thought it would be. After a while he tired of seeing it; but he never thought of it and his authorship, without a sense of wonder and disbelief at his own temerity and at the responsibility he had assumed.”
In middle age Stoner experiences an all-consuming love affair; and starts to write another book. “What he wanted to do in this new book was not yet precisely clear to him; in general, he wished to extend himself beyond his first study, in both time and scope. . . . The possibilities he could see so exhilarated him that he could not keep still.” In an intense passage he and Katherine remain almost secluded all summer in her apartment, writing and making love. Each is writing their own book. “For hours at a time she would sit at the tiny desk against the wall, her head bent down in intense concentration over books and papers, her slender pale neck curving and flowing out of the dark blue robe she habitually wore; Stoner sprawled in the chair or lay on the bed in like concentration.” “Then they would make love, and lie quietly for a while, and return to their studies, as if their love and learning were one process.” “‘Lust and learning,’ Katherine once said. ‘That’s really all there is, isn’t it?'”
Departmental politics take his love and most of his meaningful teaching from him. He abandons the second book. Later, reading Katherine’s book “he marveled at how truly he could see her even now. Suddenly it was as if she were in the next room, and he had only moments before left her; his hands tingled, as if they had touched her.”
Cancer takes him. On his deathbed he dizzily gropes for his one book. “It was his own book he sought, and when the hand held it he smiled at the familiar red cover that had for a long time been faded and scuffed.”
“It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and that it served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial. He did not have the illusion that he would find himself there, in that fading print; and yet, he knew, a small part of him that he could not deny was there, and would be there.
“He opened the book; and as he did so it became not his own. He let his fingers riffle through the pages and felt a tingling, as if those pages were alive. The tingling came through his fingers and coursed through his flesh and bone; he was minutely aware of it, and he waited until it contained him, until the old excitement that was like terror fixed him where he lay. The sunlight, passing his window, shone upon the page, and he could not see what was written there.
“The fingers loosened, and the book they had held moved slowly and then swiftly across the still body and fell into the silence of the room.”
John Williams: Stoner (1965) New York Review Books. Williams’ two other great books, Butcher’s Crossing (1960) and Augustus (1972), have also been reissued by New York Review Books. If you have not read these, please do so.