Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

John Williams, _Stoner_

LIKE REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, another masterpiece of mid-century American realism that I had not gotten around to until this year -- in this case, prompted by the NYRB Classics edition, a typically elegant production.

Stoner lives up to its reputation -- obviously the work of a master from the first page, deft, objective, keen-eyed, never less than graceful in its prose, sometimes arresting.

Arrested is literally what I was by the plot, however. Twice in the course of reading the novel I simply put it away for two or three weeks because the protagonist, University of Missouri English professor William Stoner, blundered so colossally that I couldn't bear to watch and had to stop reading. First, his marriage, which from almost the earliest jerky onset of its courtship phase we know will be a costly wreck. And so it turns out, when I found the heart to pick up the book again -- a nerve-scraping, soul-eating Tom-&-Vivienne affair. There is a daughter, quiet and nearly will-less, who we know will not get out whole, and she doesn't.

My reading resumed, there I was, cruising along again, glad to see that Stoner was at least finding great satisfaction in his teaching and his scholarship, when he has a run-in with a lazy, ignorant, and insolent grad student -- a grad student who happens to be the particular protegé of Stoner's incoming department chair. I had to stop there -- it was too, too apparent that the new chair was going to make Stoner's working life hell.

Two weeks later, after some deep cleansing breaths, I resumed reading, and sure enough, the chair was as vindictive towards Stoner as anyone could have feared. But Stoner finds some consolation... in an affair with a graduate student. The affair is sweet, tender, and true...no one is taking advantage of anyone...but...well, obviously both Stoner and the student, Katherine Driscoll, will have to pay for their stolen joys. They do.

I suspect the problem is that I found it fatally easy to identify with Stoner, being male, middle-aged, in the same line of work, and temperamentally a kindred spirit. This made the spectacle of the recurring failure of his instincts of self-preservation a bit... painful for me. I am left to find what comfort I can from the Williams interview quoted in this edition's introduction: "A lot of people 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."

Well -- maybe.

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