12 September 2013
This feels like sleight of hand. John Williams seems to be presenting us with a life as, so far, we have followed William Stoner’s progress from childhood to his late 20s. His is the only life we follow – when he leaves the farm, we leave it too – and we don’t get anybody else’s point of view unless they tell him. Ok. But things happen to him. If ever he makes decisions, Williams presents them as though that isn’t what they really are. His first ever decision comes during his second year as a student at the university he never chose to attend. But his need to concentrate on English Literature instead of the agricultural sciences that had brought him there – or that he had agreed to study because his father told him to – is simply a given: he isn’t able to do anything else. Later decisions are either no such thing – the two days he spends alone deciding not to enlist in the army when America enters WW1 lead to an outcome he knew, really, from the start – or, like when he asks a woman he likes the look of if she’ll let him visit her, are presented as something over which he has no choice.
These life-changing moments arrive unannounced and leave him mystified. I kept finding myself thinking of Forrest Gump: a man whose interior life is supposedly rich enough to mark him out as suitable to teach Literature to university students in fact has no interior life at all. The only explanation we get for his decision to change to English Literature comes, like so much else, from outside himself: Archer Sloane, the professor who becomes an unsatisfactory substitute for his unsatisfactory father, simply tells him that he is ‘in love’. And before he meets the woman he later decides to marry there has been no mention at all of his sexuality, as though until that moment he has, to all intents and purposes, been pre-pubescent.
In other words, Williams never even pretends to give us the full picture. This might be what I meant when I referred to his sleight of hand at the beginning: we are presented with unexpected outcomes without being shown the process of how we, or William Stoner, got there. A technique from cinema comes to mind: those montages of still images that directors sometimes present us with. We see our hero in a sequence of situations, but instead of being really there with him we’re outside, looking on. But in this novel the hero is outside as well, with no more control or understanding of what is happening to him than we have. It’s no wonder I thought of Forrest Gump.
I’m left wondering whether in this novel John Williams is first and foremost concerned with form. It’s no surprise that the first sentence of the introduction in my edition concerns itself with the opening page: who can fail to be struck by the thumbnail sketch contained in it of William Stoner’s whole life and vanishingly narrow legacy? In half a paragraph Williams presents his life as an academic, and it is full of negatives: ‘he did not rise above…’; ‘few students remembered him…’. In the remaining 150 or so words, he is scrupulously candid about how the sound of Stoner’s name after death serves as no more than a memento mori, ‘a reminder of the end that awaits… all.’ It is as though Williams is setting out a stall, or setting himself a challenge, with these highly unpromising bones of a biography, daring his readers to doubt that he can make something interesting of them.
I’ve already begun to describe the way he goes about it, largely through choices about what to include and, far more crucially, what to leave out. We know what Stoner does on his parents’ farm as he is growing up, but not what he thinks about this beyond an expectation that this will simply carry on. School is dealt with in three lines. What he discovers of sex is confined to a brief description 60-odd pages later during the disastrous honeymoon: ‘William, having been raised on a farm, took as unremarkable the natural processes of life.’ Once the decision is made that he will go to university he accepts this, and the studies he is expected to undertake, in exactly the same unquestioning spirit. Life, for over a year, continues to be the same blank as before.
This is another aspect of the sleight of hand. By leaving more or less everything out – emotion, humour, interactions of any kind beyond the most basic – it is as though Williams is inviting us to fill in details for ourselves. He relies on the fact that we are used to novels, that we know that it would be impossible for the author to include everything even if he wanted to… and I’m convinced that he has decided to push things to the limit. Instead of those boring old novelistic imperatives like plot and motivation we get the logic of fairy-tales. This is established from Stoner’s early childhood, and neither his hero nor the reader is required to question why things happen or why the hero does what he does. They just do.
By the time Stoner has been ambushed by that ’love’ of literature his professor mentions we’re used to being presented with a state of mind that is a fait accompli. We accept that he never thinks about the implications of the change that has come about and which, Sloane has to explain, will lead to a different degree. He seems surprised when Sloane asks him near the end of the course what he might do instead of returning to the farm as he had previously expected to do (although in this context to ‘expect’ seems outlandishly energetic). He accepts the offer of further studies, but doesn’t know how to tell his parents and puts it off until the end of the course. When he does tell them he isn’t coming back, they accept it. You can see where he gets it from.
This is Chapter 1. In Chapters 2-4, approximately three important things happen. So far there has been no mention of friendships, and in a different novel we might assume that these are going on somewhere in the background. In this novel they simply don’t exist. And then they do, and it’s the first of the big things: during his master’s degree he makes two friends. Their purpose appears to be to join Sloane as people to throw ideas at Stoner that he otherwise has no conception of. Only one conversation is reported at length, and it consists mainly of one friend’s cynical version of what the life of academics really is. He gets down to specifics, revealing to Stoner and the other friend in turn how circumscribed their visions and hopes really are. It’s hard to disagree with anything he says, and he has a name to conjure with in a tale like this: he is Masters, and we wonder whether he might be an oracle.
Unfortunately not. The next big thing is when the US enters WW1, and it’s Finch, the other friend, who is gung-ho about joining up. Stoner, obviously, has never thought about it, sees no reason to go, and gets a promotion while others go and fight. To Masters it’s a new adventure, but he ends up getting killed. He’s the cleverest of the three, might have appeared as an oracle, but he didn’t see that one coming.
Next. Love and marriage. Edith is a young woman visiting her uncle, a senior academic, and Stoner is lost in that way we recognise by now. Williams makes sure we understand from the beginning that everything about her is unsuitable for a life married to a poor and unpromising academic, but this is only the third idea in Stoner’s whole life that he’s got into his head unaided and nothing’s going to change his mind now. The courtship is a stilted dance of misunderstandings, characterised by her disappearance from the room whenever the emotional heat is turned up beyond lukewarm, and by the debilitating froideur of her parents. They are able to see that he will not be able to keep her in the comfortable, post-finishing school lifestyle she’s accustomed to, but their old-school good breeding makes them unable to be so bold as to forbid the marriage. He’s ready for them to do so but they don’t, so that’s all right.
Except we know before Williams tells us, obviously, that it isn’t. She is described in a series of occasional oxymorons – she greets the news of her parents’ consent with ‘frightened defiance’, and he feels the ‘frail strength’ of her fingers in his farm-worker’s hand…. And after a wedding that is as stilted as everything that has gone before, Williams doesn’t even let his ‘innocent’ and ‘virginal’ couple arrive at their destination before telling us that, ‘like so many others, their honeymoon was a failure.’ He spends the next five pages describing it in detail, but I’ll draw a veil over them because the slow-motion car-crash is as inevitable as the death of one of Stoner’s two friends in the War. What’s that phrase of Forrest Gump’s? Shit happens.
Not quite the half-way point, and I’m hating it so much I’m going to stop reading. I might start again one day, but not for a while – I’m going to read War and Peace, which will be a breeze after the misery of Stoner. (I’m not kidding.)
Why am I hating a novel that has recently been rediscovered as a classic and described in the most glowing terms by people I respect? Let’s see…. It isn’t truthful. There is no psychology in it that I recognise, except in the sketchiest of terms. If the whole novel is told as a kind of fairy-tale – and nothing’s happened to make me change my mind about that – then Stoner’s wife is, by turns, the Ice Queen, a Siren, a Fury and a kind of evil stepmother to the daughter she gave birth to. If a novelist decided to invent her in our century we would be expected to see her wild swings of mood and handbrake-turn alterations of behaviour in terms of nameable mental conditions: bipolar disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, OCD. In Williams’ novel her behaviour, like so much else, is simply a given that Stoner has to cope with.
As I was reading these chapters I was wrestling with Edith’s monster status. Williams presents her atrocities in his usual understated narrative style, and I wondered whether I was missing a layer of irony. With two exceptions – I’ll come back to those – the novel continues to be told exclusively from Stoner’s point of view, and I began (rather desperately) to wonder whether there’s a kind of unreliability in what we are being shown. Perhaps her behaviour, I hoped, is described as Stoner perceives it. We know well enough by now that a basic understanding of human nature that is essential for survival in the real world forms no part of his makeup, and maybe, I thought, he just doesn’t get what is essentially understandable behaviour in a woman like Edith in the 1920s.
But it doesn’t wash, because some of the things she does are frankly bizarre. Aside from her behaviour towards Stoner, the two occasions on which we leave his point of view and follow hers make it hard to dispute that she really is mad. The first is when she waits all day on her back, naked and primed for action, for him to impregnate her. The second is when she goes to her mother’s house after her father’s death and systematically cremates and/or pulverises every gift she ever received from the old man before doing the same with her old clothes and reinventing herself as a fashion icon. I realise now that what I find so harrowing is that he has married the very woman with whose behaviour he is, of all the men in the world, least able to cope.
If I called their honeymoon a slow-motion car crash, seven or eight years into their marriage she is at war with him. At the point that I’ve reached she’s carpet-bombing him out of existence. First she effectively kidnaps the daughter he loves, having brought her up on his own for six or seven years while Edith has been away with the fairies. Then she hijacks the office he has lovingly restored with panels he has found and renovated before lining it with his books. Williams has explained already how the room is both a sanctuary and, in effect, a representation of his innermost self. Edith hires a man to dismantle it one day so she can use it as her own art studio. This happens just as he is researching a new book and, for reasons that Williams describes in painful detail, it brings him to a standstill.
It brought me to a standstill as well. Say what you want about these two characters – like, they might not be precisely realistic, but they represent aspects of behaviour that are all too common and that we might therefore recognise – the truth, for me, is that it’s too painful to read. Williams must be doing something right if I can care so much about a character I still find absurdly under-drawn in most respects. But why would I want to read on, becoming more and more upset as I read, as he is brought close to breaking point?
Having skewered Stoner in his domestic life, Williams begins Chapter 9 in such a way that immediately – I mean, before the end of the first page – it is clear that the same is going to happen to him professionally. There are to be changes in the university and the English department, and we know that these aren’t going to be good for our man. (We know, of course, because we are told in the first paragraph of the novel that he will never ‘rise above the rank of assistant professor.’) Then comes the inevitable set-up, and the inevitable denouement. Williams has created two characters, in Lomax and his protégé Walker, who are exactly the plausible, reasonable-sounding types that Stoner can’t get any sense out of. And, in their own ways, they are as vicious as Edith. Lomax in particular, made head of department at precisely the time when his disagreement with Stoner is at its peak – you couldn’t make it up – is impenetrable to any attempt at reconciliation. (Sigh.)
I’ll be quick, because at the point I’ve reached something has just happened. Stoner, having been reduced to the ranks, plods along for a semester or two (or three). But, perhaps unsurprisingly, life has lost a lot of its shine. The vindictive Lomax, who has made no secret of his wish to break Stoner in whatever way he can, has got rid of the courses he teaches and given him a timetable consisting almost entirely of first-year classes. His schedule – are you getting the picture yet? – includes early and late classes every day of the week, with intervals of non-teaching time he finds hard to make good use of. Eventually he reaches a kind of existential crisis that is only ended by the reappearance of a woman postgraduate student he genuinely admires. That’s where I’ve got to, and I’m wondering whether Williams will need three chapters to stamp out this little ray of sunshine, as he did on screwing up Stoner’s academic career.
I’m quite interested in the relationship with Katherine, so I’ll read on and get back to you when I’ve finished reading the whole novel.
Chapters 13-17 – to the end
One chapter, in case you’re wondering. That’s how long it takes for the relationship to go from the first astonished acknowledgment of mutual love to its strangulation by the same monster who has made Stoner’s professional life such a misery. (Sigh, again.)
What a strange book this is. All along, while I’ve been wondering what John Williams thinks he’s doing, I’ve also been astonished by the praise heaped upon a novel that contains nothing I recognise as any kind of truth. I spent so much time and energy trying to come to terms with the atrocities of the first eight chapters that I’m reluctant to do the same on the chapters that follow. Yes, there are whole sections that I would happily describe as well written, like the idyllic year that Stoner spends as Katherine’s lover, and the chapter at the end that describes, from right inside Stoner’s consciousness, what it must feel like to die. But even those are problematic.
(The last time this happened to me, when I disliked a book that was receiving lavish and almost universal praise, was with Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, published in 2009. Like Stoner, it is a novel in which ellipsis is king: far more of the main character’s internal life is left out than is included. And like Stoner, Eilis in Toibin’s novel is someone to whom things simply happen, and she never seems to make a mature decision. ‘A follows B follows C, and Toibin leaves the reader to piece together such tiresome matters as motivation and consistency. It’s a tricky technique to get right, and for me, Toibin doesn’t get it right once. I never believe in an interior life.’ Substitute ‘Williams’ for ‘Toibin’ in those sentences taken from the piece that I wrote about it, and you’ll see why I made the connection.)
I should rewind. After I paused for a few weeks (which gave me time to read half of War and Peace and all of an engaging, if flawed, science fiction novel), I came back to Stoner still feeling threatened by it. So I decided to treat it as a challenge: ok, Williams, what are you going to throw at your embattled hero now? And I read that first page of Chapter 9. After the ominous news of changes in the department, Williams brings in Finch, the friend from the old days who is now dean. (Did I mention that?) He is always bluff and wanting to get along with everyone, so we know that he is hiding something behind his innocent-sounding request for Stoner to include a doctorate student as a late entrant into his class. It seems so, as soon as we meet Walker: he is arrogant, patronising and, in a move that struck me as crass on Williams’ part, a cripple like his mentor Lomax.
And so on, and so on. When Stoner, quite rightly, gives Walker an ‘F’ for his end of term paper, it goes straight back to Lomax, now the head of the department. And I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. For this section, Stoner is in role as the upholder of academic principle against the forces of cronyism. He can’t possibly offer Walker a pass grade because – shock, horror – it would allow him to teach, therefore unleashing an incompetent on innocent minds. Since nothing of this kind has ever seemed important to Stoner before, it doesn’t seem so now. But Williams takes us through the tiresome business of a trial by viva, reaches the inevitable stalemate between Stoner and Lomax (with Finch looking on uncomfortably), and… you know the rest. Like Edith, Lomax seems to be absolutely sincere in his self-belief: he knows best for his protégé, and Stoner’s rejection (or whatever) of him is merely prejudice. We know better, of course.
Are we nearly there yet?
Not really. We get the existential crisis, rather well described, as Stoner starts to feel like an old man although only in his 40s. Then Katherine, a student in the class whom Walker had appeared to be attacking all those months ago, seeks him out. Stoner, like the hero of a Victorian novel, doesn’t at all seem to understand that she’s after much more than his professional insights. Ho-hum. But she spells it out for him, and there’s a late flowering of love for the man who had given up on more or less everything. Williams allows them a period of unproblematical bliss. Even Edith, who has heard about the affair, is comfortable with it – she’s far less of an antagonist now that she has her own way at home – and their discretion makes it ok with most people.
But we know that in this of all novels their uncomplicated happiness can’t possibly last. Over 20 or 30 pages Williams has built it up into an idyll of mutual trust and understanding in order to whisk it all away again. He again brings into play the all-powerful evil sorcerer of this particular fairy tale, Lomax, to screw things up. It’s ultimatum time: if the affair continues, Lomax lets Stoner know that Katherine will be sacked for the moral turpitude that will corrupt her students. Stoner can’t possibly leave, because… because what? I can’t remember. Why doesn’t he just leave to become a postman, I wondered, and follow Katherine wherever she goes? (She goes to another university and is a success, in case you’re wondering – and Stoner is the one she covertly dedicates her first book to some years later.) What about Edith? What about Grace, his daughter? Er… what about them?
So he ages even more, acquiring greyer hair and an ever more pronounced stoop. Meanwhile, I found myself reading more and more quickly, so that 20 years of stuff happens in maybe an hour’s reading. He achieves a minor victory over Lomax by insisting on teaching his first-year class in the basics of literary study by way of his old medieval grammar class. (There’s nothing Lomax can do to stop him, so he gives him back the class on the tacit understanding that Stoner will stop causing him a headache.) Grace gets pregnant, agrees passively – like father, like daughter – to a loveless marriage, becomes a war widow and then an alcoholic. So it goes, for reasons I couldn’t fathom as I read. What on earth is the point of that particular storyline beyond confirming Stoner’s belief that life, and his life in particular, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans?
More time passes. He becomes a ‘campus character’, a phrase that appears in inverted commas in the text in order, I assume, to show us how inadequate a soubriquet it is. He insists that he will work the permitted two years beyond the retirement age of 65 despite Lomax’s stratagems to get him to change his mind…. But he has a pain, finds out he has cancer, and does change his mind at the eleventh hour. He attends his own retirement dinner and is too drugged up to make a sensible speech. Like everything else in his life, it all feels totally pointless to him anyway and he doesn’t care that Lomax, who organised the whole event, refuses to speak to him. Not long after this, following a beautifully described withdrawal of his conscious being from the world around him – hah – he dies. The beauty of it strikes me as another piece of authorial sleight of hand, because Williams has never before described Stoner’s conscious state in anything like such detail. In other circumstances it might have been rather moving, but by the time I was reading it I was so resistant to Williams’ writerly manoeuvrings that it left me rather cold.
And I don’t really want to say any more. Except, maybe, for one idea I had. Ellipsis can be a great strength in short stories, and I wonder if parts of this novel would work well if presented in a form in which character development and rich interior lives are in no way obligatory. It might just work.