It is perhaps no coincidence that Stoner rhymes with loner. John Williams’s eponymous novel is an exquisite distillation of what it means to be alone. Not primarily a physical loneliness, an absence of intimacy, but a spiritual loneliness: the sense that no one in the world truly understands you. But more than that it is a book about lonely triumph.
Published in 1965, the book only gained its reputation as a canonical text of mid 20th century American Literature in the early 21st century. I was browsing Waterstones when I first saw it. A few months later I stumbled into Stoner again in an independent book shop. Surprised by the effusive praise it received on its back, and with a hearty recommendation from the bookseller, I bought it. I was stunned by its brilliance.
The novel charts the life of William Stoner, Assistant Professor of English Literature at the University in Missouri, from adolescence to old age. We first see Stoner as a farm boy from a rural working class family in Booneville, Missouri. It ends with Stoner as a cranky old man facing a terrible illness. Absent from his life is any solid indication of material success. He is often in debt, his neurotic wife loathes him, his students treat him with indifference, and he never ascends above the position of Assistant Professor.
Part of Stoner’s brilliance is in vividly reflecting a concatenation of fears familiar to many people: the fear our lives will stagnate rather than improve; the fear we will marry the wrong person; the fear that our imprint on life would be minimal. But Stoner also offers redemption from these common anxieties.
On the point of a stagnating life, Stoner’s affair offers him the intimacy and pleasure that his wife Edith would not provide. Compare the malodorous sense of shame associated with Stoner’s sexual interactions with Edith with his interaction with Katherine Driscoll, a young and intelligent Graduate student. During their honeymoon he attempts to make love to Edith for the first time:
When he touched the softness of her thighs she turned her head sharply away and lifted her arm to cover her eyes. She made no sound.
Stoner and Edith’s relationship seems like an excellent advertisement for the view that sex before marriage is good. Beneath this somewhat glib point is a significant one: Edith’s visceral revulsion and coldness toward Stoner shows they should never have got married in the first place. Contrast the passage excerpted above with the one below, which details the early stages of Stoner’s affair with Katherine:
Her flesh, that at a distance seemed so cool and pale, had beneath it a warm ruddy undertone like light flowing beneath a milky translucence. And like the translucent flesh, the calm and poise and reserve which he had thought were herself, masked a warmth and playfulness and humour whose intensity was made possible by the appearance that disguised them.
Some passages reach a level of stylistic elegance that make you gasp, and some passages capture so fully a particular experience that it interrupts your flow of reading. But to mingle both elegance with insight as the passage above does is to reach the pinnacle of any form of artistic expression: to change, in a fundamental sense, the way you perceive the world.
The fear of marrying the wrong person is a common one, but it presupposes the existence of a Mr or Mrs Right. It is an attractive idea expertly deconstructed by the passage below:
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.
But the most potent redemptive point of the novel is the dignity that Stoner takes in the book he publishes. Significant historical moments in history, like the First World War, colour the background of the novel. But it is Stoner’s personal history that is the focal point. Although it often feels like he is sinking, Stoner’s pride in the book he publishes is his own form of private triumph. And the novel as a form – unlike the Epic, which depicts heroes and villains – is about depicting the private lives of ordinary men and women. By this measure Stoner is the quintessential novel.