Sunday, May 22, 2016
With the sounds of college and university graduation in the air, it seems fitting to notice a new edition of an extraordinary novel of academic life first published in 1965. Author John Williams tells the story of a nondescript assistant professor of English in the first decades of the twentieth century at a fictionalized University of Missouri.
“Stoner” ($14.95 in paperback from New York Review Books Classics; also for Amazon Kindle with a superb audio narration by Robin Field) presents the life of one William Stoner who taught at the university from 1918 until his death in 1956.
“Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now.” Yet, through the course of the novel, Williams draws out Stoner’s inner life and surrounds him with vivid personalities, like his mercurial wife Edith, their pensive daughter Grace, and Hollis Lomax, his arch nemesis in the English department. Then there is Katherine Driscoll, a younger teacher who becomes his lover.
In many ways Stoner lives a pedestrian existence, sometimes passive in his home life and university politics, sometimes passionate in the classroom when the subject turns to Medieval and Renaissance literature.
“He had come to that moment in his age,” Williams writes, after a showdown with Lomax that does not go well, “when there occurred to him, with increasing intensity, a question of such overwhelming simplicity that he had no means to face it. He found himself wondering if his life were worth the living; if it had ever been. … He took a grim and ironic pleasure … that in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter.”
And yet this is a story about love. “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.”
Stoner’s life a failure? Well, yes and no, the novel answers. What did you expect?