Stoner, a novel by John Williams

I was prepared to be disappointed by this book. It received good reviews when it was first published almost fifty years ago, but then disappeared from view and went out of print. Williams won prizes for his other novels, but they also passed out of print. Then it was rediscovered, recommended by word of mouth, was reprinted, almost one could say re-published, by Vintage Classics, and taken up by Waterstones as their book of the year. Waterstones’ Book of the Year, it is said, has been nominated by the managers of Waterstones’ shops. It all sounds very fishy.

The opening words tell us that Stoner is a failure, that he never achieved anything, that his colleagues did not regard him with any respect. It is almost a challenge: now I dare you to read this book.

But right from the very first page I found myself enjoying it. The writing is beautiful, restrained, and there are some memorable phrases that illuminate an event, a character, a scene. Stoner feels that the dead raised themselves to live before him, and the past and the dead flowed into the present among the alive. He thinks of lovers, Tristan and Iseult the fair, Paolo and Francesca; and then Helen and bright Paris, their faces bitter with consequence. Their faces bitter with consequence. A whole terrible story encapsulated in five words.

And the description of the grinding poverty and the hard life of his parents on a farm , just able to scrape an existence, not really a life, from the barren soil, is perfect in its own terrible way.

Stoner is the story of a man who comes from that background, and who finds himself at a college, the University of Missouri, sent there by his father, to learn agriculture. The college is enlightened: everyone must do a course in English, and Stoner is seduced, leaving his science studies for English, fascinated by one of his teachers, Archer Sloane. He meets a young woman, Edith, brought up to be decorative, and to look to her menfolk for protection. Stoner seeks her, and marries her, and then realises what a disastrous mistake he has made. She is neurotic, spiteful, and manipulative. She refuses any form of sexual relationship, which is hard for a man brought up on a farm, and learning from an early age the needs that men have, that need they share with the farm animals. Then she decides that she wants a child, and they embark on a grotesque, lustful, behaviour, until she becomes pregnant, when she reverts to the way she behaved before. After the birth of Grace, their child, his wife completely ignores her child, who is then brought up by Stoner until, one day, she turns the tables, and takes over Grace’s life. Stoner has a remarkable understanding of Edith, his wife, and knows that at least part of the blame for the situation in which they find themselves is his.

In such circumstances, a man can do many different things. He can leave his wife. Stoner doesn’t want to do this. Grace is too important to him. A man can fight back, give his wife hell. Stoner can’t do that: he understands that he is in part to blame. A man can embark on an affair. This is what Stoner does. It’s surprising that it took him so long.

At the beginning of Stoner’s affair with Katherine, a young colleague, he realises that they had believed that the life of the mind and the life of the senses were separate, and inimical, but learned that the one could intensify the other. Ovid begins The Art of Love with the life of the senses, but soon comes to tell that a lover and his mistress need the life of the mind as well. It is a fortunate man who finds that his mistress opens his mind to how their love-making enhances his understanding to something that had been closed to him before. You would expect a teacher like Stoner to know about this. Odd that he never refers to Ovid. Every young man embarking on an affair should be obliged to read what Ovid wrote. It won’t happen, of course.

This is where the politics of an academic community come into play. His adversaries use their relationship to attack, not Stoner, but Katherine.

And the separation from Katherine is handled beautifully. They see that what they do – their teaching, their explorations of the literature of the past – would be imperilled if they stayed together, and that they couldn’t give that up. Not a conventional romantic ending, but a path that many men and women have taken. And it’s what he learned from Archer Sloane. The parallel is there: Sloane sees that the 1914-18 war destroyed something of value – for what? The demands of middle class morality destroyed something of value that Stoner and Katherine had.

His daughter’s pregnancy, her marriage, the subsequent death of her husband on a Pacific atoll in the Second World War, passes almost without comment. This is the one part of the story that doesn’t ring true to me. A father has to let his children go, but how could he not wish to reach out to her? She had to get away, but he didn’t have to let her go completely.

And at the beginning of Chapter 16 he goes through, himself, the feelings that Archer Sloane did about the First World War, the regrets for the waste, the loss of so much promise. And he comes to terms with what Grace has become. This is something a father has to learn, and Williams describes it well.

Williams has the capacity to write something that moves the reader. Stoner reads Katherine’s book. Old men are often thought to be beyond passion, but it isn’t true. He cannot think of himself as old. He thinks, look, I am alive.

It’s easy to blame Stoner for imperilling Katherine’s career, but to do so is to look to a paternalistic relationship that surely most feminists would reject. Stoner does try to stay away from her, but weakens when he hears that she has been ill. He goes to her, still unsure of what to do. He tells her he is sorry to hear that she has been ill.

‘I’m not ill,’ she says ‘I haven’t seen you for two weeks.’

‘Shut up,’ she said softly, fiercely. ‘ Oh my dear, shut up and come over here.’ She shares the responsibility for the development of their relationship, which is how it should be.

And talking to Edith near the end, a new tranquillity has come between them. They had forgiven themselves for the harm that they had done each other. That also rings true.

The description of the approach to death, at the end of the book, is, to my mind, a wonderful piece of writing. None of us dwell on this inevitable end, we avoid thinking of it. And those who have understood, who have gone through the dying, are not in a position to write about it. They’re dead. And one of the most touching episodes in the novel is when Edith asks ‘How shall I manage without him.’

I was reading this book when the Literary Review published (July 2014), a piece by Patricia Duncker (a novelist and Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of Manchester) about what happens to books that find their audiences long after they are written (her words). She discusses Emily Dickinson, who has become a cult figure for the gay community, or at least the literary members of that community, Irène Némirovski’s Suite Francaise, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and Stoner. Duncker writes perceptively about why Stoner didn’t achieve lasting success when it was first published, and asks if its present success owes something to the contemporary backlash against feminism. She concludes “I enjoyed the book but despised the sexual politics”. Stoner is a novel that appears to divide men and women. Men may say, “I was unhappy with much of the sexual politics (there but for the grace of God …), but I loved the novel as a depiction of the harm that men and women can do to each other. Some women may think that nothing can excuse Stoner’s behaviour, and that it is therefore a bad book. We have to move on from that if there is to be any hope of men and women understanding each other’s needs.