In one of those few gratifying instances of belated artistic justice, John Williams’s “Stoner” has become an unexpected bestseller in Europe after being translated and championed by the French writer Anna Gavalda. Once every decade or so, someone like me tries to do the same service for it in the U.S., writing an essay arguing that “Stoner” is a great, chronically underappreciated American novel. (The latest of these, which also lists several previous such essays, is Morris Dickstein’s for the Times.) And yet it goes on being largely undiscovered in its own country, passed around and praised only among a bookish cognoscenti, and its author, John Williams, consigned to that unenviable category inhabited by such august company as Richard Yates and James Salter: the writer’s writer.
“Stoner” is undeniably a great book, but I can also understand why it isn’t a sentimental favorite in its native land. You could almost describe it as an anti-“Gatsby.” I suspect one reason “Gatsby” is a classic is that, despite his delusions and his bad end, we all secretly think Gatsby’s pretty cool. Americans don’t really see him as an anti-hero or a tragic figure—not any more than they see the current breed of charismatic criminals on cable as villains. Gatsby’s a success story: he makes a ton of money, looks like a million bucks, owns a mansion, throws great parties, and even gets his dream girl, for a little while, at least. “Stoner” ’s protagonist is an unglamorous, hardworking academic who marries badly, is estranged from his child, drudges away in a dead-end career, dies, and is forgotten: a failure. The book is set not in the city of dreams but back in the dusty heartland. It’s ostensibly an academic novel, a genre historically of interest exclusively to academics. Its values seem old-fashioned, prewar (which may be one reason it’s set a generation before it was written), holding up conscientious slogging as life’s greatest virtue and reward. And its prose, compared to Fitzgerald’s ecstatic art-nouveau lyricism, is austere, restrained, and precise; its polish is the less flashy, more enduring glow of burnished hardwood; its construction is invisibly flawless, like the kind of house they don’t know how to build anymore.
“Stoner” opens with a short prologue, describing, in terse, obit-like prose, the life and death of an unbeloved assistant professor of English at a provincial university. It mentions that the only evidence of his existence is a medieval manuscript donated to the library by his colleagues in his name. It concludes:
An occasional student who comes across the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.
This is, no getting around it, a bummer. It’s also, in its unassuming way, an audacious beginning; by preëmpting the usual suspense of narrative, denying us even the promise of some cathartic tragedy, Williams forces us to wonder: What will this book be about? Its ambition is evident in the apparent humility of its subject: like Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, it’s to be nothing more or less than the story of a life. And there is something in even those first paragraphs, an un-show-off-y assurance in the prose, like the soft opening notes of a virtuoso or the first casual gestures of a master artist, that tells us we are in the presence not just of a great writer but of something more—someone who knows life, who maybe even understands it. It’s the same thing I sense in reading James Salter: the presence of wisdom. And wisdom is, of course, perennially out of style.
Despite its pellucid prose, “Stoner” isn’t an easy book to read—not because it’s dense or abstruse but because it’s so painful. I had to stop reading it for a year or two, near the middle of the book, when Stoner’s wife, Edith, undertakes a deliberate but unselfconscious campaign to estrange him from his daughter, the one person he truly loves. Later on, after his daughter has been lost to him, Stoner finds real love again with a young student, his intellectual equal—and once again an enemy, seeing his happiness, sets out to take it from him. Williams contrives to forcibly deprive his hero of happiness in his marriage, his daughter, his lover, even his vocation. It all feels grindingly inevitable, like the annihilating whim of the gods in Euripides.
The book’s antagonists are its most problematic aspect; they’re essentially instruments used by the world to crush and smother anything that William Stoner loves. Two of them are even disfigured—one, Hollis Lomax, Stoner’s colleague and enemy, is a hunchback, and the other, Charles Walker, Lomax’s protégé, has a crippled arm and leg. This marking of evil with deformity strikes a twenty-first century reader as heavy-handed, not to mention un-p.c., like something out of fairy tales or “Dick Tracy.” But, unlike the villains of melodrama, these characters truly live. Stoner’s wife, Edith, isn’t a 2-D caricature; she’s been raised in an emotional vacuum, taught only useless ornamental skills, sheltered as wholly as possible from reality, and “her moral training … was negative in nature, prohibitive in intent, and almost entirely sexual”—effectively cultivated to become a brittle, conniving hysteric. Her cruelty is all the more hateful because she keeps herself unaware of it—she isn’t even a plain-dealing villain. And Lomax, Stoner’s great adversary in the arena of career, is a sensitive, wounded soul not unlike Stoner himself, who honestly believes it’s Stoner who’s blindly malign, bigoted against himself and his disabled favorite student.
The same revelation led Lomax and Stoner to their vocations: “the epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words.” (This is, by the way, a trick the novel itself pulls off again and again, in quiet, transcendent moments that make the hair on your arms stand up for reasons you can’t name, giving you glimpses of eternity through the darkening view out an office window on a winter night.) At the end of a long evening of drinking at the Stoners’ house, spent talking mostly about Lomax’s early life and love of books, Lomax, in leaving, kisses Edith chastely on the lips—an oddly charged gesture that seems to have less to do with any attraction to his colleague’s wife than with their shared first love. It’s possible “Stoner” is doomed to be forever beloved mostly among critics, academics, and authors, because at its heart is the ineffable fetish that afflicts them all: “the love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print.”
Lomax’s childhood discovery of literature is called “a kind of conversion,” and elsewhere the university is likened to a cloister, a refuge for those unfit for life in the world. But being unfit for the world is to no one’s discredit; the world outside the university is stupid and brutal; of it we hear only echoes of the World Wars and Depression. “Like the Church in the Middle Ages, which didn’t give a damn about the laity or even about God,” says Stoner’s friend Dave Masters, “we have our pretenses in order to survive.” In William Stoner’s most outwardly dramatic moment, when he refuses to pass the fraudulent Walker in his orals, he argues that it’s himself and his like who are the true cripples, confined to the safe asylum of the Academy; Walker is the world embodied, covering for his lack of even a basic factual command of his chosen field with florid rhetoric—in other words, he’s a bullshit artist. He’s a more instructive foil to Stoner than Lomax, not a rival but a kind of apostate. After writing his own book, Stoner “never thought of it, and of his authorship, without wonder and disbelief at his temerity and the responsibility he had assumed.” Literature is the true religion of “Stoner,” and it is this that ultimately redeems Stoner’s life.
Άρθρο από τον Tim Kreider στο blog The New Yorker