John William’s Stoner is the perfect novel. That’s why I read it every year
I first read the “Perfect Novel” ten years ago. I say the perfect novel because that’s what John Williams’ Stoner is called.
When you read this, it will be Boxing Day and I’ll be rereading the novel. That’s what I do every Christmas, I reread Stoner. Plus, I make it a point every year to recommend it to someone or even buy a copy for someone.
It resonates at Christmas. The story of a small life not perfectly but lived without pretension. In this simple way, Stoner affirms life.
William Stoner is the only son of a couple of scrabble farmers. He is brought up in duty and dignity. Words are spared and emotions retained:
“It was an isolated house, of which he was an only child, and it was bound by the necessity of his labor. In the evening, the three of them were sitting in the small kitchen lit by a single kerosene lamp, looking at the yellow. flame; often for the hour or so between supper and bed, the only sound that could be heard was the weary movement of a body in an upright chair and the soft crackle of a wood giving a little less than age. of the House. “
From an early age, he takes care of his household chores. He gets up early, he works hard. He’s a good son. He does what is asked of him. He’s not complaining. He does not dare to dream.
Stoner grows up and to his surprise his father suggests that he go to college to study agriculture and then, armed with new knowledge, return to the family farm. Instead, Stoner falls in love with books and becomes an English teacher.
When he tells his parents that he won’t be coming home, he gently breaks their hearts.
A quiet novel is reborn
William Stoner does not climb very high, he hardly leaves a mark as John Williams writes: “Stoner’s colleagues, who did not particularly esteem him during his lifetime, rarely speak of him now.
Williams, says Stoner, tells us about what’s in store for all of us.
Lest I spoil the book, I’ll just say this: The world revolves around Stoner, War, Struggle, Love, Loss and Stoner stays where and who he is.
The word that comes to me is calm. Stoner is a quiet novel.
Maybe that’s why he disappeared with barely a trace on his first outing. It was released as America was on fire in the 1960s.
It couldn’t have been more out of place in an age of riot and revolution, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.
Then, in a new century, Stoner found its place. A chance review of this lost masterpiece of American literature made it a worldwide bestseller.
It was then that I discovered it and read it on Christmas. He spoke to me like he spoke to so many others exhausted by a world without a pause button. It was what I needed. I had spent too many years as a reporter on the front lines of a world of upheavals, violence, suffering, endless crises from Europe to Africa, to the Middle East, to Asia.
The power of stoicism
It was expensive. I read Stoner at the end of a year in which I had struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression. Life had emptied of its meaning. I felt lost. I cut myself off from people, even those closest to me.
Those who loved me helped me through. My own weaknesses prepared me for Stoner. I had to earn the right to read it.
William Stoner endured.
There were times when, reading Stoner, I wanted William to take hold of life, to live recklessly. I wanted him to be impulsive and selfish and put his happiness above all else. But it is this age that speaks where we have declared happiness our right.
I wanted something for him that would only belittle Stoner as a character and diminish the power of the John Williams story. What I wanted for William Stoner would have made it a different and lesser novel.
Stoner speaks of this age as he spoke of the Age of Aquarius when it was written.
William Stoner stays when it’s easier to go. He shows restraint when anger is justified.
If I make him look like an unbearable boredom, it’s because he is in a way. But above all there is stoicism. I don’t have the elegance to capture all the nobility of Stoner’s stoicism.
So I’ll hand it over to John Williams:
“And he would feel that he was out of time … The past has gathered from the darkness where it has remained, and the dead have arisen to live before him; and the past and the dead have flowed into the present among the living, so that he had for an intense moment a vision of density in which he was compacted and from which he could not escape, and had no desire to escape.
Author Steve Almond in his book William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life, simply writes: “The dignity of William Stoner makes me feel unworthy.
An antidote to alienation
As Almond points out, Stoner is not a hero as we would know it. Instead, the book “captures with unbearable fidelity the moments of internal turmoil that mark every human life.”
In Stoner, John Williams walks through issues of class, ambition, betrayal, marriage and love… especially love – how we fail and how it fails us. But in the end there is only love.
Stoner is an antidote to a time too dominated by what the philosopher Judith Shklar – drawing on Hegel – called the “unhappy conscience”; “insane”, “wallowed in his own futility”.
Shklar, more than half a century ago, diagnosed this creeping discomfort: “Self-betrayal, helplessness and frustration in the face of an overpowered outside world, such are the conditions of all existence, or at least of life today.
We are not the masters of our own creation but the victims of all that we have not created. “Victimization,” Shklar wrote, “has become a metaphysical category.”
Stoner is a novel from another time about a life in an earlier era. The “perfect novel” does not mean the unblemished novel. In fact, it is far from perfect. It’s imperfect, it’s failed. But isn’t that what brings us back to great works, precisely because they are imperfect as we are imperfect.
Some critics accuse Williams of, at times, caricatural, especially when it comes to wealth and privilege. Others question – quite correctly – its representation of women. It is also a totally white world.
Of course, we can engage in the critical fashion of the day and apply the politics and sensibilities of our time to critique a work from another age.
Or we can sit down with this novel as it is. A story of people each injured in their own way and living with their wounds. The people in John Williams’ novel are, like all of us, to some extent unknown to each other.
“Marriage reveals everything to us”
Basically, it’s a novel about marriage and, as Steve Almond says, “the brutal ways marriage reveals to us all.” In our closest relationships, we are at our best and at our worst.
William Stoner’s wife, Edith, is John Williams’ most complex and compelling character. She reveals Williams’ own limitations, he gives us the literal Edith but even Williams cannot know the Inner Edith. Not like he knows Stoner himself. Ditto for me as a reader.
This marriage is disturbing and for a contemporary reader – as for me – at times deeply disturbing. I understand why some people said they have to put the book down.
William Stoner does not come out virtuous or blameless. It contributes to the pain that he is also suffering from. His indifference is his own cruelty. And then there are moments of tenderness and sweet forgiveness. Just like life.
Since the novel is about William Stoner, the dominant point of view is his. And I agree with Steve Almond, there is a great exhibition of Edith to be written by someone with the depth and humanity to make it.
So why am I reading Stoner? Because of the art of the language, to escape to another time, to be raised and humiliated. Measuring myself against great art demands it. We must remember that life is lived in miniature and not in the great sweep of history. Lives are not artefacts or political statements. History is happening around us but it does not explain to us.
For most of us, in fact, the story is fortuitous. I have reported enough wars and catastrophes to know that daily suffering does not end, in fact it is magnified. People still love, laugh, cry, despair and hope. Together, our little lives fuel our world.
In recent years, we have been trapped in events beyond our control: COVID, China, economic turmoil, death and war. But doesn’t all this remind us that the greatest struggles are waged within us?
Stoner was balm for my hurt soul. I read it every year to remind myself of that time and how near the pain is and how grateful I am that I survived. I come back to it to measure how far I have come and how far I have yet to go. I return there to receive the grace of the inevitable and to know that in passing we will be forgotten in time.
Stoner. I said it was a novel from another time – and I guess that makes it timeless. This is not a fleeting fashion novel. Stoner is a novel of immanence.
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