Reading: John Williams “Stoner”

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There are certain books that simply touch my heart. Also, they make me physically sick, not because they are that awful, but  because I feel much too close to the main protagonist(s). So, if something bad happens, I can hardly stand the tension surrounding the character I’m most obsessed about (so to say). And because of empathizing that strongly with certain characters, it gets to the point where I won’t sleep, eat, answer a call or text someone back before finding out what will happen, just because I’m THAT upset about the plot right now….

John Williams’ Stoner is such a book. I got it because I love books like that, with a certain clear and unobtrusive language and a simple and clear narrative tone.  Jack Kerouac’s The Town and the City, Jack London’s Martin Eden, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and Joyce Carol Oates’ A Garden of Earthly Delights are just a few of the books I’m talking about when calling it “books like that.” Of course calling it a sort of coming-of-age- or college novel would be more appropriate, but I’ve always had my very own way with categorizing stuff. Besides, I’m more familiar with literary theories than categories. So pardon my ignorance and tolerate the “books like that”-business.

Stoner tells the story of William Stoner, the son of poor farmers who initially attends the University of Missouri to study agriculture. Yet soon he follows his heart and switches to literature.  His professor and mentor, Archer Sloane, encourages him to take up teaching himself. With the support of his lifelong friend Gordon Finch and against all odds, he teaches classic literature until his death. Throughout, he lives a quiet life with only a few decisive points. Of those, the death of his friend David Masters and his affair with Ph.D candidate Katherine Driscoll seem to be the only ones that truly touch his heart.  His failed marriage, his daughter’s difficult fate, and his stalled career do not.

The novel has a very unique tone, which may not be the most appropriate way to describe it, but it’s the only way I can think of. Even though it’s a third-person-narration, sometimes it seems like Stoner himself, with a calm voice, opens up to the reader. This left me with the impression of being part of this man’s life, with all its downs and just a few ups. Marrying a woman who despises him the moment they started their new life together; clashing with his superior over a mediocre student, having his daughter pretty much taken away from him so his wife can play her sick mind games using their child: all this narrated in a melancholic tone, a tone which reminds me of Bartleby. But a Bartleby who forgot how to say “I prefer not to” and rather goes through life thinking “Well, well, this too shall pass.” I can’t remember the last time I stumbled upon such an actively passive character, but with such a beautiful voice, even though it is not his own. His wife is one of the ugliest characters imaginable and thus, of course, perfect the way she is. So too is Lomax, Stoner’s antagonist at the university, blind of hatred for Stoner over his rejection of one of his protegés, a mediocre student whose most remarkable feature seemed to be his slight disability, which he shares with his Mentor Lomax. But even though he gets irritated at times, Stoner seems much too passive to lash out at them. Only once does he challenge and conquer Lomax (this was when I could not sleep until I found out how this passage would end). The only way he reacts on Edith’s delusions is by having an affair with Katherine, with whom he experiences love, passion and – most importantly – physical and intellectual companionship. The affair ends when Lomax threatens to destroy Katherine’s career. The only memory of their twosomeness will be Katherine dedicating her book to William years later. 

I know it sounds pathetic, but I cried after finishing this book. What Stoner experiences throughout his life may not be as tragic as what many others go through. It may indeed be – in a way – rather common for those times and people. Still, I was deeply touched by his dignity (and though this term is often overused in certain contexts, again I can’t think of a better way to describe my thoughts). Never once losing his temper, overreacting in any way even though it would have been perfectly understandable. Never. A quiet man, a quiet life. Destruction, loss, sadness, and desperation all around him, twice, for some time, even love – first from his daughter, pure and carefree, later from Katherine, pure and romantic. Still, all quiet, calm, unobtrusive.

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