Last year Julian Barnes writing in the Guardian declared Stoner the “must-read novel of 2013.” Word was getting around. Fifty years after this American novel was published, Stoner had become a word-of-mouth bestseller—in Europe. Stranger things have happened.
Two acquaintances mentioned the book to me as well as among the best depictions of the academic world they knew of. I’ve now finished reading this hard story—of a boy raised on a hardscrabble Missouri farm more than a century ago, who becomes an English professor at the University of Missouri, stoically suffers disappointment after disappointment, and dies at age 65—and I’ll offer my own small commendation to the chorus.
Stoner was written by the semi-forgotten novelist John Williams (1922-1994), best known for his 1972 novel Augustus, which won the National Book Award. Stoner appeared in 1965 and received some critical praise and reasonable sales. To a few readers, however, the book proved important, and it was resurrected in 2003 by the estimable series, the New York Review of Books Classics, which has brought back into circulation a great many unjustly neglected works.
Stoner is an outwardly bleak tale that achieves that mid-20th century distinction of being inwardly bleak as well. Though it is told in the flat tone of American realism, the sensibility owes something to Camus and other European existentialists. Stoner spends most of the novel simply enduring—enduring the mindless farm chores of his nearly voiceless parents; enduring humiliation as the uncultured, ill-clothed, ignorant farm boy at college; enduring the death of his best friend who has foolishly enlisted in the army to fight in the hell of the Great War; enduring a frigid wife who becomes a domestic tyrant; enduring a sadistic English department colleague who becomes his chairman and sentences him to a lifelong career as an assistant professor teaching freshman English at odd times and in shabby classrooms; enduring the forced end to his extra-marital affair, which had provided the one episode of emotional fulfillment in his whole life; enduring his beloved daughter’s descent into alcoholism; and enduring his own death from intestinal cancer.
The bleakness of Stoner is deep down. As a young man in his first college English class, Stoner is confronted by an intimidating professor who recites Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 (“Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang”) and asks Stoner what it means. Stoner stammers, “It means,” and is unable to continue. From the ashes of this failure, Stoner rises to a love of literature and to a genuine talent for seeing connections. “It means.” But his capacity to say what it means so that others can understand—his students, his wife, his colleagues—is meager. He is trapped in his own peculiar inarticulateness on the things that matter most to him.
The book Stoner most reminds me of is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1990) which also relentlessly follows the tale of a man trapped inside himself. Like Ishiguro’s English butler, Williams’ English professor is a mostly sympathetic figure but one who frustrates the reader by his passivity. Stoner could act against his miserable circumstances, but typically he backs down, retreats into silence, and takes a sullen pride in just sticking things out. “It doesn’t matter,” is his refrain when faced with a new setback, and even in his last moments when he picks up his sole published book from his bedside, “It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and that it served no use.”
The adverb “hardly” carries a lot of weight in that sentence. The book does matter to him, as a testament to his best effort, and his last sensation is “a tingling, as if those pages were alive.”
Barnes, like other commenters, observes that the prose is “clean and quiet” and the tone “a little wry.” Those are good qualities but not so rare as to create a posthumous phenomenon. What makes the book feel larger than the story of one man’s disappointments suffered in near silence is its depiction of a life lived in and through books. Stoner could be compared to George Eliot’s Mr. Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch, the pedant whose great scholarly dream comes to nothing, but we never feel that Stoner is self-deluding or merely a pedant. He loves literature and ideas. He is, as his author said of him an interview many years later, a hero. At least a hero of sorts. He remains dedicated to his love of literature no matter the personal costs. And he has a soulful regard for the self-inflicted losses to civilization as young men trudge off to war in his youth and again in his high middle age.
Perhaps Stoner’s stoicism is destined to remain more appealing to Europeans who can see more vividly than Americans the deterioration of their great cultural traditions. But Stoner is a book for Americans too—those Americans who persist in loving the great imaginative works and poetic accomplishments of the last two or three thousand years and who, like Stoner, will go down to their graves knowing that they have held something precious.