By Aimee Fry, Jul 11 2013 01:00AM
Last month on normblog there was a post about this book by Norm himself. The post does a good job of saying what the book is about, so I won't go into that again. Norm also outlines many of its excellent qualities. Still, there are things I want to say about Stoner and I'm going to start by quoting a passage from it. It's taken from very near the end, both of the book and of Stoner's life and it's about love.
In his youth he had given it freely, without thought; he had given it to the knowledge that had been revealed to him - how many years ago? - by Archer Sloane; he had given it to Edith, in those first blind foolish days of his courtship and marriage; and he had given it to Katherine, as if it had never been given before. He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life (my italics), and had perhaps given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both...
There are three things I want to say about this novel. The first is, it's plain and this is one of the best things about it. By 'plain' I mean there is no whizzy, exciting, shocking, mind-blowingly original, postmodern, out of left field aspect to it whatsoever. Writers are often exhorted to think of what's known as 'the two-minute elevator pitch': a summing-up of their novel with which, in an imaginary lift, they will persuade an agent or a publisher that their book is THE ONE. John Williams's elevator pitch would be: 'A man lives a life dedicated to teaching he loves and then dies. This life has lots of unhappiness in it but also some happiness.' I can't see a modern fiction editor being persuaded by that.
Second, the unadorned and rather formal style may seem old-fashioned for a book written in the 1960s, yet to me it feels as if the prose hasn't been 'composed' or 'worked at' but to have grown organically and naturally. There are no writerly tricks. There is no juggling with time, no first person/present tense, no attempt to make the book more like a film script. There is not the faintest hint of the exotic or the Baroque. What you have is the story of a life and what this book demonstrates (even though Stoner's God isn't the traditional deity but rather Literature) is the truth of George Herbert's lines: 'Who sweeps a room, as for Thy laws / Makes that and th' action fine.' Stoner's life, his unhappy marriage and his failed relationship with his daughter notwithstanding, is a worthwhile one and one, moreover, which has had its share of glory and love.
Thirdly, he is not afraid to write about emotions. The women in the book are a contrast with one another. Edith, Stoner's wife, is not a pleasant character. Slightly mad, unpredictable and the exact opposite of a soulmate, she is still fairly and unresentfully depicted. The dealings between husband and wife, the way Stoner's love turns into something else; the way he shoulders the burden that his wife has become: all these become the stuff of real page-turning drama. Testament to Williams's skill is the fact that you are always longing to know what happens next.
The shining heart of the novel is Stoner's love affair with Katherine. She is the ideal lover: beautiful, kind and able to share fully her teacher's love of literature. The affair ends and the lovers separate, but there is a touching coda to their story, so that the Stoner/Katherine relationship is like a self-contained jewel of a story embedded in the larger book.
Almost the most tragic aspect of the novel is the gradual souring (because of the malign influence of Edith) of Stoner's dealings with his daughter. They end the book virtually estranged. The fact that Williams can write three such different women into the narrative and bring each of them so much to life, take such care to show us subtle changes and developments in their characters, shows that he's interested in them, pays them proper attention and does not write about them in a perfunctory way. He is careful with even the most unsympathetic of them.
Some readers have said that the book is depressing, or too gloomy, or that it emphasizes too much the 'lives of quiet desperation' lived by its protagonists. To me, though, it's a story about someone doing the best he can in a profession he loves and is happy in. He deals with the hard things; he suffers. He is stoical in the face of many tribulations, but he has known love and its transcendent power and, more than this, he has delighted in teaching others to love the things which he considers make life worthwhile. In my opinion, as well as being gripping and superbly written, it's life-enhancing, too. (Adèle Geras)