STONER FROM THE FIRST EDITION USA 1965
William Stoner’s life is a sad life. It wears out slowly, without many highlights. Nobody will have a special memory of him. For younger people his name is just a sound that does not evoke any past or special identity.
Sometimes we ask for something, just to fill an embarrassing moment in which we find ourselves without words. We do this, as we do not want to let other people know that we are bored with them, or not interested in their arguments (in the conversation). But we really know that any answer to our questions, will be of interest to us. It will wander in vain around our brain looking for a free space, but not finding it.
“…Rarely the curiosity goes beyond the simple occasional question …”
“Stoner” is a novel about the life of a man, who is not even a shadow of those we could call literary heroes. As a heroic protagonist he achieves little. He is simply a man who lives his sad life in an historical period that is as wistful as his life. But Stoner is simply the most beautiful novel about the complete life of a man that was ever written. Or maybe, that I have ever read!
He was born in 1891 in Booneville a small village in Missouri, as a poor farmer in a barren and hostile land. He died in 1956 in the city of Columbia, a poor professor in a small university without many academic ambitions. Throughout all his life he never moves out of Missouri. He never felt the need to do it. It was as if the world frightened him, with its vastness.
Of those 65 years of life, we know everything about him. Stoner’s life goes through the historical events of the twentieth century, but the author, John Williams, paints them in with a gentle pen tip. The protagonist is crossed by events, but he never gets lost in them. The historical reference is always light and essential. During the First World War he became a professor, but the war took away his good friend, Dave Masters. The Prohibition years in USA, frame the first years of his marriage; the Wall Street crash, followed by the economic US crisis, shut down his finances including the mortgage on his house. World War II takes away his daughter’s husband and razed the university population.
But these are not the main themes of the novel written by John Williams.
The basic theme, in my own opinion is Resistance. Everything happens to Stoner. Above all, everybody seems to rage at him, without any special reason. His wife, Edith, with her hysteria-selfishness arouses anger in the readers, but never once does Stoner himself, resort to or try those same emotional outbursts. The fury of Edith in destroying him would have provoked a reaction of the same emotional quality with anyone else, especially when she starts using the innocence of their little daughter, Grace. But not Stoner, he accepts everything in a heart-rending silence.
Is it a kind of Stonerian stoicism, or just an absolute indifference? His wife seems to resent the small happiness of her husband. She hates her husband with a hatred that has no reason to exist. She does everything to make him unhappy. First depriving him of the beloved daughter of whom, he often took care, while she was away or too busy in her egoistical existence, the daughter with whom he had a wonderful relationship. She then deprives him of the only space in the whole house, in which he chose to live his sad and lonely life, the study. The only place where he could find peace, the place where he could be himself, and where he worked, lived and slept. In the study he did what he best liked to do, spending time with his daughter, and writing and receiving students. This was the whole world for him.
When he finally manages to be happy in an extra conjugal love relationship with Katherine Driscoll, there is someone else willing to do anything to make him, once again, unhappy. Strangely, it is not that his wife knows of the relationship. She does not care much about it. Really, it seems that the married life goes better after Edith learns of the love affair. She called her husband’s mistress “your little girlfriend” but without anger or jealousy.
Now comes on the scene, Lomax. A university colleague injured physically, but with a nice handsome face, and quite ambitious. Since his coming, the reader expects to find out how and when this ambition will manifest itself against Stoner. It will happen at work. Lomax will, for a personal grudge, as soon as he became the director of the English Literature department, annoy Stoner till the end of his life. Taking away from him, his serenity in the only place where he could still hope to find a little peace. He is thus forced to give up his beloved Katherine Driscoll, overwhelmed by his inability to fight for her.
Is Stoner afraid to face life? Probably. It also happened during the First World War, when his best friends join up for the war . Dave goes to fight in Europe, Gordon joins the US army, and he, the peaceful and quiet William Stoner remains at home. There is then, a small victory in the passive life that he leads, something which when reading, made me rejoice whilst making me really proud of him. It takes place at the moment when, with a strong decision, Stoner rejects a Lomax favoured student, called Walker, who is as crippled as Lomax. This is so totally unexpected.
In this passage of the book, Williams leaves to the reader the choice of the hypotheses that were open with the introduction of this strange character. Lomax knows that Walker is unable to effectively teach but he protects him simply because of his physical deformity. Or does Lomax really believe that Walker is as good as he says? As is often said, “To posterity the judgement”.
Each reader of the book (if you have not read it yet, DO IT SOON!) will form his/her own opinion.
However, Stoner believes that Walker is lazy, dishonest and ignorant. Unable to teach and, above all, unable to take a doctorate. Stoner is inflexible in his principles, with an inability to reach any compromise. The way he faces Walker, gives the reader the idea of what teaching is for Stoner: a real mission! Lomax will be ruthless with him. Stoner accepts the consequences without flinching, even when the Lomax revenge bursts on the poor Driscoll, forcing the two lovers to put an end to their relationship, causing the sudden departure of Katherine. Stoner will not see her again. From that point on, for the vanquished Stoner, it will be a continuous decline, both physical and moral. Stoner’s health will be really bad for the first time in the summer, immediately after Katherine leaves.
Lomax is still making each university day very difficult for Stoner. He takes him off all his beloved seminars, and entrusts to him the freshmen lessons.
There comes another episode of courage that rejoices the reader and it occurs when Stoner, finally tired of that situation, tears up the calendar entrusted by Lomax and changes the courses programs, making them unsuitable for students of the first years. Lomax will fly into a fury, but he has no power on this situation so he is forced to give him back his old courses and seminars.
In the post edition of 2012 published by Fazi Editore, Italian Version, Peter Cameron defines the work of John Williams, as almost miraculous. The writer makes of William Stoner’s life, “… an exciting story, heart breaking and profound.”
Frustration is the feeling that I most often felt while reading. One can not fail to love Stoner and therefore cannot accept that he lives his life in a constant state of abandonment, with ineptitude and liabilities. A humiliating life, especially with a wife, who deprives him of everything.
Time comes to retire. Stoner is 65 years old and Lomax is in a hurry to put him to retirement. But Stoner knows that without teaching he will be lost, so he decides to go on with his work for other two years. The University settlement allows him to do so. But destiny continues to punish him: he discovers that he has a tumour. “…Oh, Willy you are all diseased inside.” Edith says, while he is dying on a bed on the house’s porch. A kind of storage room where Edith banished him a long time before the illness and after having taken him away from the beloved studio, the room in which Stoner worked, lived and slept.
Here is what really happened. Edith tells us in her own slovenly and tactless words. Stoner was eaten away inside. His body did not tolerate his continued endurance and his inability to feel anger, and quietly, day after day he worked on ways to destroy himself. Sometimes, for lots of us (me included) even a simple shout can be liberating. Stoner never screamed.
When death is approaching, his wife continues to be insensitive and selfish. Never uses tactful words, and never seeks to lighten the terrible sentence. The daughter lives a life just as miserable as her father’s, maybe worse. She confesses to her father that she got married just to get away from that house, she had never loved the young husband who had died in the war, and she had had a son only to achieve one ambition.
Grace is only twenty-five but looks ten years older, she is devastated. She also confesses to her father that she is an alcoholic. When Stoner learns that his daughter is an alcoholic, nothing remains to him but “…to be happy that at least she had that, he was grateful that she could drink.”
When it is all over Stoner from his bed on the porch, traces the small achievements of his life. He does so in a way almost unbelievable. It was as if, in that moment of separation, he could have the ability to see what the living people do not see. The reader perceives this transcendental feeling and it seems to outline the impossible idea of what is awaiting all of us, sooner or later. Williams through his words, articulates what words cannot describe. What Stoner had wanted, what he had, the friendship, a marriage that he knew was unhappy from the first day. He had soon realized “…within a month that his marriage was a failure”; he also knew true love, but he gave up on it. Finally, he had wanted to be a teacher and he had become a teacher, but even so, Stoner always considered himself a mediocre teacher. Inside himself, when at some point the words do not come out anymore, Stoner often repeated a question in his mind: what did you expect? What did you expect?
“…Softness enveloped him and a languor crossed his limbs. The consciousness of his identity caught him with a sudden force, and he felt the power. He was himself, and he knew what it was. ”
He takes a book from the night table, it is faded, and in the confusion of the last moments Stoner recognizes himself. It is his book, the one that he had written several years ago, his small contribution to the world. The only memory that would remain after his passage. “…And yet, he knew that a small part of him, that he could not ignore, was there, and there it would stay. He opened the book, and as soon as he did, the book ceased to be his. ”
William Stoner di John Williams, USA 1965
Fazi Italian Edition, February 2012.