Sunday, May 12, 2013

John Williams's Novel Of Everyday Heroism

This week's Sunday Guardian column

It made only a few waves when it was published almost 50 years ago, but now, a novel by an American author is climbing the charts in Europe. According to a recent report in Publisher’s Weekly, it’s the No. 1 bestseller in the Netherlands and also doing remarkably well in France, Spain and Italy. In the US, it was a reissue by New York Review Books Classics in 2006 that gave it a renewed lease of life.

Stoner, by John Williams, is at first glance a novel unlikely to merit such popularity. In brief, it tells of the life of William Stoner, born to an impoverished agricultural family on a small farm in Missouri in 1891, who goes on to study at the state university and discovers a love for literature. He becomes a professor, gets married, has an affair, is embroiled in petty academic politics and ages before his time.

That, on the surface, is what the novel contains. In Williams’s hands, however, this saga of the everyday reaches heroic proportions, which is, one supposes, one of the points he is trying to make. “From the earliest time he could remember, William Stoner had his duties,” we’re told at the start, and much of the novel deals with how this principled man goes about his duties in the best way he can.

Although his parents assume that after he completes his course in agricultural studies their son will return to their farm, it’s a course in English literature that derails expectations. This “troubled and disquieted [Stoner] in a way nothing had ever done before”, and he makes a full-time commitment to it -- a commitment that lasts for and defines the rest of his life. After reading the classics, “he became conscious of himself in a way that he had not done before”. In effect, he recreates himself and this is reinforced again later: “As his mind engaged itself with its subject, as it grappled with the power of the literature he studied and tried to understand its nature, he was aware of a constant change within himself”.

It’s after Stoner starts teaching that he comes across a St Louis debutante who sweeps him off his feet. They marry and have a daughter but it’s a relationship that’s fraught from the start. Williams paints Stoner throughout as upright and kind, with the portrayal of his unpleasant wife decidedly one-sided and enigmatic. Approaching middle age, Stoner embarks upon an affair with a much younger instructor at the university, and this relationship, in contrast, is idealized: when together, “they seemed to themselves to move outside of time, in a timeless universe of their own discovery”.

Notably, Williams’s prose is crystal-clear and poised throughout, with a tone of gravitas that’s simple but never simplistic, and always grounded in details of the real world. At times, for example, he sums up characters in an incisive sentence. Stoner’s father-in-law, “like many men who consider their success incomplete…was extraordinarily vain and consumed with a sense of his own importance”. As for his wife, “her voice was thin and high, and it held a note of hopelessness that gave a special value to every word she said”.

The novel is immensely moving, especially towards the end, when Stoner reckons with what he’s had to give up and what he’s gained by following his way of life. Passion may be a strong word for what drives the noble Stoner, yet we’re told that he had “given it to every moment of his life, and had perhaps given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving…. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.” This animating emotion ripples through every page of the book, encompassing university life, the values one lives by, close relationships and loss. The novel’s German publisher recently said that it is about the final things of life: “Love, commitment, compassion, work, backbone, truthfulness, death.” It deserves every bit of its new-found popularity.

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