Thursday, August 18, 2016

John Williams, "Stoner"

Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.
Despite it's shortcomings, John Williams' 1965 novel Stoner has at its core a great strength: the love of literature, of poetry, of language, the love of engaging in depth with literature and its language, and even a love of the way that the central meaning to humanity of the arts is something that cannot, in the end, be fully expressed. I take it that the disappointments our protagonist William Stoner meets in life are a metaphor for the disappointment one experiences when one discovers that the greatest works of language leave us all essentially incoherent if we attempt to fully interpret and evaluate. We pursue that which we love, we pursue the idea of that which we love, and we never are able to possess or understand it. Or something like that.

I think this is all stated for the reader in a scene early on in the book, where Stoner, who has enrolled in an agronomic science program at the University of Missouri, finds himself entrapped within a survey of English literature, a course required of all students, a course that "troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done." Stoner has never been challenged before to find actual meaning in poetry: "the words he read were words on pages, and he could not see the use." The man teaching the course, Archer Sloane, reads out Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, which likens a man growing old to an ancient tree in the winter. It is not one of Shakespeare's more difficult sonnets, no, but it's new to Stoner as is, I think, the very idea of metaphor. Sloane calls on several students to say what the sonnet means, getting no response. Sloane calls on Stoner, who says nothing. Sloane recites the sonnet again, from memory, and asks Stoner to tell him what it means. Stoner thinks hard and sees, for the first time, that the sonnet is more than mere words on a page, that there is something beyond the surface of the language. Stoner vaguely connects the ideas of winter weather outside the classroom with the aging man who is a leafless old tree in the sonnet, but he does not know how to describe this connection; he is only aware that he has seen something new, and he can only say of Shakespeare's 73rd sonnet that "It means...it means." Stoner "could not finish what he had to say." The bell rings, Stoner follows his classmates outside, where he again sees the winter weather, sees humanity milling about, and he knows that somehow the world has changed, his perception of life is now different, though he can never express precisely in what way. The next year he declares as an English Literature major.

I have had this moment, this knowing that I'm experiencing something new and powerful and beautiful though I cannot begin to comprehend it, this moment followed by a desire to pursue the experience into real knowledge. I've had this moment with music, with art, with literature. This moment, I believe John Williams would have us believe, is a moment of falling in love.

8 comments:

  1. powerful post; and accurate. tx

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    1. I don't love the novel the way a lot of folks seem to, but I find this theme very attractive, for obvious reasons I guess.

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  2. "I don't love the novel the way a lot of folks seem to." That's how I felt about Stoner. I liked it, but that falling-in-love feeling hasn't failed to make return visits in my life, even though I'm well into middle age. I guess I never felt a strong need to see that feeling captured in art.

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    1. I have had that feeling many times over the decades, but I guess I'm a sucker for the "young man discovers a personal meaning in art" trope, cliche though it is. I always enjoy running into those scenes in novels. But I don't claim that those scenes elevate a novel to perfection, the way some readers have done with Stoner.

      Stoner made me want to re-read Shakespeare. I'm sure I will never re-read Stoner.

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    2. "Stoner made me want to re-read Shakespeare. I'm sure I will never re-read Stoner." That is a great way to critique the book. Isn't it something the way so many books lead us back to Shakespeare! I've just been reading about Charles Dickens and his favorite authors: Shakespeare headed the list. That fellow has a way of heading so many author's lists. But I'm preaching to the choir. The author of _The Astrologer_ needs no preaching from me. Wrapping up: your fine posting does not persuade me to read _Stoner_, which says nothing negative about your posting but says something about what I understand about _Stoner_, but I'm poised to revisit some Shakespeare. So there you go.

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  3. This has been very interesting. I have never seen a review of this book that justified the superlatives, and I always wondered if there was maybe a little bit of bookish over-sympathizing, just maybe. Or if there is some other kind of argument, some kind of critique of art-loving.

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  4. I bought my copy of Stoner after reading D.G. Myers' review. I can see that the book really appeals to a certain type of person, the academician who has devoted his energies to literature and who might consider the rest of life a kind of practical distraction from that work. William Stoner's only real relationship is with literature--or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, with his idea of literature, which is to say, with his own imagination. The real people in his life are seen distantly and inaccurately, and even when he "falls in love" with a young teacher, they each put their academic careers first when the relationship is threatened. All of which I do find interesting and telling, as well as the claims made by several characters that the academy is a refuge for people who can't fit in with the outside world, a TB ward or an asylum, more than it is a cathedral of wisdom. So there is a great deal of irony in Stoner's love story between man and literature. In the end, the dead professor's single (mostly unread and completely superfluous to the history of knowledge) book slips from his fingers and falls to the floor, the noise echoing unheard in an empty room. So all of that, as I say, is pretty good stuff and adds a counterweight to the sentimentality (which I admit that I adore) of The Boy And Shakespeare.

    The book isn't "perfect" or a masterpiece by any means, but it's still a pretty good book. If it doesn't live up to all the hype, that's not Mr Williams' fault.

    Like Tim implies, anyone who already loves Shakespeare is going to be sitting in the choir Williams preaches to in the scene I described. The reader's heart melts. "Aww, he likes Shakespeare! What's not to love about this book?"

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  5. I felt that the realisation that Stoner came to with Shakespeare was that there was something beyond his understanding which he might be able to get closer to. As the book progressed it seemed that everything was beyond his grasp and understanding, from his wife to his own feelings, and beyond. He is a man constrained by temperament to till in straight lines, even when that merely seems to spoil the soil. That he tills the field of English literary academia seems almost incidental. He ends up his father's son, working at a plot of land that will not give him much in return.I agree with you that it has perhaps more of the good than the great about it but that is an achievement itself.

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