My rating: 5/5 stars
William Stoner is born at the end of the nineteenth century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life, so different from the hardscrabble existence he has known.
And yet as the years pass, Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments: marriage into a “proper” family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude.
John Williams’s luminous and deeply moving novel is a work of quiet perfection. William Stoner emerges from it not only as an archetypal American, but as an unlikely existential hero, standing, like a figure in a painting by Edward Hopper, in stark relief against an unforgiving world.
Stoner must be the most famous “under appreciated” book around. It seems that everywhere I look, a blogger or a literary critic is entreating us to give this forgotten classic a chance. It was reprinted by the highly regarded NYRB Classics in 2006, and just a few months ago was endorsed by Ian MacEwan. But, it’s not on any of those top 100 or 1001 lists, and its Wikipedia page is just a tragedy. And it did, predictably, make an appearance on BookRiot’s Most Underrated Books list.
Stoner was my Classics Club Spin pick, and it was from my “dreading it” list. I was intimidated, as the bloggers talking it up were all really smart and I was afraid I would be in over my head; and I was managing expectations, because the last time I got all excited because of a bookish-internet frenzy I was let down.
Oh, and I could tell from the blurb that this was going to be one of those “poor little privileged white dude is bored, cheats on his wife but feels really bad and conflicted about it, wah wah, epiphany of some sort, the end” stories. So there was that. And it absolutely is one of those stories. But, once I got over myself and started reading, I quickly realized that, like most people’s real lives, you can present William Stoner’s life as a happy story or a sad story, depending how you look at it:
- The “Quit Whining, Privileged White Dude” version: Stoner doesn’t have to fight in either world war. He loves literature, and is able to study it then teach it. He attains tenure, and so isn’t really at risk of losing his livelihood during the depression. He marries the first girl he ever asks out. They have a daughter without having to try too hard (more on THAT later.) He has a torrid mid-life love affair, but his marriage survives. He lives a quiet life and dies surrounded by his family.
- The “I Feel Really Bad Now” version: Stoner grows up in abject poverty. He alienates his parents when he goes to University, and alienates his friends when he chooses not to enlist in WWI. He discovers a love of literature but his career is mired in petty politics and he never achieves any real recognition. He marries a deeply damaged woman who seems wholly incapable of love. He enjoys a close relationship with his daughter until his wife cruelly turns her against him. He finally finds a woman he can love and is forced to give her up. His never reconciles with his wife, and his daughter descends into alcoholism. He dies a protracted, painful death, having never resolved any of these issues.
As you can probably surmise from my plot summaries above, not a heck of a lot happens in this book and it’s depressing as hell, but I couldn’t stop reading, and my emotions were all over the place. There are small moments of joy and years of crushing sadness. There is tedium and frustration and then suddenly a burst of love, real love, but it can’t last.
Oh and there’s some horrific sex. But unlike a certain book I read last month, the sex is supposed to be horrifying.
I know this is Stoner’s book, but I have to talk about the women. His wife Edith is almost a caricature of a frigid, nagging, manipulative wife. She’s one of the worst mothers I’ve encountered in literature. But Williams give just enough of her back story to make me feel sympathy:
Her childhood was an exceedingly formal one, even in the most ordinary moments of family life. Her parents behaved towards each other with a distant courtesy; Edith never saw pass between them the spontaneous warmth of either anger or love. She was an only child, and loneliness was one of the earliest conditions of her life.
It’s hinted that Edith was abused by her father, and she suffers crippling postpartum depression after the birth of Grace, of course untreated, unspoken of. Edith’s many illnesses, obsessions, and manias are quietly managed by Stoner. So yes, she’s horrible, but you’d probably be horrible too if you were mentally ill and traumatized by who knows what kind of weird upbringing.
And then there’s poor Grace, growing up in the middle of the marriage from hell. Unlike Stoner’s, there’s no way to rewrite her story in a positive light. She is a pawn in her parents power struggles, lonely, unhappy, becomes pregnant as a teen, is forced to marry the father who promptly dies in WWII, and she spirals into drink, unable to care for her son.
Stoner’s care for Grace as a baby and toddler are the most touching parts of the book, but as she matures, he realizes that his love for his daughter is completely ineffectual:
Stoner looked upon [her] with a sadness that belied the indifferent face he presented to the world. He did not allow himself the easy luxury of guilt; given his own nature and the circumstances of his life with Edith, there was nothing that he could have done. And that knowledge intensified his sadness as no guilt could have, and made his love for his daughter more searching and more deep.
“The easy luxury of guilt” is something I’ve been thinking about since I read it. Finally, there’s Katherine, Stoner’s “true love” and catalyst for the one of the only sustained period of happiness in his life. I didn’t find her as interesting or well developed at Edith, but the writing about the affair is sublime:
In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.
There’s more to this book that I’m not going to get to, but it’s really very minimalist and realistic – it’s literally the entire adult life of one man, in chronological order, and so it ends with his death. The man, his life, and his death are not really that remarkable, but reading the end of this book was absolutely devastating. I won’t quote because you just have to read it.
I don’t feel like I’ve done a great job of explaining why I loved this book so much (I don’t give a five star rating lightly.) I hope I’ve piqued your interest enough to pick it up. Maybe one day, if enough people do, we can stop calling this the most underrated book of all time and just call it, simply, a classic.
Thanks to The Classics Club for organizing The Classics Club Spin and forcing me to read this book!