It happens that we may have to walk a ways to discover what resides next door. Such was the case for me with “Stoner.”
I was on the phone “talking books” with my brother in Copenhagen, when he asked my opinion of this John Williams novel, which I had to confess I hadn’t read. “But, Inga, it is an American novel,” he said, implying that since I was there and a reader, I would of course know this outstanding book. I did not, but wasted no time getting a copy.
My brother was right: “Stoner” is book we should read.
I was not the only one who did not know that. In a recent New Yorker, Leo Robson wonders at the fact that for “almost 20 years after his death, in 1994, Williams appeared doomed to near-oblivion — omitted from every list, popular or scholarly, canonical or hipster-revisionist. If he had any sort of afterlife, it was as a writer’s writer or a secondhand bookseller’s trade. What eventually propelled him to fame was the European discovery of his 1965 book “Stoner,” a small-scale, modestly written campus novel that follows a mid-ranking academic from cradle to deathbed.”
On its re-issue in 2006, “Stoner” received little attention among American readers. Not until 2011, when the novel became a best-seller in France, the Netherlands, Italy, Israel and the United Kingdom — with the Sunday Times calling it “the greatest novel you have never read” — did the book attract some attention in the U.S.
Perhaps the discovery took time because “Stoner” is a quiet book appearing in noisy times. You have to tune in and let go of your impatience for quick acquaintance with the protagonist and swift movings of an irresistible plot. Such impulse will not be gratified. On reading, we will have to become interested in a young man who goes to college to major in agriculture with the intent of taking over his parents’ homestead. We go through his change of mind as he decides to major in English and make a career of university teaching. We subsequently suffer his parents’ disappointment at his choice and observe their determination to carry on as best they can without an heir for their effort.
Trained to be patient laborers of the earth, they carry on, as Stoner pursues his life in academe.
Lacking his parents’ steady guidelines for living and having only himself to rely on, Stoner makes a drastic mistake in choosing for his wife a woman totally unsuited for the lifestyle he intends to pursue as a teacher of English. Their foreshortened honeymoon signals a mutual disillusionment, and they appear relieved to settle into a life of normalcy with teaching and housewifery.
That initial routine is interrupted when Grace is born and her father takes over her care and upbringing. Some of the most enjoyable chapters in the novel are the description of the lives of father and child as Stoner goes about his work and Grace grows up. He arranges for her to have her own little table in his study for play and eventually homework, and, side by side, the two find great satisfaction in the process of their days.
But that is not to continue. It occurs to Edith that she is missing out on life with a growing daughter, and she sets about to rectify that by purchasing new dresses for Grace and arranging relationships with other girls her age. Neither father nor child can fathom a way to take action against a wife and mother who insists on her daughter living the life of other young girls as she perceives it. Stoner is made to give up his study for Edith’s forays into painting and his living rooms for parties of artists and other of Edith’s friends. No room is left for a continued development of a father/daughter relationship, and they grow ever more distant from one another.
Nor is life at the university as Stoner would prefer it. He becomes a popular teacher, and, as years go by, he must turn away students from his traditional seminar on “Latin Tradition and Renaissance Literature.” A newcomer to the faculty, Hollis N. Lomax, with a “grotesquely misshapen” body, eventually becomes head of the English department, and so it stands when a Lomax protégé with a “permanently twisted left hand,” Charles Walker, asks to be admitted to a full class. Stoner agrees to take him in.
A chapter as riveting as any in the novel shows Walker’s presenting of a paper copied from that of the previous week’s presentation by Katherine Driscoll, a teaching assistant in the department. Stoner had complimented Driscoll, and by copying her Walker makes fun of her — or so Stoner thinks, until Katherine points out that Walker was getting back at him. The episode ends with the student getting an F and his promise that the teacher has not heard the last of this.
Indeed he has not. Years of drudgery follow with Lomax assigning Stoner the most basic of courses “arranged at odd widely separated hours, six days a week.” His schedule leaves little time with Grace and Edith, and he ends up spending most of his days in his office feeling his “longing for something — even pain — to bring him alive.” What brings him to life is love and the pain that follows in its wake. Katherine Driscoll asks Stoner to read a new approach to her dissertation; he agrees, and comes away full of amazement at her insights. He looks her up in her apartment, lets her know his opinion and learns from her lips the shameful behaviors exerted against him. Her words will lift “away from him the weight of a despair whose heaviness he had not realized.”
“And so he had his love affair.” It is short in duration though long in effect. Lomax gets wind of it and threatens to dismiss Katherine due to inappropriate behavior: She is letting men enter her apartment at all hours. After one last meeting, she leaves shortly before the semester is over. Stoner moves into summer without teaching engagements but riddled with illness and some hearing loss, suggesting perhaps his increasing deafness to certain voices — among them Lomax’s. One fall with an especially odious schedule, Stoner decides to teach his freshman-level class as an advanced English class. He overrides Lomax’s objections so effectively that his schedule for the following semester is changed to the way it was prior to the Walker incident.
On the home front, Grace falls in with her mother’s suggestion that she not go away to college, a goal Stoner had been saving up for over the years. Grace has long since given up battling her mother, and nothing matters to her, not where she goes to school, not that she marries the boy who impregnates her during a party, and not that he is killed in the war in Europe. The baby is assigned to the father’s parents, and Grace relies on the bottle to get her through the days.
Cancer precipitates an earlier retirement than Stoner had originally planned, and his farewell to Grace is a mutual recollection of the days spent together in his study as she was growing up. It’s the only way, perhaps, they can let one another go.
Stoner is left alone to die in peace, “a sense of his own identity” coming upon him with a sudden force. “He felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.”
Should we envy him? A book and a question, perhaps, for all mature readers.
• Inga Wiehl is a writer and retired Yakima Valley College English professor. She has a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Washington, and has taught there and at the universities of Utah and Texas. She is also a teacher of Thursday Readers, a reading group for women conducted as a college English class. She has written three nonfiction books and writes about books for SCENE in an occasional column.