I've read several novels from the year 1965, but decided recently to read another. I'm not entirely sure what prompted this crazy notion since I was overbooked reading Moby Dick, Napoleon Bonaparte, The Old Testament Book of Ezekiel, and Captain Blood simultaneously, not to mention the ("thick, boring and yucky") books my home-schoolers are currently bellyaching about. Still, I looked up a list of novels published in 65, and chose the academic novel Stoner by John Williams. I had never heard of the book nor the author. It's the story of an unassuming English/Literature professor at the University of Missouri. Apparently it went practically unnoticed when first published (there were fewer than 2,000 copies sold). Only after getting attention from readers in Europe did some here in the U.S. reconsider and affirm its value, publishing a 50th Anniversary edition. Now, I expect its sales are in the gazzilions, go figure. For me, Stoner was a near perfect novel. The prose was simply beautiful. It had structure, character development, symbolism, imagery, and mood – this book had me feeling wistful, contemplative and nostalgic. I also found myself regretting the fact that I hadn't read more serious literature when I was in school.
SYNOPSIS OF STONER - The title character, William Stoner is an introvert. Having grown up on a farm, he has no plans and no expectations for the future until he his put on the spot one day in his English class. He is asked what a specific Shakespearean sonnet means and... as if for the first time – he understands there is meaning beyond what is apparent. And, that it is possible to die feeling like a life devoted to something of value will make the inevitability of death less tragic. It's in this moment that Stoner finds license and nerve to leave agriculture and pursue literature.
"He went out of Jesse Hall into the morning, and the grayness no longer seemed to oppress the campus; it led his eyes outward and upward into the sky, where he looked as if toward a possibility for which he had no name."
In the course of his life, he loves three women: his wife Edith, his daughter Grace, and a lover, Katherine. But the greatest love in his life is that of literature. This life-long pursuit culminates in the most poignant death scene I’ve ever read in modern literature. (That’s not a spoiler; it’s revealed in the first paragraph.)
In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others had learned before him: that the person one loves at the first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.
There are two antagonists – Edith, whose evil nature can be compared to Cathy Ames (Kate Trask) in Steinbeck's East of Eden - and Lomax, the department chair who frequents revenge on Stoner for Stoner’s actions against Lomax’s protégé. These two forces create an interesting parallel between his “loves” and more importantly, how he is motivated (or not motivated) to stand up for himself against them.
I don’t know how to write a review that is worthy of Stoner and that can convince you to give it a shot. I can simply say that you should. Now back to Captain Ahab, the Grand Armee', and one-eyed pirates of the Caribbean.
“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”
–C.S. Lewis, “Introduction” in St. Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1944/1993),