Over the weekend I finished reading Stoner, by John Williams. I can’t remember the last time I said this about something I read, but I’m grateful now to report I thought this a beautiful book. It’s rare that I feel the moment transcended by something I read. I read for pleasure, and sometimes it’s a divine pleasure, but for the most part it provides no more than an entertaining distraction. If I’m lucky I’m given cause to think and question, and that is generally enough – I love the stimulation it affords. It’s rare – for me anyway – to be actually moved by the story. That’s what happened this time though. I loved William Stoner, the character. I ached for him often as the story unfolded, and at the end of it had melancholy tears in my eyes.
This is a simple story, just about as simple as it gets. It’s the story of William Stoner, from youth to death, set roughly in the period pre-WW1 to the mid 1950’s. He never shifts from the American midwest, where he becomes a college professor, marries, has a child, an affair, and eventually dies.
It’s an unpretentious novel about an unpretentious, decent man. At first the character reminded me of a friend who has a heart of gold, but who is occasionally socially awkward. As I got deeper into the book I found in Stoner something of a type, a type perhaps that doesn’t exist anymore. I pictured him as Jimmy Stewart, or maybe Gary Cooper – the unassuming, kind, principled, honest, humble, but determined type. The sort of man you can’t help but like, and admire grudgingly for qualities that might make him a better man than you.
In many ways it’s a sad story – or rather there are sad things that occur. Misfortune strikes, things go sour, hopes are found to be misplaced. The beauty of the book is that you read this and feel something of the simple rhythms of authentic life. There’s no real drama here, except the sort of dramas most of us have to deal with through the course of our life, the sort of real things that happen to real people. In a way Stoner is a representative of a decent man who always tried his best, contributed what he could before passing on. There is nothing special about him except that maybe he is truer than most. He is not exceptional, though there are times he dreamt of being so. He has regrets, but is not tortured by them. He gave what he could, felt as he was able to, then passed on, forgotten as easily as he is remembered.
There is that element of quotidian in this tale. Daily, modest life. It draws the reader in because we share the same stuff. We’re not reading of heroes beyond our reach, or of characters placed in situations we could never imagine. It’s what makes it beautiful, because the scale is such that we absorb it simply, feel it simply because we have felt it before. In words here are described things that we have lived ourselves, and which are present within us. There is a humbling perspective in this.
Ultimately it’s not a sad story because it is so normal. This is the stuff of life – the things we wish might have been different, but the things that will happen nonetheless if our life is to be authentic. In his way he lived well, or at least honestly, and along felt joy.
One of the most beautiful, and gratifying parts of the book is when he falls in love for the first time. He’s in a strange, loveless marriage and circumstances have distanced him from his daughter. He carries on dutifully, doing his best and standing up for what he believes, and then unexpectedly he falls in love. For the first time in his life he feels real rapture. You feel so happy for him, and at the same time recall those moments of bliss you have yourself experienced.
There’s a beautiful piece of writing that describes the moment. I read it and felt one of those aches. It also seemed to me just about the truest representation of love as I know it. I’ll finish up this post with that:
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.