Have you ever heard of the novel Stoner, by John Williams? Chances are you haven’t. I stumbled across it in law school while reading a blog, bought it on an impulse, and ever since it has been my favorite novel.* I reread it this fall, for the third time, and it was just as brilliantly beautiful and moving as it was the first time.
Stoner is about a man, William Stoner, who lives an unremarkable life. He grew up on a farm in Missouri, where his parents, beaten-down and numb from years of hard labor, had little to offer him. Perhaps recognizing this, Stoner’s father finds a way to send him off to college, where Stoner discovers literature and eventually becomes a teacher. As the years pass, he marries the wrong woman, has an affair, develops an intense feud with the dean of the English department, publishes one esoteric scholarly work, and eventually dies without much distinction or fanfare.
The plainness of Stoner (the man) which I’ve just described is true to the tone of the story. Indeed, this is how the novel begins:
William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.”
These first lines, almost a disclaimer to the reader, are sly because of their boldness. ‘The protagonist is sort of a nobody,’ it says. And yet this beginning serves as an invitation, for Stoner is a book written in the belief that ordinary, seemingly non-descript lives can in fact be the most interesting and beautiful lives, if they are told with depth and love. (This is another way of saying, at the risk of sounding trite, that everyone’s story is worth telling. Perhaps better to say that everyone’s story, if told well, is worth telling.) Marilynne Robinson, in her recent collection of essays titled When I Was a Child I Read Books, writes that “when I see a man or woman alone, he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to say that for a moment I see another human being clearly.” In Stoner, the protagonist is surely alone, brilliantly and desperately alone, and Williams, because he is a superb writer, allows us to see him clearly.
Now, about Williams’ writing. The opening passage reflects his style, which is spare and crystalline (“jewel-like,” as one critic puts it). There is never a wasted word, yet passages burn with truth and create the effect in the reader of “of knowing something through words that could not be put in words.” Take this passage, in which Stoner discovers that he is finally coming into his own as a teacher:
The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print—the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly.
Or Williams’ simple description of Stoner’s wife when he first sees her: “In her white dress she was like a cold light coming into the room.” The rhythm of those words, the interaction between “white dress” and “cold light,” are perfect. The image, simple and beautiful and perhaps a little foreboding, is bright and clear, with no wasted motion. (I should add that Stoner’s wife is the book’s weak point; she is vindictive and wraith-like, and Stoner’s stoic endurance of her increasingly nefarious behavior becomes tedious as the story progresses. The novel is not perfect.)
One of my favorite scenes (I wrote about it here) takes place early in the novel, when Stoner is a young undergraduate. Still planning to return to his parents’ farm, he has not yet discovered his calling to be a teacher. He is sitting in a sophomore English survey class, taught by an eccentric old professor (whom Stoner will come to mirror) named Archer Sloane. Sloane is reading aloud Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. Suddenly, something changes in Stoner. He looks around him at his classmates: “light slanted in the windows and settled upon the faces of his fellow students, so that the illumination seemed to come from within them and go out against a dimness; a student blinked, and a thin shadow fell upon a cheek whose down had caught the sunlight.” After finishing his recitation, Sloane asks Stoner what the sonnet means to him. Stoner is paralyzed, unable to speak. His hands grip the tabletop until his knuckles turn white. He has discovered something that he suddenly knows to be true: the power of words, which will become a love of books and literature. Stoner in this moment reminds me of myself reading Stoner for the very first time, in the moment when I realized that I’d discovered my favorite book of all time.
* As it happens, Stoner is more than just my favorite novel. One day during our first year of law school, I was reading Stoner in the law school library when Carolyn walked past. She’d been studying, of course—she tended to do that a lot more than I did, at least at the beginning of law school—and was amazed to find me reading something that wasn’t a law book. We struck up a chat (we weren’t yet dating at the time), and I ended up lending the book to Carolyn to read. She did, and she loved it, and we spent hours talking about it. It was one of the things that brought us together.