I am sure book reading group members have this experience too. Every so often serendipity, synchronicity, or simply sheer chance brings a book to my attention by an author who I am embarrassed to admit I had never heard of but will now never forget. Such a book has the simple title Stoner by John Williams and it was first published in 1965 in the USA: where was I looking at the time that I did not spot it then, or even in 1973 when it was first published in the UK?
Stoner, reissued now by Vintage Classics, is the life story of an able man with a stubborn streak. Born to work the soil like his parents and forefathers, his abilities attract the attention of the County Agent in rural Missouri who tells his parents he should take the new four-year agricultural degree now being offered at the University in Columbia. Although it means losing his free labour, they encourage him to go. There, it happens that a required module for all students is a one-semester survey of English literature, taught by a jaded man in his late fifties who yet manages to blow on the spark of interest that began to glow in William Stoner’s imagination. He abandons agriculture and completes his degree in English Literature. It is only when he completes his first degree that he breaks it gently to his parents that he is not coming back to work on the farm.
Going on to take his Masters degree and then working part-time as an instructor while progressing to his PhD, Stoner reinvents himself as a scholar and teacher. (He reminds me of the Scots ‘lad o’ pairts’ who is spotted in his early years in the parish school and encouraged to blossom by his teachers and the whole education system, goes on to the High School and University and finds, as one sad consequence, he can no longer talk with his parents about topics of mutual interest and yet, because of his origins, is not entirely accepted by his more sophisticated peers.) In his final year, Stoner’s English tutor talks to him seriously.
Sloane tapped the folder of papers on his desk. “I am informed by these records that you come from a farming community. I take it that your parents are farm people?”
“And do you intend to return to the farm after you receive your degree here?”
“No, sir,” Stoner said, and the decisiveness of his voice surprised him. He thought with some wonder of the decision he had suddenly made.
Sloane nodded. “I should imagine a serious student of literature might find his skills not precisely suited to the persuasion of the soil.”
“I won’t go back,” Stoner said as if Sloane had not spoken. “I don’t know what I’ll do exactly.” He looked at his hands and said to them, “I can’t quite realise that I’ll be through so soon, that I’ll be leaving University at the end of the year.”
Sloane said casually, “There is, of course, no absolute need for you to leave. I take it that you have no independent means?”
Stoner shook his head.
“But don’t you know, Mr Stoner?” Sloane asked. Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”
“How can you tell? How can you be sure?”
“It’s love, Mr Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.” [pp. 19/20]
Stoner does love English literature but he is still in some respects a naïve and awkward farm boy. This is pointed up when, at a University event, he catches sight of Edith Elaine Bostwick, is smitten, and asks a colleague for help.
“I want you to introduce me,” Stoner said. He felt his face warm. “Do you know her?”
“Sure,” Finch said. The start of a grin began to tug at his mouth. “She’s some kind of cousin of the dean’s, down from St Louis, visiting an aunt.” The grin widened. “Old Bill. What do you know. Sure, I’ll introduce you. Come on.” [p. 48]
Alas, of all the women in the room, Elaine was probably the worst choice but they were neither to know this until after they married only a few months later. John Williams does not spare her in his character sketch.
She was educated upon the premise that she would be protected from the gross events that life might thrust in her way, and upon the premise that she had no other duty than to be a graceful and accomplished accessory to that protection, since she belonged to a social and economic class to which protection was an almost sacred obligation. She attended private schools for girls where she learned to read, to write, and to do simple arithmetic; in her leisure she was encouraged to do needlepoint, to play the piano, to paint water colors, and to discuss some of the more gentle works of literature. She was also instructed in matters of dress, carriage, ladylike diction, and morality.
Her moral training, both at the schools she attended and at home, was negative in nature, prohibitive in intent, and almost entirely sexual. The sexuality, however, was indirect and unacknowledged; therefore it suffused every other part of her education, which received most of its energy from that recessive and unspoken moral force. She learned that she would have duties toward her husband and family and that she must fulfill them. [p. 54]
The nature of these duties becomes clear on their disastrous wedding night and sets the pattern for a life in which, Stoner realises, he will have to compromise, and do it her way! There is one brief period when Edith suddenly craves motherhood and demands sex until she becomes pregnant but seldom if ever thereafter. They pursue their separate lives and Stoner rises very slowly to the level of tenured associate professor, very much in love with his only child, Grace.
University politics and personalities do intrude when he declines promotion to Head of Department and the newly appointed Head and he manage to fall out spectacularly, a rancorous feud that persists for the rest of Stoner’s life. He also crosses swords with an erratic and, in Stoner’s view, incompetent student whom he wants to fail but the Head of Department wants to pass with distinction, maybe because both are physically handicapped. By this time, Stoner has fallen in love with a young graduate student and it is their affair that is both the most glorious and, inevitably, the most tragic event of his life.
John Williams prose is matter-of-fact, never florid but is masterful in the way it moves events forward relentlessly. Subtle wit is uncovered in every paragraph; a book to savour and to reread to which I will give a well-deserved 8.5 out of 10.