Squirming, reading Stoner

John WilliamsIt snowed enough to cancel school today. In lieu of teaching, I spent the day reading Stoner, a novel about a lifer teacher, from cover to cover. John Williams’s 1965 book is scary close.

So close that I think I learned something about myself. I’ve often wondered why I had came so close to pursuing English through grad school before deciding instead to become a lawyer. Certainly, close to half of my college credit hours were in English. Looking back on it, though, I had been fairly inarticulate in class discussions, and sometimes I had loved books that I later realized I had hardly understood.

So why have I been rereading my college books for the past few years? Why have I thought I might have pursued graduate studies in English?

“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.” (Page 20)

I didn’t have a Professor Sloane who understood that my inarticulateness was a matter of love, not did I have a Bill Knight, at least back then, who understood that my never wanting to leave college may have had some bearing on my eventual profession. (Bill also introduced me to this wonderful novel, quoting one of the above lines.) No one had described to me the possibility of having, as the narrator puts it, “an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words” (page 98).

(I can’t really blame my college’s English department. I did have one of my professors pick me out of his giant English lit survey to take to lunch one day freshman year. I remember his pleasant patter at the University Cafeteria, but I never remembered anything he said. Like Stoner with his professor and, later, Stoner’s students with theirs, I must have been staring at my hands for most of the meal.)

But the novel’s scary closeness isn’t just from Stoner’s profession. Stoner has my view of learning, my view of the ideal college – indeed, my view of the ideal:

“Stoner, here, I imagine, sees [the university] as a great repository, like a library or a whorehouse, where men come of their free will and select that which will complete them, where all work together like little bees in a common hive. The True, the Good, the Beautiful. They’re just around the corner, in the next corridor; they’re in the next book, the one you haven’t read, or in the next stack, the one you haven’t got to. But you’ll get to it someday. And when you do— when you do—” (page 29)

Stoner’s buddy Dave Masters then settles in on William Stoner himself:

“ . . . you are the dreamer, the madman in a madder world, our own midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky. . . . You think there’s something here, something to find. Well, in the world you’d learn soon enough. You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world. You’d let it chew you up and spit you out, and you’d lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn’t face them, and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong” (page 31).

Is it necessary that I have my faults thrown in my face like this? My lack of ambition, followed by my frustration over my lack of influence in an organization? My willingness to concede in battles I think are rooted in people’s insecurities, but my stubborn refusal to back down when one of my core principles is threatened? My desire (witness my political science writings) to change the world?

Stoner spends the novel, which serves as Stoner’s cradle-to-grave biography, reconciling his quixotic tendencies with Masters’s message: it doesn’t matter in the long run. The reconciliation is sad and satisfying. The novel also has something to do with hard work, as Williams is quoted as saying in the current edition’s introduction. Whether he’s 24, 34, 44, 54, or 64, Stoner always seems to be grading papers and preparing lectures.

The reconciliation and hard work are not enough for me to live by, however. Even as a confirmed idealist, I wouldn’t mention this except that Williams gets more strident about his take on life the older Stoner gets. Sometimes, for instance, Stoner, Stoner’s lover, and the third-person narrator all hammer home the same viewpoints in much the same way. In fact, Stoner’s lover always sounds like Stoner. The two of them spend much of their relationship repeating each other’s reactions and realizations, thereby affirming each other’s feelings they seem to experience and life lessons they seem to learn at the same moments.

Though, except for the stridency of the themes’ treatment in the second half of the novel, the book’s right real. It feels like a cross between Thomas Wolfe’s earnest and autobiographical Look Homeward, Angel and James Salter’s realistic and conjugal Light Years. All three novels take in great swaths of the life of a misfit idealist (well, Light Years’s Viri Berland is at least an innocent of sorts), more content to show the outcome of certain personalities over time than to hew to a tight narrative. Not that Williams spares a single word. In that regard, he’s a lot more like Salter and Raymond Chandler than like Thomas Wolfe. And as far as turning a phrase just enough to improve on the English language, well, think of Salter again.

And think of Cervantes. Both Stoner and Don Quixote end with long death scenes in which the books’ namesakes discover who they really are beneath their strident idealism. Is this also really necessary?

Photo of John Williams.

The beauty of sex

I stayed up very late over the last two nights finishing James Salter’s 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime. It may be the most beautiful novel I’ve ever read.

It’s about sex. It’s about how sex intersects with human nature inside and outside the sexual relationship. I think its beauty stems from how the sex is depicted, how the relationships are depicted, and how description and atmospherics are used to convey emotional information. (I’ve read that the novel broke ground on how directly a literary novel could address sex. I bet the novel was a pioneer also in its understated and poetic use of description to get across the characters’ emotional states. I recently finished Michael Ondaatje’s 2011 novel The Cat’s Table, and it may owe something to Salter’s sensitive and spare use of description for emotional content.)

Here’s what A Sport and a Pastime answers for me:

  1. How do you write an honest and compelling narrative about sex without seeming clinical, crude, or salacious? What words do you use for specific organs and acts? How specific does a writer need to be to convey a character’s experience and still leave work for the reader’s imagination?
  2. How do you write about what someone begins to mean to you because you will not, yourself, do what he does or that part of what he does that represents, however imperfectly, what the currently most essential part of you wants or needs to do?
  3. How can a narrator report the actions of an actor (that is, a non-writer) and examine, without distracting from the act, what the actor’s acts are doing inside the narrator?

As far as question #3 goes, A Sport and a Pastime beats out one of my favorite novels that also answers the same question, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.  (And the novels include similar scenes in their denouements (spoiler alert): after the actor dies, the narrator somewhat awkwardly commiserates with the actor’s woman. A feeling of depletion pervades most of the scene.)

A Sport and a Pastime contains not one false note. It’s like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in that respect, and maybe in another: each novel was its respective author’s favorite, probably because it represented to him the fulfillment of writing’s promise and the promise of more.