Sunday, June 15, 2008


Stoner doesn't sound like a thriller of a story. Farm boy goes to college, falls in love with literature, becomes a professor but never advances far, gets old, and dies. Fascinating, right? But the people in my book discussion group who had read it loved it, and the man who lent me the book went so far as to assure me it was a page turner. Proof that it isn't the plot that matters? Or, more accurately, that wonderful writers can turn the most unlikely of stories into something truly compelling?

John Williams's prose has a tremendous clarity to it that makes it a genuine pleasure to read. And what matters, in the end, are the people and things that Stoner loves, reading and literature among them. In Williams's hands, the act of reading, the acquisition of knowledge becomes something visceral and physical. Literature has the power to change a person's perception of the world:
In a moment of silence someone cleared his throat. Sloane repeated the lines, his voice becoming flat, his own again.

This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Sloane's eyes came back to William Stoner, and he said dryly, "Mr. Shakespeare speaks to you across three hundred years, Mr. Stoner; do you hear him?"

William Stoner realized that for several moments he had been holding his breath. He expelled it gently, minutely aware of his clothing moving upon his body as his breath went out of his lungs. He looked away from Sloane about the room. Light slanted from 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. Stoner became aware that his fingers were un-clenching their hard grip on his desk-top. He turned his hands about under his gaze, marveling at their brownness, at the intricate way his nails fit into his blunt finger-ends; he thought he could feel the blood flowing invisibly through the tiny veins and arteries, throbbing delicately and precariously from his fingertips through his body.

Sloane was speaking again. "What does he say to you Mr. Stoner? What does his sonnet mean?"

Stoner's eyes lifted slowly and reluctantly. "It means," he said, and with a small movement raised his hands up toward the air; he felt his eyes glaze over as they sought the figure of Archer Sloane. "It means," he said again, and could not finish what he had begun to say.
Literature isn't something that Stoner understands but rather something that he experiences. In his introduction, John McGahern quotes from an interview with Williams in which the interviewer asks, "And literature is written to be entertaining?" "Absolutely," Williams replies, "My God, to read without joy is stupid." I feel like that joy permeates this book. Small wonder then, that it came so highly recommended; it really is wonderful.

As a side note, this was brought back into print by NYRB Classics.

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