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Consonance

“Consonance” echoes in my head: reading Edward Williams’ 1968 novel Stoner I felt I was hearing my own thoughts. There is more than wishful thinking here. The prose is enviably compelling, but, hubris apart, I find that the narrator’s voice mimicked the inner monologist that, for want of a better phrase, talks my thoughts to me. I know that I am not alone in this. The book’s reissue some years ago occasioned remarkable reviews. A brief look at the Amazon web page that features Stoner will more than confirm that.

The plot of the novel is devoid of grand incident: the title character, a poor farm boy, manages to work his way through the University of Missouri. He develops a great love for literature and has a clear aptitude for analysis and criticism. His mentor, a senior professor, guides him through his dissertation and also manages to divert him from enlisting to fight in the First War. Stoner becomes a brilliant teacher, a hen-pecked, nay pathologically dominated husband, and ultimately a victim of his wife’s malice. She estranges their daughter from her doting father. Stoner’s passionate and liberating love affair with a graduate student collapses, despite great depth of affection, before the pressures of university politics and the threat of scandal. Stoical acceptance balances the support of literature and scholarship as Stoner unselfconsciously finds his way to eccentricity – yet all within the compass of his small university classrooms.

The first part of the novel contains scant dialogue. The narrator is showing us little, telling us all, and telling it is. The scene is an English literature classroom. Archer Sloane, who is to become Stoner’s mentor, skewers Stoner with a demand for an interpretation of Shakespeare’s sonnet, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold.” Sloane reads the sonnet, directing his voice at his pupil: “Shakespeare speaks to you across three hundred years, Mr. Stoner; do you hear him?” Stoner remains silent in a reflection that takes him to a moment of transcendence.

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 unclenching their hard grip on his desk-top. He turned his hands about under his gaze, marveling at their brownness, at the intricate way the nail fit into his blunt finger-ends; he thought he could feel the blood flowing invisibly though the tiny veins and arteries, throbbing delicately and precariously from his fingertips through his body.

The revelatory moment changes the external world. Stoner’s consciousness registers a pulsing that discovers an interior movement of emotion and understanding hinted out in the invisible flow of blood in his veins. Shakespeare indeed has spoken. Later, studying in his comfortless room:

Sometimes . . . he would look up from a book he was reading and gaze in the dark corners of his room, where the lamplight flickered against the shadows. If he stared long and intently, the darkness gathered into a light, which took the insubstantial shape of what he had been reading. And he would feel that he was out of time, as he had felt that day when Archer Sloane had spoken to him. The past gathered out of the darkness where it stayed, and the dead raised themselves to live before him, and the past and the dead flowed into the present among the alive, so that he had for an intense instant a vision of denseness into which he was compacted and from which he could not escape, and had no wish to escape.[The great characters of literature walk before Stoner.] And he was with them in a way that he could never be with his fellows who went from class to class.

The experience described here, the discovery of the power of literature, so deeply personal and transcendent, echoes what I  and I am sure so many others have felt - what I remember being called, fifty years ago, “the concrete universal.” To undergo this makes any defense of the liberal arts redundant. Williams shows the aesthetic experience at once expanding and contracting, opening out and returning to a piercing point. Stoner’s life happens around these moments. In terms of the novel’s unfolding plot, we understand that this is the source, the well, from which Stoner draws his Job-like patience and his self-deprecatory wit. For so deeply reflective a character, he is remarkably unselfconscious – even to the point of frightening off the University President by construing at him some difficult verse lines in Latin – such is the absorption in his teaching.

Stoner is a beautiful novel, restrained and focused, with the inevitability that seems to grow from the very earth that Stoner’s parents worked. There is a confession in the attraction that the book radiates. “Do you hear him, reader?”

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A beautiful and nearly-perfect novel. Thank you for remininding me. 

There are some things about this book that sound lovely. And yet I'm not sure I'm emotionally up to a book about a male academic in which every woman in his life is either villainized, or devoted to him yet unfairly kept away from him by the machinations of others. Is it worth giving it a shot and trying to ignore that? 

The author's name is John, not Edward.  (Freudian slip?)  And the town is Boonville, not Booneville, as it's misspelled repeatedly in the book.

(But the book is only $1.99 for Kindle.)

I recommend a much better book with a Boonville connection:  Will Rogers:  A Political Life, by Richard D. White.  (Will Rogers attended Kemper Military Academy in Boonville for two years.)

http://www.amazon.com/Will-Rogers-Political-Life-ebook/dp/B0098N800W/ref...

Not depressing.  Enlightening and thrilling.  Will's wife was not destructive, and his prescience will astonish anyone unfamiliar with his writing.  

I found "Stoner" to be morbid, depressing and nihilistic. My wife had the same reaction after reading it. 

Confusing first names seems my breast-beating fault, I checked the author's name before I posted the blog and yet managed to make the error.

I might be blind to the mordant aspects of a male academic estranged from healthy relationships with women, but I don't think this is a real issue in the novel. The rewards are many.

Thank you for the note about the Will Rogers biography. My first reaction, I fear, is to wonder what measure stands behind the evaluation of "better."

Hi, Edward:

You're welcome for the Will Rogers recommendation.  I hope you and everyone will read it.  Fabulous.

I just ordered The Men Who United the States by Simon Winchester after reading his article in the Financial Times this morning.  He wrote about following the trail that Eisenhower and an Army convoy took across the U. S. in 1919.  The generals realized that Japan, whose aggression was already becoming evident, could attack California, and it would be hard for soldiers stationed on the east coast to get out west.  So they tested the theory.  It took 58 miserable days.  Their prescience about Japan's intentions reminded me of Will Rogers who predicted Pearl Harbor ten years before it happened and said if it DID happen, it would be our fault.  

Agree about "better."  I was sort of kidding.  Obviously comparing an old novel to a modern work of scholarship is meaningless. 

I'm glad you liked Stoner.  I've never read it, because I thought it was about a . . . stoner.  (And I knew enough Mizzou stoners in days of yore to last a lifetime.)  But after reading the first few pages on Kindle, I think I'll read it.  That and Winchester will tide me over until The Heir Apparent arrives on Dec. 3rd.

http://www.amazon.com/Heir-Apparent-Edward-Playboy-Prince-ebook/dp/B00DA...

 

Am reading this now, only about a quarter of the way through, and so far it sounds like the story of every academic drudge whose love for his subject has to be enough to keep his soul alive. Style/subject reminds me a little of the type of thing William Dean Howells would write about, but maybe that's only superficial.

 

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About the Author

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.