Questioning the Stoner phenomenon
By RUPERT SHORTT
The praise is ecstatic. According to the New York Times, John Williams’s Stoner “is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away”. Similar verdicts – along with the equally breathless claim that Stoner’s colossal virtues have been strangely overlooked – are rampant in Britain. The chorus is not unanimous, of course. Internet humbug-monitors prompt me to raise a couple of cheers for digital democracy. But cooler assessments of the novel have been in short supply.
The protagonist, William Stoner, comes from a poor farming background in central Missouri. Sent away to study agriculture at college just before the First World War, he shifts his focus to literature, knuckles down, and duly becomes a professor. I am not spoiling things by saying that he weds the wrong woman: that much is revealed on the book’s cover. The rest of the story charts the decay of the marriage and of Stoner’s professional life, among other episodes. At his best, Williams contrives to tell the tale with insight and pathos.
These and other strengths are hailed by John McGahern in his Introduction, but the novel’s merits are no cover for major flaws. I am only giving away a small amount when I add that Stoner’s wife Edith is bad as well as mad. She oppresses her husband with no trace of guilt for forty tragic years. We are nevertheless required to believe not only that he would do virtually nothing to defend himself, but also that Edith’s unspeakable malignity towards Stoner is matched by one of his colleagues. Again, however, the target of all the fury offers virtually no resistance. The other benign characters tend to be equally supine. This all comes to pass because the naturalistic framework is not what it seems. When Edith’s fourth-formish nihilism is echoed in commentary by the omniscient author, our suspicions about puppets and string-pulling start to look incontrovertible.
Another fault passed over by the hyper-ventilators is stylistic. Williams’s prose is frequently well crafted. But it can also be sloppy – sentence after undifferentiated sentence consists of two long clauses linked by an “and” – and sodden in clichés such as “rolling hills”. The author’s inattention sometimes makes him a poor observer of his own characters. At one point, for example, we are told that Edith is obsessed with housework; then, a short time later, that in an apparent break with habit, “she even made a few movements toward caring for the house”. Williams has a sharp ear for dialogue: Stoner is nothing if not uneven. But he still shows too little and tells too much.
Julian Barnes, one of the novel’s foremost English fans, has acclaimed it as a work of “echoing sadness”. John McGahern is willing to concede that the gloom is “remorseless”. Yet in an interview given shortly before his death in 1994, Williams himself declared that Bill Stoner had had a “very good life”. That a work of art feeds multiple interpretations can clearly be proof of quality. Sometimes, though, it is a mark of muddle and no more.