This entry was first published on November 11, 2010.
From Stoner by John Williams:
He began to resent the time he had to spend at work on the Foote farm. Having come to his studies late, he felt the urgency of study. Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.
COMMENT: How accurately this passage describes those who, like me, like William Stoner, arrive at the scholar’s banquet late: We resent any activity that keeps us from reading, thinking, learning, synthesizing, writing. And we are occasionally all but undone by the realization that there will never be enough time to read all that we want — all we must read.
Within a month he knew that his marriage was a failure; within a year he stopped hoping it would improve.
COMMENT: In a sentence formed with the deceptive simplicity of a Shaker rocking chair, Williams establishes how Stoner’s inherited stoicism has and will inform his entire life — a life that the author maintains wasn’t “such a sad and bad” one, despite the ineffable melancholy the sentence above may evoke. After all, he continues in an interview about Stoner:
He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing.
Yes, since William Stoner is a man of so few relationships, the failure of his marriage before it even begins presages how essential his work will be.
He suspected that he was beginning, ten years late, to discover who he was; and the figure he saw was both more and less than he had once imagined it to be. He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man. It was knowledge of which he could not speak, but one which changed him, once he had it, so that no one could mistake its presence.
COMMENT: The maturity, the wisdom of this self-realization and the quiet but essential way in which it strengthens Stoner will startle readers accustomed to the angsty navel-gazing that masquerades as penetrating insight in more contemporary novels.
Almost from the first, the implications of the subject caught the students, and they all had that sense of discovery that comes when one feels that the subject at hand lies at the center of a much larger subject, and when one feels intensely that a pursuit of the subject is likely to lead — where, one does not know.
COMMENT: I’ve experienced this sense of scholarly delight, intensity, and, yes, urgency more frequently in my autodidactic pursuits and in our family-centered learning project than in my undergraduate and graduate studies.
He had come to that moment in his age when there occurred to him, with increasing intensity, a question of such overwhelming simplicity that he had no means to face it. He found himself wondering if his life were worth the living; if it had ever been. It was a question, he suspected, that came to all men at one time or another; he wondered if it came to them with such impersonal force as it came to him. The question brought with it a little sadness, but it was a general sadness which (he thought) had little to do with himself or with his particular fate; he was not even sure that the question sprang from the most immediate and obvious causes, from what his own life had become. It came, he believed, from the accretion of his years, from the density of accident and circumstance, and from what he had come to understand of them. He took a grim and ironic pleasure from the possibility that what little learning he had managed to acquire had led him to this knowledge: that in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter.
COMMENT: This meditation occurs after Walker’s sham of a graduate examination and the repercussions of Stoner’s evaluation of his performance but before Katherine Driscoll’s re-entry into the professor’s life. Sandwiched, as it were, between these two defining moments in Stoner’s chronology, it may have read as midlife crisis and cliché had it not been for the stoicism and scholarly detachment with which Stoner examines and then dispatches the basic question of life: What does it all mean?
And Stoner looked upon it all — the rage, the woe, the screams, and the hateful silences — as if it were happening to two other people, in whom, by an effort of the will, he could summon only the most perfunctory interest.
COMMENT: In other words, one’s stoicism not only yields penetrating self-evaluation but also diminishes the effects of emotional gales. Like any philosophy, stoicism has its limits and disadvantages, but Stoner manages to employ it effectively.
From “The Inner Lives of Men” (NYT, June 17, 2007):
This is the story of an ordinary man, seemingly thwarted at every turn, but also of the knotty integrity he preserves, the deep inner life behind the impassive facade.