Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The life and death of a nobody

The bare bones of William Stoner's uneventful life are set out on the very first page of the novel that bears his name, author John Williams immediately establishing that his protagonist is ordinary and unremarkable, someone who soon fades from memory after death: "Stoner's colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers". Over the pages that follow, those bare bones are substantially fleshed out, but the reader is already under no illusions as to the trajectory of Stoner's life and his ultimate fate.

Stoner is depicted as an almost eternal victim of circumstance, someone who is carried along on the tide of fate without the ability to swim against the current. Even the significant social mobility he experiences - born the son of farmers, he becomes a professor of English literature - is only because his father sends him to college to study agriculture and he gets sidetracked by a subsidiary course. Time and again, he's portrayed in a way that makes his life seem like an out-of-body experience: "he had the feeling that he was removed from time, watching as it passed before him like a great unevenly turned diorama".

Nowhere is this more apparent than during the passages relating his marriage to the upper-middle-class Edith. Stoner, for whom "everything seemed a blur, as if he saw through a haze", is the passive object of the actions of others, and barely conscious of his own: "William heard himself responding to silences". His detachment from events is underlined: "It was not until they were on the train, which would take them to St Louis for their week's honeymoon, that William Stoner realized that it was all over and that he had a wife".

Sadly, his marriage is a failure, as foreshadowed by the fact that the couple spend their wedding night apart. They have a child together, but as the years pass their relations deteriorate and become increasingly strained, to the point that their daughter becomes the innocent victim, the battleground on which their marital struggles are fought.

Stoner responds by throwing himself headlong into his work, but a run-in with a malicious student and a vindictive colleague and all of the departmental politics that ensue prove critical in derailing a promising academic career - further testimony to the fact that his life is somehow beyond his control and he is permanently at the questionable mercy of fate. Cue mid-life crisis: "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".

These bleak reflections on the apparent futility of existence are not only prompted by "the density of accident and circumstance" in his own life, but also the deaths of his parents, who are buried together on their farm ("Now they were in the earth to which they had given their lives; and slowly, year by year, the earth would take them ... And they would become a meaningless part of that stubborn earth to which they had long ago given themselves") and Grace's descent into loneliness and alcoholism, having become a mother and then a widow at a young age ("she would live her days out quietly, drinking a little more, year by year, numbing herself against the nothingness her life had become").

There is some respite, in the form of a fling with a younger instructor at the university with whom Stoner finally experiences the intense joy that love can bring, but this is all too fleeting - curtailed, like his career, by circumstance and departmental machinations. He accepts that the relationship must come to an end with quiet dignity and resigned stoicism, as he does everything else that befalls him - including the discovery of a malignant tumour, to which he reacts calmly and without great shock, as though it were merely "a minor annoyance".

The passages that culminate in Stoner's death (and the natural end of the novel) are arguably the strongest in the book - methodically constructed in effortlessly elegant prose, unfussily lyrical, infused with a pervasive sadness, weighted with poignant detail (such as his acknowledgement of the shrinking horizons of those suffering with terminal illness: "Gradually, he knew, this little room where he now lay and looked out the window would become his world"). He and Edith finally find "a new tranquillity", "a quietness that was like the beginning of love", and are "rapt in a regard of what their life together might have been", while impending death accentuates his sense of not being in control of himself or his actions ("Sometimes he heard his own voice speak, and he thought that it spoke rationally, though he could not be sure").

A tragic end to a tragic life? Well, not quite. At the last, he grasps for a copy of his book, the one on which he has been toiling for most of the novel: "It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and that it served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial. He did not have the illusion that he would find himself there, in that fading print; and yet, he knew, a small part of him that he could not deny was there, and would be there". Little matter that, as stated on the opening page, his name will soon fade from memory. His book essentially verifies his life - as, of course, does the novel in which his tale is told. It's a heartfelt endorsement of the power of the written, printed word, and testimony to the truth of the statement made by Archer Sloane, the lecturer who unexpectedly fires the young Stoner's love of English literature: "'There are wars and defeats and victories of the human race that are not military and that are not recorded in the annals of history'".

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