“He felt his inadequacy to the goal he had so recklessly chosen…”

I don’t know if any statistical analysis would bear this out, but Stoner, by John Williams, originally published in 1965 and reprinted by NYRB Classics in 2006, seems to be one of the more popular titles from that imprint around the litblogosphere. I have always assumed that was, at least to some extent, because it’s a novel about an English professor (and therefore about books and reading), and I avoided it a bit in part for this reason and also because I don’t care for the title.

But it’s not just the blog world that loves Stoner—it’s got some serious blurbs as well. Morris Dickstein of the New York Times Book Review calls it “something rarer than a great novel—…a perfect novel;” The Dallas Morning News calls it “one of the most extraordinarily fine novels published in the past fifty years.” It is very, very good. Perfect? I would not have used the word myself—Stoner does not seem small enough for it, somehow—I am not sure anything so fully about the entirety of a life could seem “perfect” to me. Still, it’s hard to find a false note. If there is anything to complain of here, for me, it’s a failure to convey the conversion of Stoner from farmer to literature student.

It’s a religious experience, basically, and it’s rare that I’m convinced by such things in fiction. I’m not sure it’s anyone’s fault; it seems like it would be terribly hard to do. Stoner, taking a required survey of English literature, is “troubled and disquieted” by the course in a new way. He is touched somehow by the instructor, Archer Sloane, whom he daydreams about; he does poorly on his examinations, no matter how much time he spends with the materials; and one day, when Sloane asks him what Shakespeare’s seventy-third sonnet means, it hits 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 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 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.

Soon he drops out of the agricultural program at the college and switches to English literature. He begins studying Greek and Latin, and Archer Sloane suggests that he go on with graduate work in English. A similar conversion occurs:

“But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?” Sloane asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”

Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Sloane said softly.

It was as simple as that. He was aware that he nodded to Sloane and said something inconsequential. Then he was walking out of the office. His lips were tingling and his fingertips were numb; he walked as if he were asleep, yet he was intensely aware of his surroundings.

And so on and so forth—he feels all tingly and all woozy in the head and his whole life changes. It’s the first conversion that troubles me more, I think. Does Stoner like the sonnet? Does he find Shakespeare beautiful? Is his revelation less specific than any of this—is it just that there’s is something more to literature than had been previously been accounted for in his philosophy of learning?

Even I can’t complain too loudly about these questions, because I think the conversion scene, in concept, must be almost impossible to write. Perhaps I was more accepting of Sophie Wilder’s conversion because she said she couldn’t really say what happened, but basically the Holy Spirit had entered her—if the conversion is a mystery, might as well leave it that way; the tingling and sensory overload does not really tell me more about it than that does. In any case, I suspect many other readers forgive this even more because it is something they sympathize with: this moment where they fell in love with reading, when they realized they loved literature, when they realized they loved something they would probably always have trouble explaining about.

But there’s a bit of the rub for me. Though he isn’t often, in his own eyes, a great teacher, Stoner believes good teaching is possible, and he believes he can do it. What does his conversion say about that? Is it a pointer to the result of good English teaching—he won’t so much communicate with students successfully, as commune with them (or get them to commune with themselves)? Or is it an indication that, in fact, such “good teaching” is not really possible—that such self-communion, possibly sparked by an instructor, is the most to be expected? And that such a description as the one above, of tingling and numbness, is the closest we can come to really talking about what literature means to us?

I’ve got lots more on Stoner; this is just the beginning, and don’t think I didn’t like it. The good stuff is going to take up the rest of the week!

6 comments to “He felt his inadequacy to the goal he had so recklessly chosen…”

  • I think chucking it up to a religious experience is a good short cut on worshiping lit. Probably more convincing than if Stoner specified things he liked about Shakespeare. I remember the only scene where literature is actually discussed is during the defense of a graduate student. That’s a good counterpoint, where Stoner is now the high priest of literature intent on safeguarding his church from heretics. Anyway, my favorite conversion scene is the one in 2666 wherein Liz Norton read a book by Archimboldi and then she ran outside the college lib.

  • Your last question is the right one. Stoner experiences a moment of gnosis. Like Sophie, a holy spirit has entered him. Liking and beauty are beside the point – thus the emphasis on awareness in each case. His hands are not beautiful, but meaningful.

    Very nice the way you note the recurrence of the fingertips, allowing me to babble so confidently without having read the novel.

  • Rise—You might be right about this actually being more convincing. I don’t discount that possibility. But it doesn’t end my frustration with the (general) “conversion experience scene.” I guess, I suppose, I’m fine with someone writing “and then something changed,” but I’m confused by the types of descriptions I cite above. I mean, I’m not really confused, because I know what they’re supposed to make me think—“Oh, he converted!” But would my hands feel funny and would I stare at them like that if I converted? I don’t know. Maybe. But it doesn’t actually feel like anything to me—it doesn’t seem verisimilar. As for the later scene, the oral exam, well, I’m saving that for a bit, but yes, you’re right.

    Tom—Well, I know my last question is right, but it’s the penultimate and antepenultimate ones that seem more important! That is to say, is Stoner’s entire career pointless? Is this entire book pointless? Is this entire blog pointless? (I know the answer to that one!) I mean that all in a good way, of course. But seriously, the question of “is there such a thing as good teaching, or are you just trying to incite further religious experience?”—I don’t think the novel answers that one. Maybe it does, very quietly.

  • Oops, I meant the last question of the earlier batch.

    How is Stoner’s teaching, or writing, described? A priest’s job is greater than the creation of more priests. Only a few unusual people, people like Stoner, can be priests. How does he teach the literature students who are ordinary parishioners?

  • Ah, well that’s what you have to wait to find out!

  • I have a copy of this and must get around to reading it. I’d say soon, but I know my habits–soon equals about four years.

    That first image, in which the light from outside makes it look like the students are lit from within jibes nicely with the way the workings of the spirit are sometimes described. The spirit is outside, but also inside. And the fingers–maybe that’s to emphasize that he feels completely full of whatever it is. That too reads just like accounts of being filled with the Holy Spirit.

    In the case of religious conversion, the work of the priest involves creating an environment in which the spirit can work. Perhaps Stoner’s work is to create an environment in which the spark can be lit.

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