Stoner, the pearl of ‘Lazarus literature’

Described by the New Yorker as ‘the greatest American novel you’ve never read’, John Williams’s work has been championed by John McGahern and many other writers

The novel Stoner belongs to a genre aptly described as “Lazarus literature” – work that rises from that vast grave of published material that met an untimely end. First published in 1965 to muted and limited praise, Stoner was out of print within a year. In recent years it has been saved from literary extinction by Vintage Press where an editor attributed previous reader apathy to the fact that William Stoner’s mundane life is the very antithesis of the sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll cultural climate of the “swinging sixties”: “the kids look at [him] and say, ‘We don’t want to be like that’.”

Since its resurrection, the novel has appeared on bestseller lists across Europe, its success assisted by enthusiastic reviews from bestselling authors and a few celebrities. In the summer of 2013 Ian McEwan exhorted radio listeners to pack Stoner along with their swimwear when going on holiday. Sarah Churchwell called it a “lovely, sad little masterpiece”, while Bret Easton Ellis tweeted to his half-a-million followers that he was “In the middle of [reading] what might be one of the great unheralded twentieth-century American novels” and, that it is “almost perfect”.

Williams's distilled prose style, as demonstrated in the "lovemaking" scene, produces a certain moral lucidity that McGahern also worked hard to achieve

It has been praised by Julian Barnes, Linda Grant, Geoff Dyer and Tom Hanks to name but a few. Colum McCann describes it as a “beautiful novel ... that took his breath away”. The New Yorker referred to it as “the greatest American novel you’ve never read”. Our own John McGahern was also a fan and wrote the introduction to the Vintage edition, underpinning the value of the novel as a serious work of fiction. A steadfast admirer of John Williams’s work long before the popular re-emergence of Stoner, he also wrote in praise of his later and more commercially successful novel, Augustus.

Coming from what has been described as the “hard working unimaginative [farming] stock of the Midwest”, William Stoner is encouraged by his father to enter the University at Columbia, Missouri in 1910, to study agricultural science under a government scheme that supported agricultural education and research. Having struggled to make a meagre living from the land he hopes that his son will come to understand and improve the soil – to make it fecund – in a way that has been impossible for him.


But the required course on English literature “troubled and disquieted [William Stoner] in a way nothing had ever done before” and by his second year he has abandoned his agricultural studies in favour of literature. The shortage of qualified teachers once America joins the first World War enables Stoner to pursue an academic career that might not otherwise have been offered to him. The love affair that he develops with English literature soon extends to the university itself, which becomes the repository of all future hopes and dreams.

Aware of Stoner’s obsession, a friend asks if he has ever “considered the question of the true nature of the University”, arguing that is an “asylum” or “a rest home for the infirm, the aged, the discontent, and the otherwise incompetent” within which Stoner is “the dreamer, the madman in a madder world”, a “Midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky”. But Stoner, like most besotted lovers, does not question either the nature or the object of his love: he is content with its pleasure and its mysteries.

When Stoner meets his future wife Edith at a party in the dean’s home she seems an extension of the aesthetic and vaguely philosophical response he has developed to everything connected to the university. She is a captive of Stoner’s romantic imagination, and seems unaware that she has somehow given her consent to be the object of his desire. This prosaic non-consensual courtship is briefly animated when Edith reveals a painful past life. Captivated, he reads her revelation “as a kind of confession” and “a plea for help”.

However, what he chooses to understand as a “plea for help” is in fact a warning which Edith delivers in the only way she can. But Stoner never forgets this instance of self-disclosure, mistakenly understood as a desire for intimacy, and it seems to form the basis for his subsequent willingness to endure the marriage. For Edith, the effort of repeating that account to another seems beyond her and so she marries the first man who hears her confession.

Yet despite the limitations of her carefully controlled upbringing Edith enters marriage with more knowledge of the possible dangers to self than Stoner. She has an awareness of her own limitations and is unsure whether they can be overcome so that she might participate in a fulfilling union. She promises Stoner and his parents on two separate occasions that she will try to be a good wife. The repetition of “try” highlights her uncertainty about her capacity to fulfil the role of wife. Marriage offers her the prospect of a refuge from a previously disappointing life while, for Stoner, it offers a means (to quote Beckett’s Unnamable) through which to “love her better”. As the painful and curtailed honeymoon reveals, she is unable for the physical intimacy that her new role requires.

Edith cannot comprehend of bodily intimacy as other than a violation. She is unable to conceive of herself as a sexual being other than in context of the strict moral education she received and her aversion to sex is so intense that she becomes physically ill. While the text offers a variety of reasons for the source of her revulsion, it is how this personal tragedy is narrated that exemplifies Williams’s stylistic prowess:

“Out of an unspoken stubbornness they both had, they shared the same bed; sometimes at night, in her sleep, she unknowingly moved against him. And sometimes, then, his resolve and knowledge crumbled before his love, and he moved upon her. If she was sufficiently roused from her sleep she tensed and stiffened, turning her head sideways in a familiar gesture and burying it in her pillow, enduring violation; and at such times Stoner performed his love as quickly as he could, hating himself for his haste and regretting his passion. Less frequently she remained half numbed by sleep; then she was passive, and she murmured drowsily, whether in protest or surprise he did not know. He came to look forward to these rare and unpredictable moments, for in that sleep drugged acquiescence he could pretend to himself that he found a kind of response.” (74-75)

With a delicate and deeply sensitive choice and arrangement of language Williams portrays a marital fissure so profoundly tragic that it can only command compassion – for both parties. Yet many reviewers and critics have steadfastly refused to respond to Edith in this way. Ian McEwan dismisses her simply as “the awful wife”. Mel Livatino describes her as “frigid and schizoid with only brief flashes of decency” and argues that Stoner “is a hero because he endures with decency and patience an impossible wife who is set against him from the outset”. Even Williams’s narrator seems unable to sustain a compassionate tone and the novel moves forward without the grace of redemption for Edith.

John McGahern is a lone voice in defence of Edith, pointing out that while “Stoner’s wife is a type that can be glimpsed in much American fiction, through such different sensibilities as O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald – beautiful, unstable, educated to observe the surfaces of a privileged and protected society – never can that type of wife have been revealed as remorselessly as here”. He suggests that “if the portrait [of Edith] does have a flaw, it is in [this] remorselessness”.

As a writer who always sought to offer even his most visceral characters some form of redemption, McGahern’s observation and tentative disquiet about how Edith is portrayed is not surprising, yet he hesitates to criticise further, conceding that the “clarity of understanding” achieved through Williams’s prose is such that “we come to accept it simply as the way things are”.

Few critics have railed against the arguably greater injustices perpetrated on Stoner by the university he has served so faithfully. The visceral ambition and cowardice of its guardians are no less harmful to Stoner’s self than Edith’s psychological traumas. Bereft of all other love, Stoner finally returns to his first – literature – and seeks some late redemption through his academic work.

Without doubt Williams’s distilled prose style, as demonstrated in the “lovemaking” scene, produces a certain moral lucidity that McGahern also worked hard to achieve. As the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues, “style itself makes its claims, exposes its own sense of what matters so that it becomes an integral part of the search for and the statement of truth”. As a writer for whom style was paramount, McGahern found much to praise in the novel, noting the “plain prose, which seems able to reflect effortlessly every shade of thought and feeling”.

And as a writer who admitted that he struggled with rendering sexual intimacy, joking that it was a lot easier “to get the clothes off than on again”, McGahern was particularly struck by Williams’s ability “to write so faultlessly of that most difficult subject, sex, and sexual love”. McGahern’s “middle” novels (the first and revised editions of The Leavetaking and The Pornographer, published in between) form a kind of experimental triptych in which he sought to better understand and portray sexual intimacy. Following the gauche sexuality of Patrick Moran in The Leavetaking, the excesses of the eponymous hero of The Pornographer and the fictional characters he writes into being, seem designed as stylistic purgations, necessary to properly command the subject.

In contrast, Stoner is anything but a book of unrestrained appetites or excesses. Indeed, the sparse and tightly controlled prose perfectly reflects the mood of Stoner’s life. Not that his life is empty of desire or yearning, but the objects of his desire: his wife, his daughter, academia, the lover he eventually takes – all whom he longs to have a meaningful relationship with – all become, in some way, unobtainable. When his longing is thwarted, as it most often is, Stoner’s response is stoical rather than demonstrative – he does not “fight back”. On the one occasion when he does take a firm position – in passionate defence of academic integrity – he makes a powerful enemy for life.

In one sense, Stoner’s life is the embodiment of that much abused term, the “American dream”. He has, after all, made the transition from an impoverished rural farming background to university lecturer and made a socially superior marriage. Yet his life is always limited, always bound to someone else’s will. William Stoner suffers from that same kind of paralysis of action that sometimes afflicts McGahern’s characters and seems born out of an inability to actively consider alternative possibilities for their lives and the lives of others around them.

Stoner’s marriage and eventually his academic career yield little of recognisable value. The result is not unlike that which J Hillis-Miller identifies in Thomas Hardy’s work, arguing that that “Hardy’s fundamental spiritual movement is the exact opposite of Nietzsche’s will to power. Instead, it is the will not to will, the will to remain quietly watching on the sidelines.”

In McGahern’s work, this trait is exemplified by the protagonist of The Pornographer when he admits that he had “let the light of imagination out”; he had become a passive observer of his own [in]actions. In the case of William Stoner, the paralysis has its source in “stoical excess” – a condition that stifles his imaginative powers. It is as though, and despite the consciousness of self and the world that the study of literature has awakened in him, he cannot quite shed his inherited stoicism, born of generations of struggle with an unyielding soil.

As the novel progresses, Stoner's life gradually comes to resemble that of his rural ancestors from whom he had once felt so removed: he has ultimately failed to make his life more fecund than that of his father's. Although this failure is beautifully rendered, in the end, the reality exposed by Williams's exacting prose is that Stoner's world is shown to be as resistant to his quiet and diligent labours as to those of his forebears.
Máire Doyle is a teacher, writer, editor and researcher. She is co-editor, with Zeljka Doljanin, of an essay collection, John McGahern: Authority and Vision, due for publication by Manchester University Press in late 2017