Thursday, January 26, 2012

STONER





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Stoner, John Williams, Viking Press, 1965, 278 pp

For someone such as myself, who believes in fiction with almost religious zeal, Stoner was an ideal novel. William Stoner, raised on a small family farm in Missouri, only child of exhausted parents who rarely even spoke, sent to the University of Missouri to study agriculture, gets his first taste of literature, is redeemed and never looks back. He goes on to get his degrees, including a PhD in literature, and works as an instructor and then a professor of literature at that same university for the rest of his days. Not a single aspect of his life turns out well, yet he plows that field of literature with the same stoicism that kept his parents farming.

Though Stoner is one of the saddest, most tragic novels I have read, it revealed to me a basic belief that I cherish but hadn't known I carried with me through life: If I stay true to what I am passionate about I will be alright.

John Williams, himself a professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Denver, also wrote poetry. He only wrote four novels. His last, Augustus, won the National Book Award in 1973. Like most novelists I've read who publish infrequently, his writing kept me moving inexorably through the story, fully entertained and completely emotionally involved. Yet the writing is plain and as natural as speaking.

As Stoner grapples with marriage, fatherhood, a lethal enemy in his department, as he finds and loses his true love, I cared more about what would become of him than I do about many people that I know. The man marries disastrously. His wife is insane in the ways women brought up in the early 20th century with all sexuality suppressed did become insane. Somehow Williams causes you to pity them both, as well as the daughter who becomes their battleground.

Will Durant, whose The Life of Greece I was finishing during the time I read Stoner, gives a summary of the Greek version of stoicism:

"The Stoic...will shun luxury and complexity, economic or political strife; he will content himself with little, and will accept without complaint the difficulties and disappointments of life...He will seek so complete an...absence of feeling, that his peace of mind will be secure against all the attacks and vicissitudes of fortune, pity or love."

I am more of an Epicurean in temperament, but I was raised by a stoic and a depressive. After reading the story of William Stoner, who was a perfect embodiment of Stoicism, I understand the Stoic parent. I even understand the philosophy and that it does not preclude a sense of joy.


(Stoner is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in your nearest indie bookstore click on the cover image above.)




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