I had never heard of the American author and academic John E. Williams and this book, till I caught Ian McEwan urgently praising it on Today, in such forceful, impassioned terms that I instantly downloaded it.
And now I too am forceful and urgent about this beautiful book, and amazed it had vanished from consciousness. Originally published in the 60s, it has resurfaced thanks to the person or persons who have pushed this book back into the public arena, so that awareness of this gem is going viral.
It is the story of a life where nothing really major happens – except of course that to each of us our own life is major, and its ordinary events – births, deaths and all that lies between, profound.
The story of the eponymous William Stoner, born into a farming family in the tail end of the nineteenth century, follows the dramatic trajectory of the twentieth in a tiny way, playing no part in the theatres of war, the great depression, another war. What happens in his life is that he has a moment of awakening into meaning through literature, falls in love, marries, has a child, becomes a teacher through the love he found in art, and things go badly or well, friendships and enmities transpire, love is lost and found, in different guises, minds and hearts connect, or don’t, and death will always come.
It’s a life of nothing and of everything. But it is the spare, unfussy writing, the careful opening of the human heart, the simple depth which the writer reveals which lifts this book into something extraordinary
It reminds me, most of all of the last lines of Keats’ Ode on A Grecian Urn’ – that sense of the beauty, simplicity and depth when what is fussy and extraneous is cut away, so the lines of a life can be seen, and the enormity of even a small life comes clear.
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
As in this small life, we are shown, time and again, how any one of us has moments when we blaze out of existence into LIFE. And the moments when this happens are not by any means the moments of high ecstasy or anguished drama. As in Stoner’s first epiphany, it can happen in the mere reading of a sonnet – ‘What is the sonnet’s meaning?’, asks his irascible tutor of the stolid young man Stoner is at that point – `It means’ `It means’ is the response, and his life opens on that moment
Here is an example of the clean simplicity of the writing, and the reflective depth which it reveals:
In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being………….in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion………..Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.
This is a quietly elegiac book, playing the still, sad music of humanity with beauty and grace