Satisfyingly Ordinary

[After quoting the book (in the previous post), it seemed a proper book review was in order:]

I just finished reading Stoner, a 1965 novel by John Williams that was reprinted by the New York Review of Books (NYRB) in 2006. It has been getting excellent reviews by people who matter to me, so I too read it. The prose is beautiful – quite frankly, remarkable. Many authors have the ability to weave a good story. Very few are true wordsmiths. Very few take the time to craft every sentence of every paragraph so that each is a thing of chiseled beauty. Williams is such a craftsman.

The book is about … Well, I will allow William Stoner (the main character) describe it:

Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be. He had wanted friendship and the closeness of friendship that might hold him in the race of mankind; he had had two friends, one of whom had died senselessly before he was known, the other of whom had now withdrawn so distantly into the ranks of the living that … He had wanted the singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died. He had wanted love; and he had had love, and had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality. Katherine, he thought. “Katherine.”

And he had wanted to be a teacher, and he had become one; yet he knew, he had always known, that for most of his life he had been an indifferent one. He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance. And what else? he thought.

What else? “What did you expect?” he asked himself.

His life wasn’t a failure; rather it was human. But we all imagine our lives to be exceptional, and from that point of view the quotidian life seems a failure. Williams has the knack for telling us of the foibles, failings, half-sacrifices, and whole-hearted sins of ordinary people and making it interesting. Most novels are about people who are somehow extraordinary and are thus, somehow, less than human, because we humans are, after all, rather ordinary. Maybe these characters are beautiful, or an outstanding spy, or a genius, or brilliantly evil, or by accident of fate live in extraordinary times … But whatever their characteristic, it is nearly always remarkable. And it is the remarkable that the novel remarks on; it is the remarkable that makes the novel interesting. Stoner is remarkable precisely because there is nothing remarkable about him. He is an ordinary, if somewhat above average college professor. His great moral victory (for which he pays dearly) is really a rather ordinary and stubborn stand on academic principal. His great moral failure (for which he pays dearly) is an unremarkable affair with a co-ed. And the affair, if not forgivable, is certainly understandable because he had already squandered the potential of his marriage and family life, although that was only partially his fault.

In short, there is little to say about such an ordinary life with such ordinary failures and even more ordinary victories. And John Williams says it with clarity, precision, and such beauty that I didn’t want to set the book down.

Advertisements