A quick internet search reveals that John Williams’ novel Stoner has become something of a literary phenomenon since its re-release by NYRB Classics a few years ago. Appreciated if not adored when it was originally published in 1965, today it’s become an international bestseller. I suppose I want to start my meandering thoughts on the novel by asking Why now? That is to say, what does it say about the novel and the times that it’s now captured the literary imagination. Obviously, some works of art just take a while to find their audience. Moby-Dick famously needed some seventy or eighty years to gain its momentum. It seems all the more obvious to me, however, that such works do not simply lie in wait like Prince Charmings turned toads, quietly minding the years, puckering for every princess who walks by before finally being picked up and smooched by one of the maids. The novel, and by this I mean any novel, is somehow different “now” than it was “then.” Strictly speaking, there is no “then” to speak of. It’s funny to me that we can say what appears to be the opposite and mean the same thing: “then” is only ever spoken of.
Perhaps then, better than Why now? I should pose the same question differently. Who now? That is, who now is reading Stoner, and finding in this story of a single, rather cut-and-dry life of a middle class, unremarkable English professor, something not nearly so homogenous? Well before David Foster Wallace was extolling the hum drum as a medium for a life’s worth of passion, and ultimately failing in his attempt to render this message in a novel, it seems to me that John Williams did so in Stoner. This isn’t to say it cannot be done again, or that no other artist worth her salt should try — no new things under the sun, etc. My point, maybe a little clumsily expressed, is rather to unite the questions: who are these readers looking for a different perspective on the mundane? and why are they now so ravenous? Again, I refuse to think the answer is so so banal as we’re somehow more mundane now than they were then.
So perhaps better still we should clarify our sense of “now” when we pose either question — or, yes, maybe it’s just me asking them — you’re certainly free to have your own questions. As I see it, to add “now” to Why? or to Who? is not necessarily to set it in contrast to a “not-now” — oh, let’s just say it, to the past or the future. It also raises the hoary old thing we used to call “meaning” before we were vaccinated of such sentimentality by a good many well-placed postmodern suspicions. (Hat-tip to Adam Kotsko for this idea.) Indeed, one of the things I love about Stoner is that it clings in such a defiantly anachronistic way not only to meaning but, oh dear, passion!
He had, in odd ways, given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.
“Look! I am alive.” I.e., I am now. That I at one point was not and that I at another point will not be are moot, obvious points. I am now: that is all.
Does that change the tenor of the questions then: Why now? and Who now? I think so, if for no other reason than it compels us to focus on what is the case rather than what isn’t. Wait, but that’s a blurred way of expressing what I mean. Because let’s face it: there’s no escaping the what isn’t. Consider William Stoner near death’s door:
Dispassionately [n.b.: how quickly passion escapes us], reasonably [n.b.: the getaway car], 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 assailing 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?
The what isn’t of now — the regrets of the past (the failures of actuality and the impotence of potentiality) and the resignations to the future (that at some point there will be no answer to the question “What else?”) — isn’t something so easily avoided. Arguably, and maybe in the comments if not the post itself I’ll make this argument, Stoner‘s enduring value is its meditation on the play between “what isn’t” and “now,” and its willingness not simply to declare the latter victorious in some kind of look-at-me existential triumph.
No, for in Stoner the now is unsexily tucked in a geographical pocket of rarely regarded America (rural Missouri) during a period rightly regarded with a lot of justifiable chagrin (most noticeable in the treatment of Stoner’s lover by the novel’s characters and Stoner’s wife by the novel’s narration — more on this later), and it is slightly stooped and worn. To what extent, I wonder, can we affirm that both in spite of the differences and not merely because of the similarities, this now is our now. For in it we keep posing the same nagging question Stoner asks himself throughout the final chapter, as both vindication and interrogation: “What did you expect?”