In one of the best written and most nailbiting scenes of 'Stoner', a committee of university professors has to decide whether the student they're examining can go ahead with his doctorate in English Literature or not. They have three options: fail, conditional pass and pass but, for a number of reasons, cannot find a mutual agreement.
On the one hand, the beginning of 'Stoner' was not that convincing. The parable of the poor farmer boy rescued by a dull existence tiling arid soils in Missouri by a lucky coincidence (and a foreseeing dad) which brought him to pursue a university education is never fully justified by Williams. The reasons, motivations and ultimately the ingenuity which turn Stoner from a semi-illiterate country boy into a bookworm, a teacher and an academic are almost given for granted.
Imagine the hero of a novel by William Faulkner, John Steinbeck or Sherwood Anderson kicking off his half-broken and mud covered shoes to start teaching the sonnets of Milton, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson at the University of Missouri. It sounds rather unlikely, doesn't it? On the other hand, even though I cannot deny how the writing of Mr Williams is incredibly effective and - at times - astonishing in its beauty, the author relies way too much on the forms he likes the most.
Let's take the expression 'as if'; now I've always found it nice and sound, but John Edward Williams put it everywhere here. Understand, I'm not that picky to notice these sort of things when I'm reading a good book - and in fact the only time in which I fought a battle against the use and abuse of a certain expression was with Cormac McCarthy's innumerable 'okay' in 'The Road'. But, believe me, Mr Williams does love his 'as ifs' peppering any given page of this book with them.
Fine. Now you're probably wondering why I gave this novel such a good rating and a (non-conditional) pass upon all this criticism. Well, the reason is simple: 'Stoner' is an excellent novel. The way Williams writes about university life, gossiping and academic bitching is amazing. So far I thought that the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies was the best to deal with this business on the western shore of the Atlantic Ocean, but Williams here overcomes Davies' talent.
The fact that another undisputed master of fiction revolving around academics like the British author C.P. Snow did a lot to encourage the rediscovery of this semi-forgotten classic a few years ago may give you a hint on how good Williams is in this topic.
'Stoner' is a melancholy novel and I've little doubts it will leave you sad for a while.
However, it would be wrong to assume that William Stoner's life was a failure given his unhappy marriage, the estrangement from his daughter and lost chances of either an academic career or to leave a permanent mark into his field of studies. What Mr Williams makes clear here is that it is possible to savour, nurse and keep forever those brief moments of happiness and intellectual fulfilment that life is likely to bring us at some point.
Sure, William Stoner had little friends, taught to students who didn't remember much of him and met love being only too aware that he would have lost it soon. But he always kept his most important principles unspoiled never losing his moral integrity, human kindness and his eagerness to study, learn and spread culture. And I believe that the greatest power of this novel lies in this teaching which is never expressed by patronising the readers, but always by encouraging their thirst for knowledge as a shelter against let downs.
“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”