With a warm fire in the fireplace to cut the slight chill of the late April evening, home made sausage rolls, lasagna and quiche on the table, The Book Club gathered at Margaret’s to discuss Stoner by John Williams.A survey of great American novelists and dramatists of the early to mid-20th century from Fitzgerald, through Faulkner, Albee, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill provides a clue to the background of Stoner. Set at the University of Missouri before, during and after the Great War it is the story of William Stoner, the only son of simple methodist farmers raised working on the farm and sent to University to learn agriculture but where instead he falls in love, with language and literature, and drastically changes course to ultimately teach as an assistant professor in the English department.
The setting in northeastern Missouri reflects the complicated legacy of once fertile but now arid farmland of the hardworking, plain spoken, self reliant people of the midwest and its climate, its French heritage, riverboat romanticism and adventure of Mark Twain and vestiges of the antebellum southern sensibilities in the form of the classic southern mansion of the head of the department replete with slave/servants.
William Stoner is a stolid student. He excels, understanding the logic of grammar and poetry in literature but grapples with trying to express himself to his classmates, professors and ultimately students. He meets and falls in love with a beautiful young woman from St. Louis visiting a relative, and after an awkward courtship proposes marriage and, though her behavior is indicative of severe dysfunction, she accepts and insists on a fast and informal wedding. Unlike several female characters in the previously mentioned canon of literature, she is neither alcoholic nor drug addict, but is fatalistically disturbed nonetheless and Stoner eventually resigns himself to a failed marriage and quietly plows ahead writing a book, and raising their daughter until his often absent, in mind and spirit if not always body, wife intercedes and Stoner then loses the one thing besides his literature which he loves the most.
He is embroiled in a serious teacher student disagreement which is in error judged in his disfavour and is then consigned to go back to teaching entry level classes. Nevertheless he takes it under the chin and once again forges ahead as he will continue to for the rest of his life, head down, nose to the grindstone, perhaps with remorse for having left his parents to manage on their own as they claimed they would, or possibly with some guilt for not having even wanted to join the war effort as his close friends and classmates did.
In the same sense that the setting is evocative of the ever present conflicting essence that is Missouri, not strictly midwestern nor southern but a complex mixture of the two, the characters represent many of the prototypes in literature up until the period. The ill fated tycoon in the person of his father-in-law, the academics once inspired but eventually completely disillusioned and the exquisite representation of the sublime to grotesque in sexuality in the form of the new department chairman, his body hideously misshapen, but with the face of a matinee idol and a full head of wavy blond hair.
Though continuously dejected Stoner eventually mentors a brilliant young co-ed and ultimately they become lovers and he is validated and satisfied professionally and personally in what is a rewarding relationship of the like minded. The relationship ends but they both leave it fulfilled.
The comments of the group were, as always, astute and intuitive. Margaret and others remarked on Stoner’s frustrating passivity, and relentless lack of emotion with regard to almost all but literature, whereas Cynthia translated that as stoicism of the plain spoken, hardworking people. Others saw it as resignation. Janet and Elliot felt it was cleverly, even brilliantly written but could not get past the idea that he was extraordinarily passive to the point of incredulity. Bill observed it as universal, how little we may all feel we have accomplished in life, how we may never be what we want to be. Helen loved it for its understated passion and his discovery of literature.
With Stoner Williams accomplished a well rounded story, influenced by but never derivative of the great American literary library. In short it is a complex, multidimensional tale which moved us on many levels.A warm thank you to our host and everyone who participated and provided the exquisite meal.The next meetings are as follows:
29 May: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, at Krysia’s
June: Harvest by Jim Crace, date and venue to be announced
July: The Tin Ring by Zdenka Fantlova, date and venue to be
September: Dear Life by Alice Munroe, date and venue to be announced
More information can be found on the Barga Book Club site here