The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books.
David Eagleman : Sum: Tales from the Afterlives. (London, UK: Canongate). A superb collection of very short stories, each premised on the assumption that something (our bodies, our souls, our names, our molecules, etc) lives beyond death. Superbly fascinating. One will blow your mind! (HT: WPN).
A. C. Grayling : Friendship. (New Haven, CT and London, UK: Yale University Press).
Andrew Sullivan : Love Undetectable: Reflections on Friendship, Sex and Survival. (London, UK: Vintage, 1999).
Michael Blakemore : Stage Blood. (London, UK: Faber & Faber). A riveting account of Blakemore’s time at the National Theatre in London.
William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac [1945/2008]: And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks. (London, UK: Penguin Classics). Mostly writing alternate chapters, this is a fictional account of events based on the death of David Kammerer at the hands of Lucien Carr.
Jack Kerouac : Vanity of Duluoz. (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2001).
Charles McCarry : The Tears of Autumn. (London, UK: Duckworth Overlook, 2009). The assassination of JFK as a conspiracy organized by the family of the Diem brothers, involving Cuban military officials, the KGB, and the Mafia.
John Williams : Stoner. (London, UK: Vintage, 2012). Alerted by the enthusiasm of the late Norman Geras, and reinforced by the praise of Julian Barnes, I starting reading this book with keen anticipation. I should have known better: someone who liked the books of Philip Roth clearly had a literary taste to be wary of. Stoner was a great disappointment, and certainly does not belong in any collection of Great American Novels.
Is the book great literature? Well, frankly, no. It is well-written, no question, but not well enough. We are told the main character William Stoner has no friends while an undergraduate, but nothing in the thin preceeding pages would explain why. We are told he switches from studying agriculture to literature after an epiphany in a compulsory literature class, but this paragraph (and it is just a paragraph) is very thin indeed. Why did he have this epiphany? Where did it come from? Nothing beforehand (in the book) would justify this event, and the event itself is only barely described. Do people make such a switch so often, that no explanation is needed? Not in my experience.
I can see that members of the literati – for instance, Julian Barnes – would like to read about people who come to love literature and who then devote their life to its teaching. But Williams merely states these attributes of William Stoner as facts, without providing any compelling justification – not psychological, nor social, nor familial, nor cultural, nor literary, not spiritual, nor nothing – for these facts. Indeed, there is hardly any justification at all, let alone a compelling one.
The narration is by a third-person narrator, and he or she seems to know what is inside Dr Stoner’s head. Moreover, every other character is a cypher to the narrator, as (presumably) they are to Stoner himself. One is therefore tempted to read the narration as being in the first-person. But then, some of it is too vague for either a knowledgeable first-person or an omniscient third: on pager 109, for instance, we read that Stoner disposed of his $2000 inheritance by giving “a few hundred dollars” to his parents’ black farm worker. A few hundred? Surely, Stoner knew at the time exactly how much he gave. Likewise, surely, an omniscient narrator would also know the amount. This is sloppy writing, and it undermines the case for the narrator being either first- or an omniscient third-person.
Similarly, we are told several times that Stoner had a deep friendship with Dave Masters, who is killed in the Great War. But although this friendship is mentioned, it is not described in any depth. It is certainly not invoked, nor is an invocation even attempted. So, again, we come away thinking the narrator barely knows about which he speaks. Just how credible, then, is anything the narrator says? The book undermines its own case.
Why has the book proven popular? Well it is more popular in Europe than in America. I believe the answer to this disparity goes to something the former British Labour MP, Bryan Gould, once said when comparing political life in Europe with that in Australia, New Zealand, or North America: In the New World, anyone upset by a social problem tries to fix it. In the Old World, anyone upset by a social problem tries to live with it. Stoner is a book about a man who lives with every major problem of his life, accommodating himself to an unhappy marriage, to a wife who appears on the edge of madness, to the end of his only happy relationship, to an alcoholic daughter, to not seeing his only grandchild, to an unsatisfying and tedious job, to an unfair assignment of work duties, to no promotions, to a lack of close friendships, to public gossip and innuendo about his marriage and relationships, to the death of his parents and his one apparently-close friend, while only ever once, it seems, standing up for himself. And the counter-attack he launches is in such a small and picayune way, hurting the very students he is supposed to care for, that it can hardly be worthy of any emulation.
Certainly such people exist (indeed, the Old World is full of them), but this novel never presents a compelling case that this particular man, William Stoner, should behave in this way. Indeed, it hardly presents any case at all – the writing is all tell, and no show. The power of showing is demonstrated by the one scene where the author does invoke the events, rather than merely mentioning them: the PhD upgrade viva of Charles Walker, where we can read the dialog for ourselves, and draw our own conclusions. If only the author had done this more often, the book would have been much better.