Notes on “Stoner,” a Novel by John Williams

StonerIn his disclaimer notes at the front of “Stoner,” John Williams assures his reader that the character of William Stoner is fiction, and should not be mistaken for any coincidental likenesses, the standard “any resemblance to” lingo. And maybe there was no Stoner, but at the same time, surely there are many Stoners. Stoner is a kind of every-humanist. When asked why Ulysses, Joyce responded that the character was well rounded. Ulysses had been, of course, a son, but also a father, a husband, and a soldier, and while he was out soldiering, a cuckold. But Joyce’s Ulysses is an ironic depiction; the many resemblances to the original Ulysses amount to colossal irony. So too, Stoner is an ironic humanist, and readers are disabused of any notion that the liberal arts specialist or humanities generalist by definition reaches nirvana or achieves happiness or indeed is even able to articulate their experience for someone else to appreciate. Reading does not necessarily make us either whole or rent. Reading does not make us better people (particularly reading does not make us better people than non-readers). Stoner is a book.

Early in the book, Stoner may come across as an existential and humanist monster; it’s hard to understand how a so-called humanist, a man educated in the liberal arts tradition, was unable to find a way to talk to his parents, however alienated he might be from their generation, their values, their experience, particularly if they have little or no education. And there were no disagreements, no political arguments, no generation gap problems, no counter cultural issues. (Indeed, as it turns out, Stoner is as conservative as Louis Menand claims is true for the majority of today’s professors.) Stoner simply seems to have felt his parents incapable on any level of understanding want he wanted. Still, how had he missed developing the skills necessary to articulate for them his need? In any case, Stoner winds up no more or less a monster than most men.

Indeed, a suitable epigraph for Williams’s novel “Stoner” might have been this quote from Thoreau’s “Walden”:

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation…A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”

In other words, while there may have been no actual Professor Stoner that Williams based his character on, the character of Stoner contains the characteristics of the average college professor in the 20th Century US (Stoner teaches through two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Korean War, and though he is never a soldier, a war of a different kind engages him). “Stoner” is a hard book to talk about without creating a spoiler. Readers interested in a regular review might check out Tim Krider’s New Yorker review, posted on-line on October 21. But it’s a bit of a spoiler. So too is a spoiler the introduction to the New York Review Books Classics edition of “Stoner.” Read the introduction after finishing the book. The introduction is particularly useful for the passage of an interview with John Williams, in which he calls Stoner “a hero.”

If Stoner is a hero, he is a kind of anti-hero. For great sections of his life, he is a loner, not alone, exactly, but alienated. He is independent, courageous, generous, disciplined. He is exploited. He is, primarily, a reader, a scholar. As a teacher, he is a kind of anti-Mr. Chips, though like Mr. Chipping, he is conservative. But Stoner is not conservative politically or socially or in any kind of religious sense. He’s conservative in that he wants to preserve the University for people like himself. This may have something to do with his being a classicist. One of the best scenes in the book (spoiler alert) is when, forced as a veteran to go back to a grueling schedule of Freshman Composition classes as a punishment backhanded down by his department chair, he decides to chuck the syllabus and teach Freshman composition through the portal of Medieval Language and Literature. Stoner is a tenured professor, so there’s nothing his chair can do about it. There are breaks in the text. Why, for example, when it’s mentioned that he writes his MA thesis on one of the tales in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” are we not told which tale? One wonders how a character so supposedly steeped in Chaucer and Shakespeare could be so naïve and awkward in his own time. But the Stoner we come to know at the end of the book is not the same Stoner we knew at the beginning of the book.

The figurative language is sparse throughout “Stoner.” The prose is like a field of wheat. Nothing seems hurried. The sentences are long (Williams was a fan of the semicolon), and often turn into something unexpected. There is a plot. The plot is a man’s life. And this man’s life, some have argued, doesn’t amount to much. Indeed, Stoner himself, a self-disciplined specialist, feels he’s achieved little, but he’s patiently endured so much. Stoner has slowly, incrementally, experienced his life, and the reader shares, step by step, in that experience.

Related: “How Do Professors Think? More Crisis in the Humanities”

Bob Dylan & Clarice Lispector: Bewildering, Transfigured, & Redeemed

Perhaps no star’s luminosity glows murkier than Dylan’s in his interviews. Louis Menand, in “Bob on Bob: Dylan Talks” (New Yorker, 4 Sep 2006), a review of Jonathan Cott’s Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, comments on the absurdity of taking any Dylan interview as a gospel light. Menand opens by comparing Dylan’s interviews to Elvis’s, “who was one of the all-time worst.” Dylan is slightly better than Elvis in an interview, Menand argues, where the King’s sole imperative was to not offend, but Dylan “is rarely concerned about sounding polite, and he says things, but he sometimes makes them up. He also contradicts himself, answers questions with questions, rambles, gets hostile, goes laconic, and generally bewilders.” Dylan’s latest interview in Rolling Stone (Issue # 1166, 27 Sep 2012) does all of that and more.

The most bewildering discussion in this latest interview, ably conducted by Mikal Gilmore, is Dylan on transfiguration. Does he mean transmigration? He says not. He says he got the idea in a book in Rome, and advises to ask the Catholics. Yes, they would know, having written the book. Joyce’s Molly asks Bloom:

—Show here, she said. I put a mark in it. There’s a word I wanted to ask you.
She swallowed a draught of tea from her cup held by nothandle and, having wiped her fingertips smartly on the blanket, began to search the text with the hairpin till she reached the word.
—Met him what? he asked.
—Here, she said. What does that mean?
He leaned downward and read near her polished thumbnail.
—Metempsychosis?
—Yes. Who’s he when he’s at home?
—Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.
—O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words. (Ulysses, “Calypso” Chapter)

But Dylan says he’s trying to explain something that can’t be explained. He asks for some help. I recalled John Fahey’s 1965 The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death. Is Dylan talking about being reborn? Surely Dylan is familiar with the great guitarist John Fahey.

And this week, reading Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva, first published in 1973 but recently transfigured by New Directions, and guess what appears – transfiguration: “No, all this isn’t happening in real facts but in the domain of – of an art? yes, of an artifice through which a most delicate reality arises which comes to exist in me: the transfiguration happened to me…I transfigure reality and then another dreaming and sleepwalking reality, creates me” (13:16).

Dylan: “Transfiguration is what allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. That’s how I can still do what I do and write the songs I sing and just keep on moving” (46).

But, “I don’t question myself about my motives,” Lispector says. “I am obscure to myself…I let myself happen” (17). Which is freedom: “Only a few people chosen by the inevitability of chance have tasted the aloof and delicate freedom of life. It’s like knowing how to arrange flowers in a vase: almost useless knowledge. The fleeting freedom of life must never be forgotten: it should be present like a fragrance” (62).

On the “only a few,” Dylan seems to agree: “I’m not like you, am I? I’m not like him, either. I’m not like too many others. I’m only like another person who’s been transfigured. How many people like that or like me do you know?” (46). Yet Lispector says, “All lives are heroic lives” (59).

And Bloom continues to explain to Molly: “—Metempsychosis, he said, is what the ancient Greeks called it. They used to believe you could be changed into an animal or a tree, for instance. What they called nymphs, for example.” But this begins to sound more like transmogrification.

In places, Lispector sounds like Dylan in an interview: “I don’t want to ask why, you can always ask why and always get no answer…What I say to you is never what I say to you but something else instead” (8).

But both Dylan and Lispector can strike a point like sinking the nine ball. When asked if performing live is fulfilling, Dylan replies, “No kind of life is fulfilling if your soul hasn’t been redeemed” (48). And Lispector describes her job as looking after the world: “Looking after the world also demands a lot of patience: I have to wait for the day when an ant turns up” (55).

Dylan’s discussion of being transfigured reads less bewilderingly if read figuratively. His old self no longer exists. Look homeward, angel, but the transfigured can’t go home again. But enough for now. More on Clarice Lispector and Agua Viva soon, but for now, why worry the weary worry why?

Related Posts: Honor and Shame: Born Again Off Maggie’s Farm
We Ain’t Gonna Wait in Maggie’s Line No More

Unmoving Literary Works; or, Needs Editing, “Ha Ha Ha”

“Ulysses could have done with a good editor,” Roddy Doyle said, fed up with all the attention Joyce gets to the neglect of other Irish writers. “I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it [Ulysses],” Doyle said. Roddy was just stirring up the stew, tossing in some new ingredients, and no need to cook it so long over an open fire. Let’s eat; I’m hungry. But what of Paul Coelho; what’s his beef with Joyce? “Ulysses is pure style. There is nothing there,” Coelho said. We introduced the topic in Monday’s post: must a work “move” the reader to have literary value?

In his On the Sublime, Longinus says, “The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport. At every time and in every way imposing speech, with the spell it throws over us, prevails over that which aims at persuasion and gratification.”

Ha Ha Ha! Take that, Coelho!

Yet Longinus also says, “In life nothing can be considered great which it is held great to despise.” But does the reader despise Joyce’s Ulysses for its “pure style”? Longinus said “that is really great which bears a repeated examination, and which it is difficult or rather impossible to withstand, and the memory of which is strong and hard to efface.” Is this true of Ulysses? And, if not, would editing help?

Longinus lists “five principal sources of elevated language:…the power of forming great conceptions…vehement and inspired passion…the due formation of figures, first those of thought and secondly those of expression…noble diction…[and] the fifth cause of elevation…is dignified and elevated composition.”

Can we edit one or more of Longinus’s principal sources of elevated language out of Ulysses and still expect something sublime to emerge?

But what of the idea that for a work of literature to be considered “great” it must “move” the reader? I began thinking of literary works that we might consider great yet don’t move the reader. I selected those works whose design seems to match up to Longinus’s ideas of the sublime and elevated language but also at the same time might, using Doyle’s critical voice as expressed in the Guardian article, have “done with a good editor.” Here’s the list, annotated with wry comments using the “must move to be good” literary critical voice:

1. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville: Edit out all that business about whaling, surely included simply to fatten the thing up, so Melville could boast he had written a big book. But the real problem is, can anyone be moved by the killing of a mad sailor by a vengeful whale? What has this to do with the price of a loaf of bread and a bottle of beer at the local grocery?

2. The Trial, by Franz Kafka: Well, it’s a trial reading it. And who was ever moved by a trial, particularly one that had no ending?

3. Three Novels (Malloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable), by Samuel Beckett: Triple play of boredom, the reader thrown out at every base, a runner that never reaches home plate. The work defines constipation, the antithesis of being moved.

4. Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon: Where are those scissors?

Still, there’s something to the topic that invites comment. What is good? Should a work be considered good simply because it achieves its objectives, even if those objectives lack sentiment and fail to move? Or should we keep looking, for those books that are both “pure style” and contain enough sentiment to be considered moving? How about Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury?

Related Post: Coelho & Doyle on Joyce

From Longinus’s On the Sublime, Chapter 1: “As I am writing to you, good friend, who are well versed in literary studies, I feel almost absolved from the necessity of premising at any length that sublimity is a certain distinction and excellence in expression, and that it is from no other source than this that the greatest poets and writers have derived their eminence and gained an immortality of renown. 4. The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport. At every time and in every way imposing speech, with the spell it throws over us, prevails over that which aims at persuasion and gratification. Our persuasions we can usually control, but the influences of the sublime bring power and irresistible might to bear, and reign supreme over every hearer. Similarly, we see skill in invention, and due order and arrangement of matter, emerging as the hard-won result not of one thing nor of two, but of the whole texture of the composition, whereas Sublimity flashing forth at the right moment scatters everything before it like a thunderbolt, and at once displays the power of the orator in all its plenitude.”

Coelho & Doyle on Joyce

Every person alive has a story, but some don’t have voices. But there are many ways to tell a story, and stories can be told without words. Still, for the story to emerge, the storyteller must develop some kind of voice, allowing others access to their text – again, even if the text is without words. But some persons with voices remain unaware of their story, even as their story is read or enjoyed or devoured and repeated by others. Still others may be aware of their stories and have voices but choose not to share. Can all these stories be told, and who will tell these stories, using what voice?

I am moved this morning to tell this story as a consequence of a Twitter “interaction”: “Well, about Coelho, what can we say?” For I had re-tweeted a tweet calling attention to a Guardian Books post quoting the Brazilian writer Paul Coelho: “One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit.” The same article refers to a previous Guardian article, an interview with the Irish writer Roddy Doyle, who said: “You know people are always putting Ulysses in the top 10 books ever written but I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it.”

I think part of Roddy’s point, in the context of the interview, was to bemoan all the attention Joyce has received over the years, possibly to the neglect of other Irish writers just as deserving of readers’ attention. But both Coelho’s and Doyle’s criticism of Ulysses is grounded in their literary values – they think that for a literary work to have value, the reader should be moved, changed, brought to tears or laughter, that we should leave the theatre wanting to change our lives or somebody else’s life. For a story to be good, the Coelho-Doyle argument goes, the voice must be immediately recognizable, accessible, and force feelings to surface in the audience. And since Ulysses, for most readers, probably doesn’t do that, it’s not a good book, and since it’s nevertheless received so much recognition and so many writers have tried to use Joyce’s voice, it’s been harmful because it’s diminished the development of other voices, voices that might have reached readers and transformed their lives.

I’m reminded of the barbershop on Center Street in El Segundo, where I once dropped in to get a haircut. It was a one chair shop, and someone else was in the chair, so I had to wait, and while I waited, I listened in on what amounted to a lesson in art criticism. The barber had hung on the wall a painting of a mountain lake. “And I have a photograph of that very spot,” the barber said. “And if I hang both of them side by side, I defy you to tell me which one is the photograph and which one is the painting.”

Related Posts: Where Winston Churchill meets Roddy Doyle; or, the Library is not a Zoo. The Elite and the Effete: From Access to Egress.

Happy Bloomsday!

Bloomsday, the June 16, unofficial, worldwide holiday, celebrates one of the world’s most extraordinary books, James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” June 16, 1904, is the day the book takes place. And one of the extraordinary things about the book is that its hero, Bloom, is not extraordinary at all. “The initial and determining act of judgment in his [Joyce’s] work is the justification of the commonplace,” wrote Richard Ellmann in the introduction to his biography titled simply “James Joyce” (1959).

Joyce had and continues to have detractors. Roddy Doyle, for example, would at least like the world to know that there are other Irish writers, some brand new who also write about the common man. Noted, Roddy. But Joyce’s example provided others, including Roddy Doyle, with extraordinary opportunities in one important way, without which it might be hard to imagine works like Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy, which includes “The Commitments,” “The Snapper,” and “The Van” (all hilarious).

Ellmann explains: “Joyce was the first to endow an urban man of no importance [Bloom] with heroic consequence.” In fact, some early readers, Ellmann explains, thought Joyce must have been kidding, that he “must be writing satire,” for “how else justify so passionate an interest in the lower middle class?” To his Marxist critics, Joyce commented, “I don’t know why they attack me. Nobody in any of my books is worth more than a thousand pounds.” Maybe the attack is explained because “Ulysses,” past the first three episodes, anyway, is written in such a way as to prevent access to the average, common interest reader. This is one of Roddy Doyle’s complaints.

Ellmann concludes, “Joyce’s discovery, so humanistic that he would have been embarrassed to disclose it out of context, was that the ordinary is the extraordinary.” “Dubliners,” Joyce’s book of short stories that preceded his first novel, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” which was followed by “Ulysses,” is characterized by clear and concise writing that is accessible. And just so, Frank Delaney has devoted his Happy Bloomsday podcast, titled “Meeting Joyce,” to sharing Joyce’s “Dubliners.” It’s a great way to start reading James Joyce and to kick back and enjoy a bit of Bloomsday.