Stoner traces the life of a young boy from Missouri whose father, resolute on his son getting a proper education that would ultimately benefit their farming and livelihood, finds the necessary means for the young Stoner to attend college to study agriculture. While at the university, however, Stoner experiences an epiphany: while in class one day, his literature professor asks him about a Shakespearean sonnet and, unable to muster an answer, realizes that he was meant for a different calling. From there, Stoner’s academic life is carefully outlined: his mentorship, his eventually becoming a faculty member, and the reputation that he has slowly built for himself in the academia. His career was stable enough until he becomes embroiled in a nasty, politically-motivated issue with a fellow faculty member. His marriage was seemingly doomed from the get-go – for he subsequently carries on an illicit affair with a student – but he endures, and the little girl that is the fruit of this marital union would eventually become the fulfilment of his personal life.
Initially, I thought it was a meandering novel; it didn’t have a particular plot, it didn’t seem to be concerned with anything other than marking out the travails and the experiences that make up Stoner’s life – but oh, what a life it had been!
Stoner had me reined in, and the fact that it was carefully written in sparse but powerful language lent his story more credence and appeal. He was kind and content in his gentleness, although there was many a moment when I was irked at his seeming indifference at things; I wasn’t sure whether I should chalk it up to his unobtrusive and non-confrontational nature, or whether he was simply restraining his inner turmoils until they just went away. Something about his stoic approach to things (and people) invoked sympathy and subsequently, admiration; but at the same time, his silence and lack of emotion bothered me – particularly that part in me that tends to speak up in indignation or outrage at any form of injustice, whether actually perceived or merely imagined.
Stoner was also about the academe; the novel showed how a young man’s life was changed forever by a single encounter with a Shakespearean sonnet, and how he experienced fulfilment within the walls of the university and among the company of his students, despite the politics and challenges that were thrown his way. The transition of Stoner's life direction from agriculture to the academics was nothing short of tremendous, and to me, it was the act that detached Stoner from his farmer-parents and his childhood back in Missouri. But it was a conscious decision on his part, something he knew he was doing out of passion and utmost devotion. Thus, Stoner’s lifelong commitment to teaching and love of literature endured notwithstanding his dysfunctional personal life.
I first read about Stoner on a friend’s blog. He initially gave it a four-star rating and then, after reconsideration, gave it a perfect five stars. Another friend had lent him the same copy that I have in my possession right now, and it took me a while to get to reading it. But when I did pick it up, I was unable to stop gushing at the lovely prose.
“But he was not beyond it, he knew, and would never be. Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there. In his youth he had given it freely, without thought; he had given it to the knowledge that had been revealed to him – how many years ago? – by Archer Sloane; he had given it to Edith, in those first blind foolish days of his courtship and marriage; and he had given it to Katherine, as if it had never been given before. He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life, and had perhaps 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.” (p. 250)
The words are beauty come alive.
This novel is the humble story of a simple man, his relationships and friendships, his triumphs and failures, his big joys and little heartbreaks, his loves and his losses, and ultimately his death. This work is a celebration of life and its attachments. There's beauty and honesty to be found in Stoner’s tale – one that inspires, provokes strong emotions, and teaches.
“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.” (p. 195)
Book Details: Trade Paperback (NYRB Classics), Borrowed from Aldrin (Thank you!)