Morris Dickstein (link) says that John Williams’ Stoner is “something rarer than a great novel”:
[I]t is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.
I know. You are thinking: who is Morris Dickstein to me and why should I care a rat’s patooty what he thinks about anything? It’s a fair question, actually, but I put it aside long enough to give Stoner a try. I’m only part way through and I’m still on the fence. Stoner has palpable virtues: it is insightful and evocative, and about many things it is kinder than a lot of novels, particularly a lot of academic novels.
As one might anticipate of an academic novel, it paints what must be one of the worst all-time novelistic marriages. I know that’s a tough race, but for nightmarish domestic discord, I’d put Stoner just behind Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and perhaps a bit ahead of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. But there’s a problem here: we surely learn William Stoner’s side of the story, and Edith must be a nasty piece of business by any measure. But I admit to feeling a bit more compassion for her than the author perhaps intends. My take is that she’s not very bright and not very imaginative and nobody ever gave her a clue how to behave any more decently than she does. She raises holy hell with other people’s lives, but she doesn’t do any great favors to herself, either. Be interesting (if perhaps a bit surreal) to hear things from her point of view.
There are some wonderful set-pieces. Over as beer, David Masters offers an anatomy of a university, and the different kind of climbers and time-servers who try to turn it to their advantage. Might be a good move to put it in the welcome packet of any neophyte professor. There’s the introductory dinner where Stoner meets the beloved’s parents—it comes very close to parody, but it’s pretty good parody in any event. There’s also this marvelous throw-away on comparative cultural attitudes to death:
His dissertation topic had been “The Influence of the Classical Tradition upon the Medieval Lyric.” He spent much of the summer rereading the classical and medieval Latin poets, and especially their poems upon death. He wondered again at the easy, graceful manner in which the Roman lyricists accepted the fact of death, as if the nothingness they faced were a tribute to the richness of the years they had enjoyed; and he marveled at the bitterness, the terror, the barely concealed hatred he found in some of the later Christian poets of the Latin tradition when the looked to the death which promised, however vaguely, a rich and ecstatic eternity of life, as if that death and promise were a mockery that soured the days of their living.
John Williams, Stoner 41 (NYRB Classics 2003)
So I’ll stay with it: Dickstein may be a bit over the top, but my guess is that he is close enough to right to deserve a bye here.
Followup: There’s a “correction” to the NYT review which reads (link):
An essay, "The Inner Lives of Men," on June 17, about the writer John Williams and the reissue of his novel "Stoner," misidentified the founder of the creative writing program at the
Fine, except it wasn’t the Times’ error. The blurb on the inside front cover of Stoner says “Williams founded the creative writing program at the