I sit down, gently lay my fingers on the home keys, and stare at the monitor for several minutes. I do not know how to start writing about this novel. Whatever comes out of this, it will never justify the praise that it deserves. I would never have heard of it had it not been mentioned, and pushed, to me by our bookish friend Aldrin. To say that one book is your favorite for the year is something, and to say that when the year is far from over is another thing.
Another bookish friend saw the copy lent to me and marveled at its beauty. NYRB classics can be anyone’s book porn, no? He asked me if it had anything to do with drugs. I wondered if he misread it as Stoned or if he imagined that Stoner is someone or something that makes you high. I said no, it’s about Stoner, with a capital S, Oh, it’s a name then, a person, Yes, What is he, He’s an English professor, And?
Well, he’s the only son of poor hard-scrabbled farmers who send him to college as an agriculture student but ends up majoring in literature and is hired as an instructor while he works on his masters and doctorate degrees and then he marries and begets a daughter and lives a long unhappy marriage with a little affair on the side and then gets involved in an academic war before he finally retires and dies.
Spoilers galore, right? On the contrary, no. Those details are mentioned at the back blurb except for the death part, which is mentioned right on the first page. It’s all that, no surprising plot twists. But we read on, because the moment you start reading, you are drawn to Stoner’s life, a life that is devoid of excitement and yet, one couldn’t help caring for him.
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 on 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.
I want to say something about Stoner’s shift from agriculture to literature. His professor in a required literature course, who will later become his mentor, asks him to interpret Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. Stoner is stumped. The professor reads the sonnet out loud to the class with a stress on the last couplet. Stoner is stunned. He undergoes a sort of enlightenment, and that is the long and short of his conversion.
It might seem a tad incredulous to trigger a change that could affect the rest of your life by something as seemingly simple as poetry reading. I think I can relate to it. There are instances when I find myself almost losing my mind when coming across powerful and meaningful passages. I’d like to imagine that Stoner experienced the same fleeting moment, only that he was able to sustain and pursue it.
This he was able to do thanks to his passion for learning. I think it’s the only thing that made him go on with his life. Had he been another person, he would have filed for a divorce and left his family. But he didn’t do any of that sort. He endured with a solid stoicism and a flicker of hope at the start of each semester.
But he is not even the type of teacher that students would remember for a long time. There is nothing remarkable about him. He would, at sporadic moments, be so engaged in his classes, but this would come on the later stage of his underwhelming and overlooked career. It would be in vain if we wait for something big to take place. A misgiving with another professor and a short winter vacation are the only thrills that we’ll ever get to witness.
And yet, we continue plodding through the novel. It helps that the writing has an unparalleled precision and clarity. Writing about a life only filled with a smattering of successes and mostly populated with droll routines is reserved only for the cunning writers. Only they have the capability to turn such a subject into a lyrical masterpiece.
There is, however, an inner life going on within Stoner. He may not be always able to say what goes on through his head, but isn’t that always the case? This is why words are both powerful and powerless. We can do a lot with words. We can manipulate them to mean something that we do and don’t intend. But when it comes to delivering the profound sense of understanding of life’s multifaceted mysteries, words are sure to fail us. So we, as Stoner did, let these swim under our skin and content ourselves that our knowledge of life is just there, inside us.
This novel is generally sad and depressing. I love it. It is a great work that should have been popular at the time of its original publication. I initially rated this with 4-stars, and I was asked by the lender of my copy to reconsider it. I thought my verdict was final, but just this afternoon, I found myself thinking of Stoner. Is he still at his desk poring over his students’ theses and dissertations? Is he on his way to his last class? Is he home yet?
Already, I miss him. I may not have been totally devastated by it, but its staying power, I can sense, will be too strong for me to ignore in the next days to come.