Stoner ~ John Williams

9780670671243I’m really not very good at climbing on bandwagons, especially where books that are being hyped in the media are concerned. This is a character trait I noticed first when Watership Down was the must read title one summer back in the early seventies.  I wasn’t going to succumb to public opinion and read a novel about rabbits (for goodness sake) even though I was blithely prepared to say good morning to the numerous representatives of the species that I passed every day on my early morning cycle rides into Stratford.  Eventually, of course, I gave into the pressure and finally realised what all the song and dance was about, months after everyone else had had the pleasure of Richard Adam’s insightful commentary on both extremes of human society.

You would have thought, then,  that I would have learnt my lesson.  If that many people are singing the praises of a particular novel it is just possible that it may have something to recommend it.  Nevertheless, despite all the publicity, despite the fact that every time I’ve walked into Staff House at the University for the past year I have seen someone reading it, it has taken the appearance of John William’s Stoner on one of my book group lists to get me to pick up a copy and to discover what a really wonderful book it is.

I could sing the praises of this book in so many ways.  I could tell you about how beautifully it is written.  There is nothing spectacular about the writing, nothing intensely lyrical or poetic, but every word is placed with care and precision and there is a rhythm about it that echoes the rhythm of the life of the novel’s central character, University English Professor, William Stoner. For the most part this is a steady beat reflective of what some have seen as a dull and even a sad life, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments that elicit in the reader real emotion, most often in my case anger at the way in which other people take advantage of a man who never really comes to understand the lengths to which some individuals will go to get what they want, regardless of the damage that may be done to others in the process.

I could tell you about the accuracy of the portrait it paints of life in the University sector.  For example, even though many things have changed in the years between the early part of the twentieth century depicted here and the present day, I’m afraid that the departmental in-fighting still goes on.  I have met Holly Lomax, the Professor who is determined to get his own way about a student who everyone else can see is struggling, insisting that he be allowed to continue even though eventually not only will the student be damaged by the experience but so too will any others he comes into contact with.  I have actually worked with Holly Lomax.  There have been the occasional days when I have specifically wanted to strangle Holly Lomax – for the ultimate good of the student, the department, the University, the world.  Like Stoner, I have resisted.

But what I actually want to tell you about in praise of this novel is what Williams has to say about the joy of being a teacher, because for me this is the ultimate truth and the heartbeat at the very core of this book. From the moment when his mentor, Sloane, asks Stoner

‘Don’t you understand about yourself yet?  You’re going to be a teacher.’

Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded.  Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, ‘Are you sure?’

‘I’m sure,’ Sloane said softly.

‘How can you tell? How can you be sure?’

‘It’s love, Mr Stoner,’ Sloane said cheerfully. ‘You are in love. It’s as simple as that.’

to the point of his retirement dinner where after a couple of false starts Stoner finally says

I have taught at this University for nearly forty years.  I do not know what I would have done if I had not been a teacher.  If I had not taught, I might have – ‘ He paused, as if distracted.  Then he said, with a finality, ‘I want to thank you all for letting me teach.’

Stoner is, quite simply, a teacher.  He is defined by his job, and by the way in which he does his job, he defines what it should mean to teach.

I wish I had read this book by the time I retired, I would have plagiarised that final speech unmercifully.  But I suppose that would have been to suggest that I was something like as good a teacher as Stoner is.  That would be difficult.

Interestingly some of the things that show him at his best are times when Williams tells us that he upsets various students.  The most obvious of these is the case of Holly Lomax’s protégé, Charles Walker, who Stoner refuses (rightly) to pass through his oral examination as part of his progress towards a doctoral qualification.

‘God damn it,’ Lomax shouted. ‘Do you realise what you’re doing, Stoner?  Do you realise what you’re doing to the boy?’

‘Yes,’ Stoner said quietly, ‘and I’m sorry for him.  I am preventing him from getting his degree, and I am preventing him from teaching in a college or university.  Which is precisely what I want to do.  For him to be a teacher would be a – disaster.’

Sometimes your job as a teacher is to prevent your students from following a path that would damage not only them but also many generations of other students.  It is never easy, but if you really are a teacher you have to do it.  Just occasionally, I had to take the same decision in respect of students who wanted to be primary teachers.   It hurt, but the thousand children they could well have encountered in a forty year teaching career had to come first.  The thought of Charles Walker being allowed to stand in front of a class of undergraduates frightened me so much I couldn’t read on for a time.

Less immediately apparent to the non-professional eye may be the moment when Stoner reflects on the way his teaching style unsettles some of his students.  He gets so caught by his enthusiasm that he stutter[s], gesticulate[s], and boldly, proudly displays the love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words.  Many of his students respond to this with renewed efforts of their own, showing hints of imagination and the revelation of tentative love.  However, there are also those who had been able theretofore to plod through his courses by the repetition of mechanical steps who begin to look at him with puzzlement and resentment.

Teaching is not about rote learning, it is about enthusiasm and inspiration, but there will always be some students and a great many people in power who will be frightened of the freedom of thought that not only allows but actually encourages.  A good teacher wouldn’t have it any other way.

As you will have noticed, I have now climbed on one of my soapboxes.  It is time to get off and to say simply that I wish I hadn’t waited as long as I did to read this book and to urge those of you who may not have yet done so to get hold of a copy as soon as you possibly can.