Book review of Stoner, by John Williams.
Kant said, beauty is that for which we have no concept. We can look at it, admire it, and feel that certain qualia that comes from beauty, but if we attempt to explain it in mere words we fail because words can only express concepts. Such beauty might come from a moment of perfection in music or from the composition of a great work of art.
In this spirit, it is impossible to properly describe the qualities of Stoner. It tells the story of a very ordinary man and his life which is, on the surface, insignificant. He is born into rural poverty, attends university and becomes an academic. He has some joys, tragedies, suffering and some minor triumphs along the way. These are of a sort that any person might experience. In the end, he dies.
His life, in other words, is like that of you and I. It is not the sort of life that gets turned into a biography. Stoner is the kind of man (and they form by far the greater number) who will be forgotten once his children or grandchildren have died. A nice enough bloke, he is one of the nameless billions whose dust has long since scattered; whose atoms now make up the organs of a new generation of nobodies who temporarily inhabit this world. Perhaps there will be a dusty book on a shelf that still bears his name. In another place, an obscure plaque on a wall that nobody looks at. Three records in a government office: his birth, marriage and death. A weedy grave.
And yet, the inexplicable achievement of this novel is that it displays the significance of Stoner’s life. At the end, we feel it as profoundly as he does. I was on a first date when I finished the book. The lady went to the toilet and I took the opportunity to read the last few pages. When she came back she wondered at the colour in my eyes. I didn’t bother to explain.
Few books have made me reflect more on the things that are in life. When I’m cycling hard against a cruel headwind and it starts to rain, or when a deadline looms and I am exhausted and defeated I think, ‘Yes, this is life. This is how it was for all my ancestors, though the adversity they faced was obviously greater. One grandfather was dirt poor during the Depression. The other fought in Papua New Guinea. They persevered and so can I.’
I rarely stop and reflect in such a way during one of my little wins, like bedding a new woman or enjoying a delicious curry. Perhaps I should. Or would that spoil it? Consider: who enjoys a mango more, a monkey or a man? Both monkeys and men enjoy sweet fruit. Mangoes provide good nutrition for both of us. Only the man, when eating the fruit, can think, ‘Golly, this mango is amazing! I’m so lucky to be eating this mango. I’m going to be thinking about how good this mango was all day. When I leave this country, the main thing I’m going to remember will be the fresh fruit. And it was cheap, too. Incredible.’ For the monkey, the mango is a purely corporeal pleasure. But is that less? Is it greater? Or just different? I don’t know.
This is life for humans. Or at least, for that small minority who take the time to reflect. Any beetle can have his victories and terrors, but only we can notice, think, wonder.
It is these ordinary experiences – the mango, the cold rain – that make up our life. Whatever the balance of events, one day it will be over for all of us. The monkey dies without any particular opinion about it. The thoughtful man will philosophise.
Stoner is not a dreamer. Much of his life, like that of everyone else, is just a struggle to get by. But at the end he reflects upon it and he finds something good. If you, dear reader, have time to think at the end of your time (not possible if your plane gets hit by a missile or something like that), will you conclude that it was good? That it was meaningful? Will it have been worth it? I like to think that I will answer these questions in the positive. Meditating upon these matters now, hopefully far before the end comes, helps to focus one’s attention upon those things that are most important. It is not mangoes and it is not rain. It is not sex or war. It is our steadfast, thoughtful acceptance of that which is, that breathes nobility into a human life.
Further reading: Abnormal Life