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“Your Recommendation”

btt button

I checked in at the Booking Through Thursday blog, which is the host for a weekly book meme or blogging prompt. Here is this week’s prompt:

If a friend asks you to recommend a really good book—good writing, good characters, good story—but with no other qualifications … what would you recommend?

stoner

To select one book is always a difficult task. To judge by writing, character, and story alone, I pick John Williams’s Stoner. It’s one of those quiet novels following a straight course of a protagonist who strives in silence. Stoner is a farm boy, initially studying agriculture and a requirement of his course is to take a class in English literature. Good things do happen in Stoner’s life, but they all end badly. He relishes teaching students, but his career is stymied by a malevolent head of department; he falls in love and marries, but knows within a month that the relationship is a failure; he adores his daughter, but she is turned against him; he is given sudden new life by an affair, but finds love vulnerable to outside interference, just as the academy is vulnerable to the world. Towards the end of his life, when he has endured many disappointments, he thinks of academe as “the only life that had not betrayed him”.

Stoner is a portrait of a man characterized by formidable determination. Every once in a while comes a novel that is so remarkable in its quality that it stands out not only as an example of what literature (well-written fiction) should be, but also as a satisfying reading experience all by itself.

Stumbling Upon Great Books

Having been gone half a month, I have to catch up with answering comments and posting book reviews. I have been behind with Musing Mondays since I was in Texas and Oklahoma last week.
Musing Mondays2

This week’s musing (March 26) asks:

Have you ever found a book out of the blue, read it, and then had it be surprisingly good — one that stuck with you for years? If so, what book was it?

I sure have. Every once in a while I would pick up a book cold turkey and surprise myself. From time to time a book would come along that reminds me what great fiction should be: either with en engrossing story or a quiet, contemplative writing style, or both. The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley is such a novel. It’s a beautifully written novel that explores naiveté and knowledge, and the mysteries of the human heart. Leo Colston, the 13-year-old narrator, arrives at Brandham Hall in the scorching summer of 1900 to stay with his school friend Marcus. The novel intimately follows events that ominously unveil the next three weeks after the daughter of the house, Marian Maudsley, who has a secret love affair with the farmer Ted Burgess, entrusts him to be bearer of messages between the lovers. Aside from the affair which attracts initial attention, aside from Leo’s jealousy of men’s power over Marian, Leo is caught in his own struggle between order and lawlessness, between obedience to tradition and defiance of it, between social stability and rebellion. That he is being part of the secret intensifies his longing for liberation and transfiguration. The book’s power arises from his keen way of noticing, and his alertness to the prospect of humiliation, on the lookout for mockery. Until The Go-Between, I have never heard of L.P. Hartley, let alone reading him. This book has changed that and also stayed with me over the year.

That was five years ago. Recently I have discovered out of the blue a book that will likely register in my memory five years from now—and it also happens to be a NYRB title: Stoner by John Williams. The book is both depressing and inspiring at the same time. Stoner, the titular character, has an origin as humble as the earth his parents worked on in Missouri. From the earliest time he can remember, he was obliged to duties on the farm. Stoner was raised in an austere and lonely household bound together by the necessity of its toil. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life, which renders estrangement from his parents. The prose that elaborates on Stoner’s reflecting moments of self-realization and profound insecurity is most beautiful. John Williams, in depicting Stoner, whose indifference becomes a way of living among the dark forces and sadness that have swept over the society, seems to be saying that most of us will live quiet, unremarkable lives that can probably be summarized in a few sentences and that contribute nothing to humanity’s accomplishments

[428] Stoner – John Williams

” An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers. ” (I 3-4)

Every once in a while comes a novel that is so remarkable in its quality that it stands out not only as an example of what literature (well-written fiction) should be, but also as a satisfying reading experience all by itself. Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety is such a book for me last year. Stoner is no less remarkable in both writing and story. It’s both depressing and inspiring at the same time. Stoner, the titular character, has an origin as humble as the earth his parents worked on in Missouri. From the earliest time he can remember, he was obliged to duties on the farm. Stoner was raised in an austere and lonely household bound together by the necessity of its toil. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life, which renders estrangement from his parents.

His parents were happy to see him, and they seemed not to resent his decision. But he found that he had nothing to say to them; already, he realized, he and his parents were becoming strangers; and he felt his love increased by its loss. (II 26)

Though sold out on his passion for literature and teaching, Stoner never rises above the rank of assistant professor. Few students remember him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. His marriage turns out to be a failure just after honeymoon. His wife shuts him off emotionally and physically, leaving him the only option to maintain an unobtrusive and delicate regard for the world in which Edith had begun to live. As his wife manipulatively turns his daughter away from him, he takes on extra workload with an intensity and ferocity that awes his colleagues. But his career is stymied as his mentor Archer Sloane, is replaced by one Hollis Lomax, who becomes Stoner’s implacable enemy. Their inveterate feud over work politics, spanning Stoner’s entire career, broaches scenes of conflict that are almost unbearable in their intensity.

The enormity came upon him gradually, so that it was several weeks before he could admit to himself what Edith was doing; and when he was able at last to make that admission, he made it almost without surprise. Edith’s was a campaign waged with such cleverness and skill that he could find no rational grounds for complaint. After her abrupt and almost brutal entrance into his study that night, an entrance which in retrospect seemed to him a surprise attack, Edith’s strategy became more indirect, more quiet and contained. It was a strategy that disguised itself as love and concern, and thus one against which he was helpless. (VIII 123)

A transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal, despite for the first time in life he knows what intimacy is. Instead of an absolute state of being, it dawns on him that love is “a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment by the will and the intelligence and the heart.” (XIII 195) All the disappointments amount to a solitary existence so withdrawn from reality of the world. The prose that elaborates on Stoner’s reflecting moments of self-realization and profound insecurity is most beautiful. John Williams, in depicting Stoner, whose indifference becomes a way of living among the dark forces and sadness that have swept over the society, seems to be saying that most of us will live quiet, unremarkable lives that can probably be summarized in a few sentences and that contribute nothing to humanity’s accomplishments, like the first paragraph of Stoner. But the beauty, as Williams shows, is in the details, the filler and backstory that make up our lives. Stoner doesn’t defeat his adversaries, nor does he live happily ever after with his true love, but he is admired for striving constantly to become someone other than who he had been. In a way, he has triumphed over the inimical world by being indifferent to disappointments and joy, and by focusing on the work for which he has a passion. He is defined by his formidable determination.

278 pp. NYRB Classics [Read/Skim/Loss] [Buy/Borrow]

John Williams

Five days into new year and I’m two books down. Book number 3 is another cold turkey. John Edward Williams (August 29, 1922 – March 3, 1994) was an American author, editor and professor. He was best known for his novels Stoner and Augustus. Stoner was what I picked up from the sale table at the indie. It was half off and that it’s NYRB classic warrants quality literature. The book is something rarer than a great novel (so far), so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving. Every once in a while, a novel comes along that is so remarkable in its quality that it stands out stands out as an example of what well-fiction fiction should be. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, which I discovered last year, falls into this category, and so does Stoner. The book’s introduction mentions a 1985 interview he was asked, “And literature is written to be entertaining?” to which he replied emphatically, “Absolutely. My God, to read without joy is stupid.”

The enormity came upon him gradually, so that it was several weeks before he could admit to himself what Edith was doing; and when he was able at last to make that admission, he made it almost without surprise. Edith’s was a campaign waged with such cleverness and skill that he could find no rational grounds for complaint. After her abrupt and almost brutal entrance into his study that night, an entrance which in retrospect seemed to him a surprise attack, Edith’s strategy became more indirect, more quiet and contained. It was a strategy that disguised itself as love and concern, and thus one against which he was helpless. (VIII 123)

How can you resist such beautifully written prose with a quiet majesty? This is one of the passages and decided my acquisition of the book, which I vouch won’t be the last. Don’t you ever miss out on those sale books.