|University of Denver photograph|
Saturday, January 11, 2014
Stoner - I like Gatsby AND this "Anti-Gatsby"
I just finished John Williams’ 1965 novel, Stoner, a novel John McGahern describes in his introduction as “this classic novel of university life, and the life of the heart and the mind.” It’s a powerhouse of a book – I imagine even for those who have less affection and affinity for “university life” or the pull toward both the flashy polish of Gatsby and the austere precision of Stoner than I have. Williams’ precise use of words to convey so much so simply is a true gift and a rare one. He captures the truth of personalities and the energy of their expression in wonderful and thoughtful ways, and by doing so offers an endless palate of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to think about, appreciate, explore, and to learn from. It is very sad in its seemingly relentless sense of isolation, yet reading Stoner is like an excursion into a certain kind of art gallery – old masters, the musty sense of reverence for “pure knowledge,” the life of the mind and of learning, and a persistent quiet reverie as the reader absorbs all that is happening in this intense microcosm which expands into a whole world and reverberates beyond. Love, lust, and learning all make an appearance, each given life in particular ways. The “meaning of life,” of a particular life and lives, is laid bare for inquiring minds and hearts to know themselves. To read this is an honor – is to honor Williams for his creation, and to honor the gift of life itself, which we all share. Without honor and the Values of the Spirit which begin with love and are expressed with a quiet but firm and growing dignity (which comes from learning and experience), we are left with sadness and the pettiness of confusion and the false power that the ego wields. There is much poetic beauty in Williams’ language of “love becoming,” even as he describes the way the softness of snow, the whiteness of the sky suffused with snow, the permeating silence which invites the mind into a state beyond the nature it has known and experienced before.
The saddest thing to me may be what Tim Kreider wrote in his October 2013 New Yorker review - that wisdom is "perennially out of style." The popularity of the novel in Europe makes sense to me. Older sensibilities learn that loss does not necessarily lead to "failure."
“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 one 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.” (195)
Something I wrote a few nights ago fit into the influence of his book more than I realized, until I read the last few pages.
Spiralling into me.
The book between worlds
Walking the pages
As if struck by chords
Sounding and falling
We are holding on
Thin wisps of light
Beaming like strings
A new day, hope
And words illuminated.