There’s that one quote from South Park going around the internet which I like very much: “I’m sad, but at the same time I’m really happy that something could make me feel that sad. It’s like, it makes me feel alive, you know? It makes me feel human. And the only way I could feel this sad now is if I felt somethin’ really good before. So I have to take the bad with the good, so I guess what I’m feelin’ is like a, beautiful sadness.”
Simple as that. No self-help books or “Live Laugh Love” pictures on walls. And when I need some motivational guidance, I (obviously) resort to literature.
Stoner by John E. Williams is a beautiful, though a sad story – at least at the first sight. A “campus novel/Bildungsroman” about a farm boy who becomes a literature professor after discovering his love for written word really touches the heart. Throughout the story, titular William Stoner struggles with his upbringing, identity, his wife who turns out to be a different person than he initially expected, his career and various people who try to ruin it for various reasons, both world wars and how they changed the society, his only child and many more. The second paragraph already reveals the novel’s seemingly tragic character:
An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual questions. 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.
It took me very little time to get through the book (it’s not long anyways; around two hundred pages). Williams’ writing is like a flowing river. His style is smooth, calm, even soothing in a sense. I think if it wasn’t for that style then Stoner wouldn’t have the same effect.
So what we get here is an account of a man’s mediocre, dull, an unhappy life.
Is it so?
No really, actually.
Despite all the bad stuff that happened in Stoner’s life, the novel retains a positive message. He was able to find happiness thanks to literature, which accompanied him from the moment when after reading a Shakespeare’s sonnet for an English class he decided to change his life, to the very end of his story (which actually takes place in his study room filled with books). Even if certain people tried to somehow stop him from fully endorsing his work and passion, he was still able to find courage to fight for what he really loved.
Quite often I feel very insecure about my plans for future and my ambitions to become something-like-a-serious-literary-scholar. Well, it’s not easy. Jobs are scarce, competition is wild and books are expensive (bless God for the internet! Stoner would’ve had it harder if not for the fact that in the early 20th century they were all doing only Milton and Shakespeare anyways). I guess those are some universal things for most people nowadays. However, I feel like I can truly relate to Stoner in that way. Working with literature gives me a lot of fulfillment in itself and that’s what really matters. Of course we cannot just stop thinking about competition or feeling down if our plans fail several times in a row. It all narrows down to focusing a little less on all the surrounding issues and a little more on the same subject of our work. This is just some kind of a stoic lesson which really should be endorsed; at least it works for me.
John Williams’s greatest literary achievement (beside Stoner) was Augustus, for which he was given a U.S. National Book Award. Nevertheless, it’s the first one for which he seems to be remembered the most. As Wiki tells us, in an interview he was asked if literature is written to be entertaining, to which he replied: “Absolutely. My God, to read without joy is stupid.” As a writer and scholar he just did what he loved to do. And this is it. Go get the book and read it, it’s worth it.