Bare Ruin'd Choirs
Stoner by John Williams
Stoner follows the life of William Stoner, a low level professor of English at a small Missouri university. The first thing we're told in this book is that Stoner's life was unremarkable and left almost no impression on the world: he has few friends, a distant family, a waning career as professor, and a loveless marriage. His only refuge is his scholarship, “the only life which never betrayed him." His passion carries over into the campus culture, where student myths around him grow year by year, until these stories "reached his life outside of university".
Stoner forms a rivalry with the merciless Hollis Lomax, a crippled university professor with a chip on his shoulder, who seeks in literature a refuge from his physical weakness. Their rivalry brings Stoner’s career as professor near to the brink of ruin when he stands up for and later begins an affair with Katherine Driscoll, a young and brilliant graduate student. Unlike Stoner’s marriage, the affair is deep and fulfilling: they share an intellectual as well as an emotional closeness that is absent from Stoner’s marriage:
In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being... in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion... 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.
Yet Stoner comes to recognise his own personal failings in his marriage. Near the end of the book, lying on his deathbed in a vague, dream-like state, he comes to appreciate his wife for the first time. They share one of the few moments of genuine intimacy in their marriage:
They talked of trivial things—of people they knew casually, of a new building going up on the campus, of an old one torn down; but what they said did not seem to matter. A new tranquility had come between them. It was a quietness that was like the beginning of love; and almost without thinking, Stoner knew why it had come. They had forgiven themselves for the harm they had done each other, and they were rapt in regard of what their life together might have been. Almost without regret he looked at her now; in the soft light of late afternoon her face seemed young and unlined. If I had been stronger, he thought: if I had loved her more. As it were a long distance it had to go, his hand moved across the sheet that covered him and touched her hand. She did not move; and after a while he drifted into a kind of sleep.
If love is a “state of being”, as Stoner believed in his youth, it’s hard to imagine this making sense. How could he have “loved her more”, if all that involved was the mere state of being in love? This crucial passage reaffirms love as something worked at. It is a thing which never ends, that we develop with time and experience and participation.
Right at the start of the book, Stoner (an agricultural science major and son of a poor farmer) is compelled towards a life in the study of literature when his professor confronts him with Sonnet 73. The sonnet epitomises the book:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all the rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes they love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
The professor harangues Stoner, demanding to know what the poem means. It takes the rest of his life—the rest of the book—for Stoner to figure it out: that a person, thoroughly lonely and unmemorable, unremarkable in achievement and love, still contains a fundamental dignity that is not extinguished by the countless failures and indignations of life.