Feeling a little under the weather on Monday, I went to the library (two blocks away) and found John Williams' Stoner. It was originally published in 1965 and the NYRB Classics reissue came out three years ago, but it continues to turn up on many "Best Books I Read in 2009" lists. I'm sure it'll be on mine, even though I'm just a third of the way into it. I suspect it might be on my 2010 list, too, because I think I'll want to reread it as soon as I finish.
The tale is good—the disappointed life of William Stoner, a professor of English—but what stuns me is the plain, clear, balanced prose. It never stoops to flashy effects but maintains a moderate, even tone throughout. I'm afraid I'm not sure how to describe it without making it sound boring, and for the same reason to excerpt it might undermine my case.
But here are two samples. First, Williams describes Stoner's announcement that he will stay for graduate school rather than returning to the family farm:
Stoner tried to explain to his father what he intended to do, tried to evoke in him his own sense of significance and purpose. He listened to his words fall as if from the mouth of another, and watched his father's face, which received those words as a stone receives the repeated blows of a fist. When he had finished he sat with his hands clasped between his knees and his head bowed. He listened to the silence of the room. (p. 23)What image could match that for futility? And yet, its force is boxed in words as imperturbable as either man.
And here is his first evening with the woman he marries:
She continued to talk, and after a while he began to hear what she was saying. Years later it was to occur to him that in that hour and a half on that December evening of their first extended time together, she told him more about herself than she ever told him again. And when it was over, he felt that they were strangers in a way that he had not thought they would be, and he knew that he was in love. (p. 53)Every possibility of failed communication and misdirected love is already encapsulated here.
I'm reading Stoner slowly because I want to savor its prose—its rhythm and pacing, not just sentence by sentence, but paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. Here there seem to be none of the refracted interiorities and layered subjunctives of James or Proust, nor does it overflow with associations like Saramago or Joyce. One of the few reading experiences I can compare it to is Anita Brookner—she of the twenty-five similar-sounding novels of disappointment, loneliness, and loss. In my teens and twenties, when I held high-tech jobs—a young man who perhaps could not differ more from her expected audience—I used to buy and read the new Brookner each year as soon as it came out. It's been some time, but I remember her prose as similarly classic, though in an English rather than American register.
I admire the acrobatics of grammar and idea that dominates literary prose; I enjoy seeing it done well. Lish-style minimalism (much discussed lately because of the de-Lished edition of Carver in the Library of America volume) can also be impressive, though, like Monk at the piano, its spareness seems to invite disastrous imitation. The third way—the path of moderation—may be just as difficult as these two, and for its necessary reticence its masters may be even rarer.