A Little Barb


The NY Times Book Review runs these fluffy little highly edited interviews with writers (and celebrities pretending to be writers) every week. The questions are always the same, or almost the same & the whole thing is actually kind of tiresome, but I’m a sucker for writer interviews & occasionally one finds gold in a worked-out claim. That is the case this week with Ursula K. Le Guin. Asked what general she particularly enjoys reading and which she avoids, she responds:

I read mostly novels, any kind of novels, and poetry, and all kinds of nonfiction, especially some kinds of science, biographies, some history, and books about and by Native Americans, and Tierra del Fuego, and Darwinian adaptation — oh, give me a book and if it’s interesting, I’ll read it. Avoidance? At the moment, I tend to avoid fiction about dysfunctional urban middle-class people written in the present tense. This makes it hard to find a new novel, sometimes.

I love that response, especially the way she slips in the shiv in the last sentence. I read (& re-read) a lot of Le Guin earlier this year: though it’s mostly a matter of my own taste, I think she’s best when she’s writing what I think of as “evolutionary science fiction.” 1 She tends to leave me cold when she moves over into fantasy & the supernatural.

A Perfect Novel?

I have just finished reading John Williams’ Stoner. It’s one of those books I’ve been vaguely aware of for many years without feeling compelled to read it, but I came across a copy the other day, picked it up & was drawn very quickly into the precision of its language & perfection of its portrayals of stymied disappointment.

Tim Greider’s 2013 New Yorker essay on the novel begins:

In one of those few gratifying instances of belated artistic justice, John Williams’s “Stoner” has become an unexpected bestseller in Europe after being translated and championed by the French writer Anna Gavalda. Once every decade or so, someone like me tries to do the same service for it in the U.S., writing an essay arguing that “Stoner” is a great, chronically underappreciated American novel. (The latest of these, which also lists several previous such essays, is Morris Dickstein’s for the Times.) And yet it goes on being largely undiscovered in its own country, passed around and praised only among a bookish cognoscenti, and its author, John Williams, consigned to that unenviable category inhabited by such august company as Richard Yates and James Salter: the writer’s writer.

I am, then, a belated member, apparently, of the “bookish cognoscenti,” but a grateful one, for this is the closest thing to a perfect novel that I have read: in addition to the qualities mentioned above, the construction of the story–through the use of point of view & especially through the subtle presentation of the movement of time & consciousness–never once falters. Morris Dickstein’s 2007 NY Times essay begins:

Since academic novels usually focus on the nasty rivalries and inflated egos of their characters, they have served as vehicles for broad satire, not serious themes. One great exception is Willa Cather’s 1925 novel, “The Professor’s House.” Cather used the traditional calling of a scholar and the atrophy of his marriage to convey her own growing alienation from the modern world. Her novel has only one successor, another book that invokes the life of learning as a rebuke to the wasteful wars and cheap compromises of the wider world. John Williams’s “Stoner” is something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.

All true. The point of view of the novel is easy to describe, but its effects difficult to convey. Written in the third-person, the narrator’s omniscience is limited to the title character’s consciousness; the framing is also retrospective & elegiac–the reader knows that the story is being told after Stoner’s death. And at maybe half-a-dozen points in the novel, the narrator leaps briefly into the future before going on with the largely chronological presentation of a single life, from young manhood to a premature death. That span of time makes the various incidents of William Stoner’s life symbolic. Realistically described, the events of the novel represent the turning points in a human life and–I think this is true–in many, if not all, human lives: intellectual awakening, love & the failure of love, ambition & the failure of ambition, resignation (retirement) without despair. Life is impossible, this novel says, but must be lived honestly, which is to say heroically.