‘the presence of his books comforted him.’
Stoner, a 1965 novel by John Williams, is one of the saddest, but most beautiful books I’ve ever read. He’s a normal, flawed man from a simple farming background, who was lucky enough to go to university. His parents were not able to show affection, setting him up for a life of not feeling worthy of love. He becomes a teacher at the University he attended, and finds great fulfilment in his work. Although, colleagues are mean to him, he suffers ill health, but yet through it all knew the secret of a worthwhile life— He did what he enjoyed for a living, he loved to teach English, and he appreciated the happy hours.
The book is full of constant spells of bad luck and attacks of psychological abuse from his wife, but he still manages to frame in his mind, and preserve, the quiet contentment of watching his daughter sit and draw at her little desk next to his, in his study. He has an affair, which his wife is aware of and doesn’t care at all. Although, colleagues force him to give her up, but he treasures their moments together, and even after years apart, he opens a books she had published to find she has dedicated her first book to him. He holds these memories and no one can take them away.
The book begins and ends with his death, a painful illness and the only time his wife shows him any care, and so their relationship is reconciled, and he has a change to openly communicate with his then adult daughter. I know all that sounds utterly dismal, but it’s not, because William Stoner won’t let it be. He never feels sorry for himself, and he is grateful for all he has. Literature was his life, and I love how it is written into his death. This book is sad, but it is not miserable.
He had become so weak that he could not walk; he spent his days and nights in the tiny back room. Edith brought him the books he wanted and arranged them on a table beside his narrow bed, so that he would not have to exert himself to reach them. But he read little, though the presence of his books comforted him.
And then at the very end –
The sunlight, passing his window, shone upon the page, and he could not see what was written there. The fingers loosened, and the book they held moved slowly, then swiftly across the still body and fell into the silence of the room.
The presence of my books comforts me. To slide my hand along their spines. Anyone who loves books and has moved house knows how nice it is to unpack them from their boxes, and set them out in the new home.
This book reminded me of a fox I use to see, 15 years ago. It was around 7 a.m., a warm June morning, and I was sat perfectly still on the trunk fallen tree, in some woods on the edge of a Kent meadow. A fox caught my eye, limping quite severely, but it stopped in the long grass where the sun came through the trees, and I watched it roll, and rub its head around then lay there for a few moments on its back, absorbing the sun like a dog in front of a fireplace. Its like can’t have been easy, and without the glut of roadkill, especially pheasants, it wouldn’t have lasted long. In spite of an injury that hampered its whole way of life, it could still roll playfully, and relax in the sun.
‘Stoner’ should be taught in schools. Taken as whole life can look so bleak, but there are happy hours. Stoner looks for them, and enjoys them, and not always in hindsight, but with mindfulness as they happen.