Stoned in literary deep space

Quite by chance recently, a friend and I discovered that we had been reading the same book – Stoner, by John Williams. I don’t know how my friend came across this novel about college life in the Midwest of the United States in the period spanned by the great wars, but I like to think that I came to it innocently, picking it up off a bookshelf in Killarney on a whim.

I glanced at the book and bought it immediately. Partly this was because I am intrigued by a range of American male authors who seem to have been neglected or forgotten – James Salter, Norman Maclean, William Maxwell – and partly by the title (a slacker’s primer?) and the red sticker on front that said: “The greatest novel you’ve never read.”

I took this as a kind of good-natured dare, simultaneously dismissing the marketing hype and being trapped in the butterfly net of its chutzpah. Further investigation revealed an introduction by the Irish novelist John McGahern, whose Amongst Women is a favourite book, and breezy thumbs-ups from a host of other literary luminaries including Ian McEwan.

I also, of course, like the idea of rediscovery. I am a sort of literary tragic (to adapt the phrase from Australian rugby) and am a hopeless sucker for anything old that becomes new again. Looking afresh, I noticed that Stoner was first published in 1965; McGahern’s introduction was written in 2002 and the book was re-published in 2012. How did this all fit together? I was pleasantly lost in a small but charming literary maze. Here was another reason for buying the book.

As I’ve read Stoner, I’ve started wondering about the secret life of books and their readers in South Africa. If my friend and I picked it up at roughly the same time, independently of each other, are there others like us out there, or are we – in a manner of speaking – the only literary stoners around?

If there is a silent, hidden community across the length and the breadth of the land, must it forever fear to speak its name?

Secret society
Conversely, is this somehow as it should be, a beautiful but unacknowledged kinship that is better off for being monastic, a secret society forever poking about second-hand Melville bookstores otherwise only noticeable for a certain fey short-sightedness?

Yes, there is some hype about books in the country. There are several literary prizes and a few slightly sad festivals; there is even some limited middlebrow discussion that seems to shy away naturally from discussing anything important or contentious. Writers tend not to talk about their work and the reading public tend not to talk about either the techniques of fiction or the value of writing – by necessity a frank and crusty debate about what literary fiction is worth, and why.

There are precious few independent bookshops, almost no worthwhile reviewing and certainly no cult of the reviewer, as there is in Britain or the US where, say, a positive review by a James Wood, for argument’s sake, can send sales a-spiking.

We respect our authors but they tend to swim below us. Were Ivan Vladislavic or Damon Galgut to attend a book signing at Exclusive Books in Hyde Park, I doubt very much that queues would wind their way around the bookshop corner.

When someone bracing, intelligent and itchy does come along – someone, say, like Stephen Watson, who was as comfortable writing about Leonard Cohen and walking the Cedarberg as he was about chiselling out an essay on Albert Camus – he (or she) tends to be garrotted in the stocks of academe. Watson deserved much, much better, and his failure to have a bigger name as an essayist is attributable to the smallness (and sometimes small-mindedness) and fundamental lack of generosity of our literary culture, such as it is.

Literary deep space
So we find ourselves in a kind of literary deep space, with only the words on the page and the slightly empty orbit of our own thoughts to keep us occupied. This calls to mind an essay by George Steiner in which he raises the intriguing possibility of a culture in which there is no secondary criticism. In other words, there is no academic or newspaper reviewing, there are no talk shows or book clubs; there is no system to mediate the relationship between writers and readers.

At its best this relationship offers itself as a kind of consumer guide, telling those too busy or intimidated by the whole shebang that this is money well spent; at its worst it’s a closed circle, a clique of literary chums all educated at the same Oxford college who write and review and publish, polishing their egos and bank balances as they go on their merry way.

Although we haven’t quite reached this phase – where there is no layer of tangy reviewing between the thick slices of writing and reading – the peculiarities of our literary culture mean that we aren’t far away. Undoubtedly there is a murmur. Folk do read. I had a colleague once who loved Michael Ondaatje and never used to tire of talking about him. I think that, really, she was in love with Ondaatje (or in love with the idea of Ondaatje) and I realised that, contrary to appearances, we were in the realm not of literature but of fantasy. My job was not to talk about the wooden characterisation of In the Skin of a Lion but to sip demurely from the cup of imagination, to listen rather than talk, and to note that the misty, faraway look in her eyes was far more important than anything she might actually be saying.

There are other books and other authors who seem to get passed around from hand to hand or through word of mouth as though we live in a blighted communist backwater where there is only one copy of each book in circulation. I have known WG Sebald fans and busy readers of Chad Harbach and Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo. We do not, as a rule, hear from them. They read in their prisons.

I sense that our literary culture is worse off for the privacy of their endeavour, but maybe it is right and proper that they are confined to the vast reading room of their imaginations because reading is a solitary art and shouldn’t be sullied by the charmless vanities and inevitable pomposities of talking about books.

Secondary advantages
Certainly, there are some secondary advantages to not having a well-developed and feisty culture of reviewing in this country, of not having too much Stoner-talk, as it were. I remember being so excited about the arrival of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland that I wolfed down the reviews on the internet. It was a mistake. By the time I read the book I felt I already knew it. Lost as I was in this strange case of pre-reading, my actual reading was stricken by fore-knowledge and self-consciousness and I became limp with a kind of literary ennui.

Late capitalism is very good at throwing these cultural curve balls and boomerangs in your direction: you are obliged to exercise caution and keep away from the reviews until the novel becomes available and you have read it, but sometimes this is impossible to do; sometimes the mere thought of a book is enough to prick one into scurrying after it, often to disastrous effect.

I like to think that magically, serendipitously, Stoner and I sort of came to each other. I haven’t quite finished it yet but the little red sticker may well be right: it is a book softly beautiful as well as one table-solid with knowing and wisdom. It tells the story of William Stoner and his awakening from a stoic son of the soil to an academic at a relatively undistinguished American university.

Going into university Stoner intends taking an agricultural degree but he changes his mind and he opens to medieval literature and the classical tradition, slowly finding himself incorporated into the university English department. He marries young and recklessly and he and his wife, Edith, beget a little girl over whom she fusses with a kind of sinister frenzy, while he quietly detaches himself further and further from domestic life.

Stoner himself is a decent, unremarkable and obedient man. This is both what makes the book such a challenge to the incredulity of modern readers and what makes his attempts at living his destiny so cloyingly poignant. Eventually professional and private calamity overtake him, but not before he has lived the humble life of a university teacher in clear conscience and good faith.

Clear and even-handed
Williams’ style is clear and masterfully even-handed and gives the impression of a kind of omniscience that is somehow not reducible to the omniscient narrator. At one point early in the novel he writes about the death of one of Stoner’s friends, among the first American casualties of World War I.

“When he had thought of death before, he had thought about it either as a literary event or as the slow, quiet attrition of time against imperfect flesh. He had not thought of it as the explosion of violence upon the battlefield, as the rush of blood from the ruptured throat. He wondered about the two kinds of dying, and what the difference meant; and he found growing in him some of that bitterness he had glimpsed once in the living heart of his friend, David Masters.”

There are many passages like this (this is plucked almost randomly from the novel’s ample branches) and for this reason it should be talked about and discussed; reviewed and ingested.

This, though, is South Africa and, as a result, it might only be passed reverently from hand to hand like something fragile and important – exactly what it is.

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