Stoner, by John Williams
Stoner, by John Williams

Sometimes as I’m browsing in an Irish bookstore, or perhaps as I’m eyeing what other people on the DART are reading, I wonder if an “all-American” title, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Tell It on the Mountain, or The Grapes of Wrath, translates well; do these books affect non-Americans the way they do Americans? It’s a one-half-simplistic, and one-half-sensible sentiment. Simplistic: Is the “American experience” really so incomprehensible? (No, because global media make sure it’s plastered over every continent.) Sensible: I’d argue that you can’t really feel intertwined with a particular culture if you haven’t spent a substantial bit of time there. (Eating at Letzte Bratwurst vor Amerika/“Last Hotdog until America” in Sagres, Portugal does not count toward familiarizing oneself with America.)

So what do we make of the American book that Americans have virtually ignored until recently? (Well, that is, until the French got wind of it and seemed to unearth it from obscurity in 2011. Since they are known for their panache, we can just ride their coattails.)

It's Official: You're American
Letzte Bratwurst vor Amerika. It’s Official: You’re an American Hot Dog Aficionado

Stoner, by John Williams—originally published in 1965—made a big splash when it was reprinted by Vintage in 2012. A relatively unknown compact novel, it cryptically arose as a posthumous breakthrough (nearly fifty years after its debut) for Williams, who died in 1994. At the end of 2013, Julian Barnes reviewed the book for The Guardian. What I find most interesting about his review is Barnes’ exploration of why the book has seemed to generate more enthusiasm in Europe (and Israel, apparently) than in America, Williams’ homeland. A couple of theories are presented, but the most prominent one is that Americans prefer tales of overcoming strife and embracing heroism, and Stoner is a book full of quiet sorrow without much in the way of redemption. Here’s novelist Sylvia Brownrigg’s response to Barnes’ inquiry: “The reticence [of Stoner] seems very not American to me. In spite of the American setting, the character himself feels more English, or European – opaque, fundamentally decent, and passive…Perhaps the lack of the novel’s taking hold in the US is because it doesn’t feel like One of Ours? We’re such a country of maximalists, noisy ones, and though obviously there are exceptions, even our minimalists are not spare and sad in this particular way.”

We're going to be happy after all of this...
We’re going to be happy after all of this…

I thought about this a lot because although what Barnes (and Brownrigg) is implying holds truth, I’m fascinated by the mechanics of shaping a national psyche. Why are Americans so intent on promoting “happiness” in such a loud fashion? The answer is multi-faceted, of course, and anyone can name a handful of potential reasons straight away: Ye Olde Pioneering Days (and all the turmoil and hardship included) are still considered relatively recent history, so the optimism and desire to push through adversity are fresh; Americans are “brainwashed” into this rah-rah attitude for jingoist reasons by the political machine; the US is a diverse land where groups and individuals need to raise voices in order to be heard over numerous other groups. The list is endless, as are the numbers of other national psyches. Why are the Chinese/Brits/Germans “the way they are”? The same types of reasons account for these varying cultural psyches as well. So, on the one hand, it’s straightforward: Citizens are products of all these different factors vying for attention, and the strongest, the most appealing, or maybe just the easiest will win and be passed down, generation after generation. Yet this sentiment goes against the notion that “people are the same” wherever one goes. The kernel of truth in this thought—that human emotions are universal—bears some weight, but the snippets of thoughts and ideas that mold our schemas are unique not just to individuals, but seem to change according to a seemingly arbitrary mark of delineation on a map. And these “cultural borders” aren’t just specific to countries. They descend in funnel fashion, from region, to state or province, to city, and beyond.

In short, Barnes’ theory for why Stoner hasn’t caused as much commotion in the home country of its deceased author: Lost in Translation.

Although Stoner is based entirely in the US, this inability to jump seamlessly from one culture to another is, I think, what the book is about. The only son of Missouri farmers, William Stoner is a product of a family “bound together by the necessity of its toil.” Until age 17, his life is simple: “From the earliest time he could remember, [he] had his duties” and “…he did his lessons as if they were chores.” His assumption is that his life won’t deviate from the lives of his predecessors, for what else could there possibly be? “At thirty his father looked fifty; stooped by labor, he gazed without hope at the arid patch of land that sustained the family from one year to the next. His mother regarded her life patiently, as if it were a long moment that she had to endure.” Because this is what he has known, until the point when his father sends him to the University of Missouri at Columbia—specifically, to the College of Agriculture in an attempt to embolden the family farm with “book knowledge”—Stoner believes that his “country of origin,” so to speak, is irreversibly calling him to a relentless and mundane future. It is as a student that “for the first time in his life he became aware of loneliness.” The understanding that the life mapped out for him is not where he belongs nor where he wants to be jolts Stoner.

Initially hesitant to embark on this foreign journey, he soon finds his calling in the English department. Stoner catches a glimpse of a potential life in a different culture. Although this admittedly awkward man eventually finds solace in words and texts as well as the solitary rigor of research as he embarks on a teaching career, he never quite assimilates to the worldly, educated, and cultured environment of academia. This failure is not for lack of trying, and this failure essentially sums up what is a very sad book. Despite a university friend’s contention that “…the University exists, for the disposed of the world,” for most of his life, Stoner doesn’t really have a place anywhere. He feels “security and warmth” in the academic world, but his failures don’t cease. Leaving one culture (the family farm) behind in an attempt to join another (the life of the mind), Stoner unfortunately remains in cultural limbo. The reticent and quiet professor lives in a no-man’s land, much akin to the vast ocean separating America and Europe. Because he never finds his place with his wife, his home, or even his own daughter, Stoner remains a man that nearly everyone finds impossible to understand or relate to. Instead of a message or a way of life that doesn’t make sense outside of its cultural boundaries, this is a human lost in translation. This is a book built upon the remarkable amount of disappointments thrown Stoner’s way, but the true disappointment is that the one person who provides a “homeland” for him—a fellow academic—must leave him, both physically and emotionally.

2013-08-01 19.01.39
“No man is an island…”

Does it ultimately matter if we are part of one camp or another? What if no one else shares our “cultural psyche”? At the denouement of Stoner, a book about not finding identity in a larger place, “A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.” So I think I may disagree with Julian Barnes’ assessment a bit. When I reached the end of Stoner, I thought it a most American book indeed: Our disenchanted professor realizes that he belongs to himself, no matter where he resides. The power of the individual?

{As a fun aside, check out The Millions’ US vs. UK book cover analysis.}

2 thoughts on “Lost in Translation

  1. Hi Amy, catching up on your blog and I was glad to see you tackled Stoner because I read it fairly recently. I found the book quite disappointing and was almost ready to give up on it before I got to the academic intrigue bit. By the time the love affair started I felt much more engaged and I thought the death scene was exquisitely written. How’s that for a spoiler!
    All in all, what irritated me in this novel was the plodding pace, depite the fact that the writing was good. But it was good it such a muted way, it hardly carried itself along. It took so long to get moving that I would have given up if it hadn’t been for the publicit. I almost missed the fuss until I was in Hodges Figgis on my last week in Dublin and I saw a little table next to the queue for the till, piled with copies of Stoner. It’s a pity he missed out on the delayed reaction to his book. Another thing that bothered me was how unsympathetic the wife was. We never did get to understand why she was such a cold fish and in the end it veered towards being mysogynistic. I’m afraid I’m not drawn to read more of Williams’ work. So here’s one European who wasn’t convinced.

    1. Maybe I’ve been reading too many slow and “plodding” novels lately because for some reason I didn’t feel that way about Stoner, although I know what you’re talking about. Yes, the wife is a tough nut to crack; she really irked me and I wanted to reach through the pages and slap some kindness into her! I will say that it certain parts of the US (at least in generations past), a certain stoicism prevailed, and Stoner reminded me a bit of one of my grandfathers. (Just in his quietness…nothing else about the plot or his life!), so maybe that’s why I was drawn to the book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts; it’s good to be a dissenter sometimes!

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