Notes on “Stoner,” a Novel by John Williams

StonerIn his disclaimer notes at the front of “Stoner,” John Williams assures his reader that the character of William Stoner is fiction, and should not be mistaken for any coincidental likenesses, the standard “any resemblance to” lingo. And maybe there was no Stoner, but at the same time, surely there are many Stoners. Stoner is a kind of every-humanist. When asked why Ulysses, Joyce responded that the character was well rounded. Ulysses had been, of course, a son, but also a father, a husband, and a soldier, and while he was out soldiering, a cuckold. But Joyce’s Ulysses is an ironic depiction; the many resemblances to the original Ulysses amount to colossal irony. So too, Stoner is an ironic humanist, and readers are disabused of any notion that the liberal arts specialist or humanities generalist by definition reaches nirvana or achieves happiness or indeed is even able to articulate their experience for someone else to appreciate. Reading does not necessarily make us either whole or rent. Reading does not make us better people (particularly reading does not make us better people than non-readers). Stoner is a book.

Early in the book, Stoner may come across as an existential and humanist monster; it’s hard to understand how a so-called humanist, a man educated in the liberal arts tradition, was unable to find a way to talk to his parents, however alienated he might be from their generation, their values, their experience, particularly if they have little or no education. And there were no disagreements, no political arguments, no generation gap problems, no counter cultural issues. (Indeed, as it turns out, Stoner is as conservative as Louis Menand claims is true for the majority of today’s professors.) Stoner simply seems to have felt his parents incapable on any level of understanding want he wanted. Still, how had he missed developing the skills necessary to articulate for them his need? In any case, Stoner winds up no more or less a monster than most men.

Indeed, a suitable epigraph for Williams’s novel “Stoner” might have been this quote from Thoreau’s “Walden”:

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation…A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”

In other words, while there may have been no actual Professor Stoner that Williams based his character on, the character of Stoner contains the characteristics of the average college professor in the 20th Century US (Stoner teaches through two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Korean War, and though he is never a soldier, a war of a different kind engages him). “Stoner” is a hard book to talk about without creating a spoiler. Readers interested in a regular review might check out Tim Krider’s New Yorker review, posted on-line on October 21. But it’s a bit of a spoiler. So too is a spoiler the introduction to the New York Review Books Classics edition of “Stoner.” Read the introduction after finishing the book. The introduction is particularly useful for the passage of an interview with John Williams, in which he calls Stoner “a hero.”

If Stoner is a hero, he is a kind of anti-hero. For great sections of his life, he is a loner, not alone, exactly, but alienated. He is independent, courageous, generous, disciplined. He is exploited. He is, primarily, a reader, a scholar. As a teacher, he is a kind of anti-Mr. Chips, though like Mr. Chipping, he is conservative. But Stoner is not conservative politically or socially or in any kind of religious sense. He’s conservative in that he wants to preserve the University for people like himself. This may have something to do with his being a classicist. One of the best scenes in the book (spoiler alert) is when, forced as a veteran to go back to a grueling schedule of Freshman Composition classes as a punishment backhanded down by his department chair, he decides to chuck the syllabus and teach Freshman composition through the portal of Medieval Language and Literature. Stoner is a tenured professor, so there’s nothing his chair can do about it. There are breaks in the text. Why, for example, when it’s mentioned that he writes his MA thesis on one of the tales in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” are we not told which tale? One wonders how a character so supposedly steeped in Chaucer and Shakespeare could be so naïve and awkward in his own time. But the Stoner we come to know at the end of the book is not the same Stoner we knew at the beginning of the book.

The figurative language is sparse throughout “Stoner.” The prose is like a field of wheat. Nothing seems hurried. The sentences are long (Williams was a fan of the semicolon), and often turn into something unexpected. There is a plot. The plot is a man’s life. And this man’s life, some have argued, doesn’t amount to much. Indeed, Stoner himself, a self-disciplined specialist, feels he’s achieved little, but he’s patiently endured so much. Stoner has slowly, incrementally, experienced his life, and the reader shares, step by step, in that experience.

Related: “How Do Professors Think? More Crisis in the Humanities”

Bob Dylan & Clarice Lispector: Bewildering, Transfigured, & Redeemed

Perhaps no star’s luminosity glows murkier than Dylan’s in his interviews. Louis Menand, in “Bob on Bob: Dylan Talks” (New Yorker, 4 Sep 2006), a review of Jonathan Cott’s Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, comments on the absurdity of taking any Dylan interview as a gospel light. Menand opens by comparing Dylan’s interviews to Elvis’s, “who was one of the all-time worst.” Dylan is slightly better than Elvis in an interview, Menand argues, where the King’s sole imperative was to not offend, but Dylan “is rarely concerned about sounding polite, and he says things, but he sometimes makes them up. He also contradicts himself, answers questions with questions, rambles, gets hostile, goes laconic, and generally bewilders.” Dylan’s latest interview in Rolling Stone (Issue # 1166, 27 Sep 2012) does all of that and more.

The most bewildering discussion in this latest interview, ably conducted by Mikal Gilmore, is Dylan on transfiguration. Does he mean transmigration? He says not. He says he got the idea in a book in Rome, and advises to ask the Catholics. Yes, they would know, having written the book. Joyce’s Molly asks Bloom:

—Show here, she said. I put a mark in it. There’s a word I wanted to ask you.
She swallowed a draught of tea from her cup held by nothandle and, having wiped her fingertips smartly on the blanket, began to search the text with the hairpin till she reached the word.
—Met him what? he asked.
—Here, she said. What does that mean?
He leaned downward and read near her polished thumbnail.
—Metempsychosis?
—Yes. Who’s he when he’s at home?
—Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.
—O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words. (Ulysses, “Calypso” Chapter)

But Dylan says he’s trying to explain something that can’t be explained. He asks for some help. I recalled John Fahey’s 1965 The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death. Is Dylan talking about being reborn? Surely Dylan is familiar with the great guitarist John Fahey.

And this week, reading Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva, first published in 1973 but recently transfigured by New Directions, and guess what appears – transfiguration: “No, all this isn’t happening in real facts but in the domain of – of an art? yes, of an artifice through which a most delicate reality arises which comes to exist in me: the transfiguration happened to me…I transfigure reality and then another dreaming and sleepwalking reality, creates me” (13:16).

Dylan: “Transfiguration is what allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. That’s how I can still do what I do and write the songs I sing and just keep on moving” (46).

But, “I don’t question myself about my motives,” Lispector says. “I am obscure to myself…I let myself happen” (17). Which is freedom: “Only a few people chosen by the inevitability of chance have tasted the aloof and delicate freedom of life. It’s like knowing how to arrange flowers in a vase: almost useless knowledge. The fleeting freedom of life must never be forgotten: it should be present like a fragrance” (62).

On the “only a few,” Dylan seems to agree: “I’m not like you, am I? I’m not like him, either. I’m not like too many others. I’m only like another person who’s been transfigured. How many people like that or like me do you know?” (46). Yet Lispector says, “All lives are heroic lives” (59).

And Bloom continues to explain to Molly: “—Metempsychosis, he said, is what the ancient Greeks called it. They used to believe you could be changed into an animal or a tree, for instance. What they called nymphs, for example.” But this begins to sound more like transmogrification.

In places, Lispector sounds like Dylan in an interview: “I don’t want to ask why, you can always ask why and always get no answer…What I say to you is never what I say to you but something else instead” (8).

But both Dylan and Lispector can strike a point like sinking the nine ball. When asked if performing live is fulfilling, Dylan replies, “No kind of life is fulfilling if your soul hasn’t been redeemed” (48). And Lispector describes her job as looking after the world: “Looking after the world also demands a lot of patience: I have to wait for the day when an ant turns up” (55).

Dylan’s discussion of being transfigured reads less bewilderingly if read figuratively. His old self no longer exists. Look homeward, angel, but the transfigured can’t go home again. But enough for now. More on Clarice Lispector and Agua Viva soon, but for now, why worry the weary worry why?

Related Posts: Honor and Shame: Born Again Off Maggie’s Farm
We Ain’t Gonna Wait in Maggie’s Line No More

Unmoving Literary Works; or, Needs Editing, “Ha Ha Ha”

“Ulysses could have done with a good editor,” Roddy Doyle said, fed up with all the attention Joyce gets to the neglect of other Irish writers. “I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it [Ulysses],” Doyle said. Roddy was just stirring up the stew, tossing in some new ingredients, and no need to cook it so long over an open fire. Let’s eat; I’m hungry. But what of Paul Coelho; what’s his beef with Joyce? “Ulysses is pure style. There is nothing there,” Coelho said. We introduced the topic in Monday’s post: must a work “move” the reader to have literary value?

In his On the Sublime, Longinus says, “The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport. At every time and in every way imposing speech, with the spell it throws over us, prevails over that which aims at persuasion and gratification.”

Ha Ha Ha! Take that, Coelho!

Yet Longinus also says, “In life nothing can be considered great which it is held great to despise.” But does the reader despise Joyce’s Ulysses for its “pure style”? Longinus said “that is really great which bears a repeated examination, and which it is difficult or rather impossible to withstand, and the memory of which is strong and hard to efface.” Is this true of Ulysses? And, if not, would editing help?

Longinus lists “five principal sources of elevated language:…the power of forming great conceptions…vehement and inspired passion…the due formation of figures, first those of thought and secondly those of expression…noble diction…[and] the fifth cause of elevation…is dignified and elevated composition.”

Can we edit one or more of Longinus’s principal sources of elevated language out of Ulysses and still expect something sublime to emerge?

But what of the idea that for a work of literature to be considered “great” it must “move” the reader? I began thinking of literary works that we might consider great yet don’t move the reader. I selected those works whose design seems to match up to Longinus’s ideas of the sublime and elevated language but also at the same time might, using Doyle’s critical voice as expressed in the Guardian article, have “done with a good editor.” Here’s the list, annotated with wry comments using the “must move to be good” literary critical voice:

1. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville: Edit out all that business about whaling, surely included simply to fatten the thing up, so Melville could boast he had written a big book. But the real problem is, can anyone be moved by the killing of a mad sailor by a vengeful whale? What has this to do with the price of a loaf of bread and a bottle of beer at the local grocery?

2. The Trial, by Franz Kafka: Well, it’s a trial reading it. And who was ever moved by a trial, particularly one that had no ending?

3. Three Novels (Malloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable), by Samuel Beckett: Triple play of boredom, the reader thrown out at every base, a runner that never reaches home plate. The work defines constipation, the antithesis of being moved.

4. Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon: Where are those scissors?

Still, there’s something to the topic that invites comment. What is good? Should a work be considered good simply because it achieves its objectives, even if those objectives lack sentiment and fail to move? Or should we keep looking, for those books that are both “pure style” and contain enough sentiment to be considered moving? How about Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury?

Related Post: Coelho & Doyle on Joyce

From Longinus’s On the Sublime, Chapter 1: “As I am writing to you, good friend, who are well versed in literary studies, I feel almost absolved from the necessity of premising at any length that sublimity is a certain distinction and excellence in expression, and that it is from no other source than this that the greatest poets and writers have derived their eminence and gained an immortality of renown. 4. The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport. At every time and in every way imposing speech, with the spell it throws over us, prevails over that which aims at persuasion and gratification. Our persuasions we can usually control, but the influences of the sublime bring power and irresistible might to bear, and reign supreme over every hearer. Similarly, we see skill in invention, and due order and arrangement of matter, emerging as the hard-won result not of one thing nor of two, but of the whole texture of the composition, whereas Sublimity flashing forth at the right moment scatters everything before it like a thunderbolt, and at once displays the power of the orator in all its plenitude.”

Coelho & Doyle on Joyce

Every person alive has a story, but some don’t have voices. But there are many ways to tell a story, and stories can be told without words. Still, for the story to emerge, the storyteller must develop some kind of voice, allowing others access to their text – again, even if the text is without words. But some persons with voices remain unaware of their story, even as their story is read or enjoyed or devoured and repeated by others. Still others may be aware of their stories and have voices but choose not to share. Can all these stories be told, and who will tell these stories, using what voice?

I am moved this morning to tell this story as a consequence of a Twitter “interaction”: “Well, about Coelho, what can we say?” For I had re-tweeted a tweet calling attention to a Guardian Books post quoting the Brazilian writer Paul Coelho: “One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit.” The same article refers to a previous Guardian article, an interview with the Irish writer Roddy Doyle, who said: “You know people are always putting Ulysses in the top 10 books ever written but I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it.”

I think part of Roddy’s point, in the context of the interview, was to bemoan all the attention Joyce has received over the years, possibly to the neglect of other Irish writers just as deserving of readers’ attention. But both Coelho’s and Doyle’s criticism of Ulysses is grounded in their literary values – they think that for a literary work to have value, the reader should be moved, changed, brought to tears or laughter, that we should leave the theatre wanting to change our lives or somebody else’s life. For a story to be good, the Coelho-Doyle argument goes, the voice must be immediately recognizable, accessible, and force feelings to surface in the audience. And since Ulysses, for most readers, probably doesn’t do that, it’s not a good book, and since it’s nevertheless received so much recognition and so many writers have tried to use Joyce’s voice, it’s been harmful because it’s diminished the development of other voices, voices that might have reached readers and transformed their lives.

I’m reminded of the barbershop on Center Street in El Segundo, where I once dropped in to get a haircut. It was a one chair shop, and someone else was in the chair, so I had to wait, and while I waited, I listened in on what amounted to a lesson in art criticism. The barber had hung on the wall a painting of a mountain lake. “And I have a photograph of that very spot,” the barber said. “And if I hang both of them side by side, I defy you to tell me which one is the photograph and which one is the painting.”

Related Posts: Where Winston Churchill meets Roddy Doyle; or, the Library is not a Zoo. The Elite and the Effete: From Access to Egress.

Happy Bloomsday!

Bloomsday, the June 16, unofficial, worldwide holiday, celebrates one of the world’s most extraordinary books, James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” June 16, 1904, is the day the book takes place. And one of the extraordinary things about the book is that its hero, Bloom, is not extraordinary at all. “The initial and determining act of judgment in his [Joyce’s] work is the justification of the commonplace,” wrote Richard Ellmann in the introduction to his biography titled simply “James Joyce” (1959).

Joyce had and continues to have detractors. Roddy Doyle, for example, would at least like the world to know that there are other Irish writers, some brand new who also write about the common man. Noted, Roddy. But Joyce’s example provided others, including Roddy Doyle, with extraordinary opportunities in one important way, without which it might be hard to imagine works like Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy, which includes “The Commitments,” “The Snapper,” and “The Van” (all hilarious).

Ellmann explains: “Joyce was the first to endow an urban man of no importance [Bloom] with heroic consequence.” In fact, some early readers, Ellmann explains, thought Joyce must have been kidding, that he “must be writing satire,” for “how else justify so passionate an interest in the lower middle class?” To his Marxist critics, Joyce commented, “I don’t know why they attack me. Nobody in any of my books is worth more than a thousand pounds.” Maybe the attack is explained because “Ulysses,” past the first three episodes, anyway, is written in such a way as to prevent access to the average, common interest reader. This is one of Roddy Doyle’s complaints.

Ellmann concludes, “Joyce’s discovery, so humanistic that he would have been embarrassed to disclose it out of context, was that the ordinary is the extraordinary.” “Dubliners,” Joyce’s book of short stories that preceded his first novel, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” which was followed by “Ulysses,” is characterized by clear and concise writing that is accessible. And just so, Frank Delaney has devoted his Happy Bloomsday podcast, titled “Meeting Joyce,” to sharing Joyce’s “Dubliners.” It’s a great way to start reading James Joyce and to kick back and enjoy a bit of Bloomsday.

SMP: Sine Mascula Prole – Preparatory to Bloomsday

James Joyce’s “Ulysses” begins with a large S that takes up most of the first page and begins the first sentence: “Stately, plump….” The book is divided into 18 chapters, or episodes, as Stuart Gilbert called them, though Joyce did not number or title the chapters. A new chapter is signaled with the start of a new page, its first line all caps. Each chapter is characterized by its own, unique writing style (the changing styles are obvious, and one doesn’t need an annotated work to note or enjoy the differences). The 18 chapters are divided into three parts, marked by separate pages with a large Roman numeral at the top: I, II, and III. Part I contains the first three chapters and part III the last three chapters, part II, then, the middle 12 chapters. Each part is signaled with a full page devoted to a large letter that takes up the entire page:

S M P

Why S M P? One suggestion is that the letters stand for the three main characters: Stephen, Molly, and Bloom (P for Bloom, for his nickname: “Poldy”). But P might also point to Penelope, for Molly’s soliloquy, the last chapter (Penelope was the wife of Ulysses). Certainly the first three chapters concern Stephen (the M sentence introduces “Mr Leopold Bloom…,” and the P sentence begins, “Preparatory to anything else Mr. Bloom…”). Scholarly, annotated discussions have suggested sentence, middle, predicate, Aristotle’s syllogism. Whatever.

Frank Budgen, in his book “James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses,” explains that Joyce liked the character Ulysses for his “complete, all round character.” Ulysses was a father, a son, a husband, a soldier (but, Joyce adds, speaking to Budgen: “Don’t forget that he was a war dodger who tried to evade military service by simulating madness.”). Joyce also says that Ulysses was “the first gentleman in Europe,” and “an inventor too.” Joyce says to Budgen of Ulysses, “But he is a complete man as well – a good man. At any rate, that is what I intend that he shall be.”

I remember at CSUDH working with my Joycean mentor Mike Mahon, and I had simply looked up SMP in some dictionary, and found that it was an acronym for the Latin phrase “sine mascula prole,” without male issue. While Bloom is a father, his son, Rudy, has died (Bloom also has a daughter, Milly), and there’s a suggestion that Rudy’s death is the cause for the distance created between Molly and Bloom, and thus Bloom, in addition to being a father, son, and husband, is made by Molly to be a cuckold. Thus indeed he is Joyce’s “complete man,” and “without male issue” may take on yet another connotation.

It’s unlikely Joyce had any of the following in mind with regard to SMP, but since what Joyce had in mind is often beside the point, we might also enjoy considering:

Strategic Management Plan
Sex, Money, Power
Simple Minded People
See Me Please
Smoke More Pot
Standard Maintenance Procedure
Sub Motor Pool

Related: An Invitation to Celebrate Bloomsday with Frank Delaney

An Invitation to Celebrate Bloomsday with Frank Delaney

James Joyce’s “Ulysses” begins with a large S that fills the whole page and ends with a small s, “yes.” The book opens, “Stately, Plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” And meanwhile, four chapters in, “Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.” It’s morning in Dublin, June 16, 1904. The entire book takes place on that day. This coming Saturday, June 16, readers worldwide will celebrate “Bloomsday,” the 108th fictional birthday of “Ulysses,” that is, of the day the story takes place. The last page of “Ulysses” says “Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914-1921,” suggesting Joyce worked on his novel for seven years. It would be December, 1933, when Judge Woolsey freed the book from censure, before US citizens would be able to access “Ulysses” unmolested by itching assessors scandalized by what they see in a looking glass. In his historic opinion, Woolsey said, “‘Ulysses is not an easy book to read or to understand. But there has been much written about it, and in order properly to approach the consideration of it it is advisable to read a number of other books which have now become its satellites. The study of ‘Ulysses’ is, therefore, a heavy task.” And readers with a purely, solely, soily, prurient interest will be sorely disappointed.

Guessing from the number of Joyce books on my shelves one might conclude that Joyce is my favorite writer. In some ways, yes, but a general interest reader needs and wants so much, and while Joyce is a good friend, the point of a library ought to be, to quote Joyce from another of his books, “Finnegans Wake,” “Here Comes Everybody.” But yes, I love Joyce essentially.

Readers wanting to start Joyce might want to begin with his book of short stories, “Dubliners,” for it is engaging, accessible, entertaining, and a good introduction to Joyce’s characters. Joyce’s characters include everyone: “…happinest childher everwere.”

But on to Bloomsday, 2012. I received in yesterday’s electronic mail an invitation to celebrate Bloomsday with the celebrated writer, Frank Delaney. I can think of no one I’d rather spend Bloomsday with, and I’m extending the invitation below to you, too, to have some fun with Delaney and Joyce on Bloomsday. If you are new to “Ulysses,” I suggest you try some of Delaney’s podcasts, for hearing the book read, following Delaney’s clear introductions, is sometimes easier than going it alone with the text. In any case, here’s the invitation I received, quoted verbatim, with a few editorial comments and added information I’ve inserted in brackets:

Celebrate Bloomsday with Frank Delaney

June 16th, 2012 marks the first Bloomsday in which James Joyce’s mighty novel Ulysses is free from copyright and from the restrictions of the famously difficult Joyce estate [see “The Injustice Collector” and “Has James Joyce Been Set Free?“]. Celebrate in a series of projects and events conducted across land and Internet by Frank Delaney:

Re:Joyce Podcast, two years old

Dip into Ulysses by reading along with Frank Delaney in his spirited weekly podcast, Re:Joyce, launched on Bloomsday 2010.

Each segment [Joyce’s “Ulysses” is famously divided into chapters or segments, though the book itself isn’t obviously marked so. The easiest chapters are the first three, but for sound and language, the chapters following are my favorites, as well as the last chapter, the so-called soliloquy of Molly Bloom] features Delaney taking a short passage from Ulysses and exploring its multitude of references with insight, eloquence, passion, vast expertise—and a good dose of fun. As of Bloomsday 2012, Delaney will be in the midst of Chapter Three, and have reached podcast episode #105. Followed by academics, library groups, Joycean societies, scholars across the world, as well as ordinary folk, Delaney’s goal in deciphering and decoding the dense and rich text of the book is to allow greater enjoyment, by far more readers, of the book he holds most dear [and there really isn’t any other book about which this much fanfare is possible, which helps explain Bloomsday]. The podcasts have been downloaded nearly 500,000 times and have been covered in The EconomistNPR, The New York Times to name but a few. They are available for download on iTunes and www.FrankDelaney.com.

Rosenbach Bloomsday Festival

Frank Delaney is speaker and Guest of Honor at the annual Bloomsday celebrations of Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum & Library, whose collection includes the papers of James Joyce, Benjamin Franklin, Lewis Carroll, Marianne Moore, Maurice Sendak, Dylan Thomas and Cervantes. Event information for the Rosenbach Bloomsday Festival (one of the largest in the world) is available here. Tickets for The Rosenbacchanal are available here

“Ulysses” Live: Additional Joycean projects of Mr. Delaney’s include: 

Joyce Ways: Frank Delaney is the voice of “Joyce Ways”, an app with audio-visual guidance designed to lead and delight literary pilgrims through the streets of Dublin, on the trail and itinerary of Ulysses. “Joyce Ways” was created by the students of Boston College, under the direction of Joseph Nugent, and will launch 6.9.12. 

Occupy Ulysses: an event at Madison Park, New York, staged on the day Ulysses was released from copyright (February 2, 2012). 

The James Joyce Rap, Delaney’s witty, engaging, tongue-in-cheek portrait of the artist. As off-center and provocative as Joyce himself, this giddy homage serves up Joyce as Delaney’s hero, within a Pythonesque environment.  Funny, irreverent and surprisingly touching, we’re given more than a hint as to why Delaney has chosen Joyce as a major part of his life’s work.