Read most of Stoner by John Williams on the flight home. Read the last page two days later. Well well well, I thought. Indeed, yes indeed. So it was “The greatest novel you never read.” But I will skip the review. Not in the mood. Instead, I linger on this passage:
He had come to that moment in his age when there occurred to him, with increasing intensity, a question of such overwhelming simplicity that he had no means to face it. He found himself wondering if his life were worth the living; if it had ever been. It was a question, he suspected, that came to all men at one time or another; he wondered if it came to them with such impersonal force as it came to him. The question brought with it a sadness, but it was a general sadness with (he thought) had little to do with himself or with is particular fate; he was not even sure that the question sprang from the most immediate and obvious causes, from what his own life had become. It came, he believed, from the accretion of his years, from the density of accident and circumstance, and from what he had come to understand of them. He took a grim and ironic pleasure from the possibility that what little learning he had managed to acquire had led him to this knowledge: that in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter.
William Stoner began life as a poor farm boy, went off to college, fell in love with literature, became a professor, got married to a woman who made his life a living hell, had a daughter he loved dearly who grew up to be a disappointment, was treated unfairly by a vindictive colleague—it goes on. But stop right there, Jack. You’re not really interested in summarizing the plot, are you? No? Didn’t think so.
Maybe it is enough to say that Stoner was beset by tragedies all too common, that he was decent, hard-working, honest, and ultimately a failure—many times over. What struck me, what I admire, what is almost noble about this average ordinary loser’s life is that he never checks out, never gives up. Stoner does not run away, stage a protest, try to burn it all down. He suffers—my god, the man suffers!—with a quiet dignity, this unassuming grace that is courageous. And I am moved, deeply so, by the way the man carried his suffering. William Stoner your life was worthy of a great novel.
So you read this passage in a book, took the time to underline it, took the further step of recording it here, why?
Because you were startled. Like you saw a ghost—your own ghostly reflection is all. Saw your own private thoughts in a page in a novel written by someone else. The same nagging question. Forty plus years of accident and dissapointment piling up, is it all worth it? But that is the lesser question, Jack. The more important question: How do you choose to live your life having some notion of the disappointment it is all but destined to become?