Tuesday, September 28, 2010

`Unstrenuous Gravity'

On Sunday I was rereading The America of George Ade (1960), a collection of the Indiana humorist’s work edited by the great Hoosier-born radio storyteller Jean Shepherd, when Dave Lull passed along a PDF file of an essay, "A Sadness Unto the Bone," in the summer issue of the Sewanee Review, part of a special section called "Fiction: Our Spectacle, Our Suspense, and Our Thrill." The author, Mel Livatino, is new to me but his subject, John Williams’ novel Stoner (1965), is familiar. Only to a few other works of fiction – much of Chekhov and James, Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, Bellow's Seize the Day – am I so emotionally attached. Livatino writes:

“In nearly fifty years of reading fiction, I have never encountered a more powerful novel—and not a syllable of it sentimental. Williams performs this feat by attending carefully to the soul of William Stoner and the tragic circumstances of his life.”

I wish Livatino’s essay were available online. His reading of Stoner is unabashedly emotional, albeit critically rigorous, though I can’t imagine a rigorous reading of Williams’ novel that isn’t emotional. What distinguishes Stoner from a sob story is that its emotional impact is earned. Like his protagonist, William never cheats. Livatino rightly calls the title character, who is born to a poor farm family in Missouri and becomes an assistant professor of English at the University of Missouri, a “hero.” He adds:

“The novel is unspeakably sad, but it is also happy in the sense the Stoics would have understood that word, for, against all the harm that comes his way, Stoner prevails in his integrity as a man, a teacher, a scholar, a husband, and finally as a human being of noble dimensions. Stoner’s name and accomplishments may be erased, but we who have known his life will be forever moved and inspired by it.”

No doubt such sentiments are unfashionable and will be scorned by readers whose attention can be riveted by the unplumbed depths of Donald Barthelme, but the loss is theirs. In his introduction to the Ade collection, Shepherd says “the Midwest has been swimming in a turgid sea of Futility,” and that note almost captures Stoner’s plight. But as Livatino points out, though Stoner may have known futility, he possessed the rarer stuff of nobility. It’s Elberry, of all people, who comes closer to the mark. Several weeks ago, while reading the poems of Helen Pinkerton, he wrote to me:

“i was searching for a word, for the voice, and settled on `noble’. i think Wallace Stevens, in a strange prose work, the name of which escapes me, talks about `nobility’ as a quality lacking in modern literature. It is, however, strong in Pinkerton - the sense of an unstrenuous gravity, a purpose. It's somehow at the opposite end of the spectrum to the very strenuous & mannered purpose of politically-motivated `writers’, who are as it were all light & noise and no heat. i suppose the difference is the noble are usually content to be obscure or read by only a few, knowing that after death the two-handed engine will sort the wheat from the chaff.”

Precisely what Livatino has done for us.


William A. Sigler said...

Here is the excerpt Elberry referred to from Stevens’ 1942 essay "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words":

“. . . It is hard to think of a thing more out of time than nobility. Looked at plainly it seems false and dead and ugly. To look at it at all makes us realize sharply that in our present, in the presence of our reality, the past looks false and is, therefore, dead and is, therefore, ugly; and we turn away from it as from something repulsive and particularly from the characteristic that it has a way of assuming: something that was noble in its day, grandeur that was, the rhetorical once. But as a wave is a force and not the water of which it is composed, which is never the same, so nobility is a force and not the manifestations of which it is composed, which are never the same. Possibly this description of it as a force will do more than anything else I can have said about it to reconcile you to it. It is not an artifice that the mind has added to human nature. The mind has added nothing to human nature. It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.”

By that standard, of applying the resistances of individual imagination to reality, William Stoner’s strength of character, his noble gas like ability to remain defiantly himself, derived from creating dreams of meaning to make the cold world around him intelligible.

But then again, nobility is one of those words, like honor, that can mean whatever virtue lost in the hum and scrum of the absent-minded present one wants to mourn. You mention Donald Barthelme, presumably as an example of something dated, over-praised, emotionally lacking and/or superficial. What’s interesting to me is how John Williams and Donald Barthelme are both writing about the same lost world, at about the same time, yet the only thing we can recognize at this late date, as this series of dueling quotes argues, is whatever residue is timeless:

William A. Sigler said...

Williams vs. Barthelme (Continued):

"It was a lonely household, of which he was an only child, and it was bound together by the necessity of its toil."

"We regarded each other sitting around the breakfast table with its big cardboard boxes of ‘Fear,’ ‘Chix,’ and ‘Rats.’”

“Stoner, here, I imagine, sees it as a great repository, like a library or a whorehouse, where men come of their free will and select that which will complete them, where all work together like little bees in a common hive. The True, the Good, the Beautiful...."

"The aim of literature ... is the creation of a strange object covered with fur
which breaks your heart.”

“Edith’s clothes were flung in disarray on the floor beside the bed, the covers of which had been thrown back carelessly; she lay naked and glistening under the light on the white unwrinkled sheets. Her body was lax and wanton in its naked sprawl, and it shone like pale gold. William came nearer the bed. She was fast asleep, but in a trick of the light her slightly opened mouth seemed to shape the soundless words of passion and love. He stood looking at her a long time. He felt a distant pity and reluctant friendship and familiar respect; and he felt also a weary sadness, for he knew that no longer could the sight of her bring upon him the agony of desire that he had once known, and knew that he would never again be moved as he had once been moved by her presence. The sadness lessened, and he covered her gently, turned out the light and got into bed beside her.”

"And I sat there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love...And you can never touch a girl in the same way more than once, twice, or another number of times however much you may wish to hold, wrap, or otherwise fix her hand, or look, or some other quality, or incident, known to you previously."

“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.”

"Goals incapable of attainment have driven many a man to despair, but despair is easier to get to than that -- one need merely look out of the window, for example."

“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.”

“Although you do not know me my name is Jane. I have seized your name from the telephone book in an attempt to enmesh you in my concerns. We suffered today I believe from a lack of connection with each other. That is common knowledge, so common in fact, that it may not even be true. It may be that we are overconnected, for all I know. However I am acting on the first assumption, that we are underconnected, and thus have flung you these lines, which you may grasp or let fall as you will. But I feel that if you neglect them, you will suffer for it. That is merely my private opinion. No police power supports it. I have no means of punishing you, Mr. Quistgaard, for not listening, for having a closed heart.”