There are publishers who like to rummage in the jewel box of literature, looking for old books to try on. Some turn out to be diamonds, others semiprecious stones that happen to suit the mood of the times. “Stoner” (1965) by John Williams, last year’s successful revival, is an example of the second. Writing fifty years ago about patience, humility, thwarted fatherhood, and an apparently failed life redeemed by love of books, Williams seemed to foresee our own second thoughts about our urban, success-obsessed, dysliterate culture.
Now “Butcher’s Crossing” has been reissued in Dutch, Williams’s Western about buffalo hunters trapped by a bitter winter. But if you liked “Stoner” for its thoughtful evocation of a professor’s life, and aren’t in the mood for snow and testosterone, there are other rediscoveries available in translation.
To prolong the nostalgic mood of “Stoner,” you might turn to Jetta Carleton’s ’60s classic “The Moonflower Vine.” Or for a true literary gem, seek out the recent reissue of “A Lost Lady,” by Willa Cather, a truly great writer of the American West.
“The Moonflower Vine” shares a setting with “Stoner”: America’s rural Midwest in the 1920s and ’30s. Although it was a one-off—Carleton never published another book—it was a great success when it came out in 1962. It still has a loyal following of admirers and rereaders, drawn to the timeless, fully realized world of the Soames family of Renfro, Missouri.
The Soameses live on a farm in a pretty and provident country that “does not demand your admiration, as some regions do, but seems glad for it all the same.” The lushness of the land reflects the novel’s major theme, which is sex and the way it strengthens and disrupts family bonds. Father Matthew has raised himself out of poverty and ignorance to become principal of the local high school. He suffers from the conflict between his humble origins and his love of learning and beauty—a discrepancy that, for lack of other outlets, takes the form of barely repressed crushes on teenage girls. His practical, sensual wife Callie cares for their growing brood, while his daughters break his heart repeatedly as they set out to please themselves in life and love.
See here the great subject of the late-twentieth-century novel: how to be true to your sexuality without destroying the family and hurting those you love. What can’t be done in “Stoner,” reconciling bodily needs and family ties, is possible here, and is symbolized in the Soameses’ annual summer ritual: going out in the night together, as a family, to watch the brief, voluptuous blossoming of the moonflower vine.
Carleton is affecting, but she’s no intellectual. More sophisticated in its emotional reflections is Willa Cather’s 1923 novel “A Lost Lady,” reissued in 2011 by Cossee. Light and sophisticated (despite the melodramatic title), it is a ravishing paean to beauty, devotion, and failure, a love story that reflects on the settlement of the American West and the tragic disappointments of the pioneers.
Cather (1873-1947) is a novelist who’s always threatening to slip out of the literary canon. Even among the rediscovered women of the 1980s, in their green Virago covers, she was hard to place: a Modernist who hated the modern age, a lesbian who looked at passion with a cool and distant eye. Like Alice Munro, she likes to keep at a distance from her characters, using a calm surface to conceal the true intensity of her work. Her dispassionate narration creates tension but can also make her hard to fathom.
Cather was almost certainly an influence on John Williams, if only because “Stoner” bears such a powerful resemblance to Cather’s 1925 classic “The Professor’s House.” The two books have roughly the same plot: a Midwestern farmboy becomes a professor. He marries above himself, but becomes estranged from his wife and daughter(s). He completes his life’s work only to find that the modern age values money more than learning. Cather’s novel is more literary and complex, and even now more innovative. “Stoner” is more modest, more explicit in telling us how to live.
“A Lost Lady” deals with similar themes, but for once here Cather is accessible and openly, passionately sexy. The lady of the title is Marian, the young wife of Colonel Forrester, the most powerful, most cultivated man in the little prairie town of Sweet Water. (It’s based on Cather’s own home town of Red Cloud, Nebraska.) The Forresters came there when the town was new, when the railroads first spanned the continent and homesteaders tamed the land. They represent a beauty and heroism that are already vanishing: the crops have failed and the pioneers have moved on, replaced by a generation of greedy businessmen who value the land only for the meager profit they can wring from it.
We see the Forresters through the eyes of Niel, a young man of nineteen who loves Marian from afar. “Not even in Denver had he ever seen another woman so elegant (…) And never elsewhere had he heard anything like her inviting, musical laugh, that was like the distant measures of dance music, heard through opening and shutting doors.”
In a scene as comic as it is ravishing, Niel goes to the marsh at dawn to pick flowers for Marian. When he comes to this unspoiled, female place, the whole prairie seems to light up with his feelings:
Under the bluffs that overhung the marsh he came upon thickets of wild roses, with flaming buds (…) Where they had opened, their petals were stained with that burning rose-color which is always gone by noon,—a dye made of sunlight and morning and moisture, so intense that it cannot possibly last… must fade, like ecstasy.
Niel gathers a handful of “these roses, only half awake, in the defenselessness of utter beauty.” But when he goes to lay them at her open bedroom window, he hears a man’s deep voice and a woman’s laugh within: Marian is with a lover. Poor Niel, fleeing, drops his thorny bouquet into the mud.
Like “Stoner,” “A Lost Lady” has a cynical streak: the villains always win; the nice guy never gets the girl; ideals don’t pay the rent. And like “Stoner,” it has the stubborn optimism of the romantic. Williams, Carleton, and Cather all insist that the dream of beauty for which you drag yourself up from ignorance still has value, no matter how badly things work out in practice. John Stoner will always have literature, and Marian Forrester turns out not to be “lost” at all.
In fact, her fate could almost be paradigmatic for the obscure great book: an underground, determined survival. When last we see her she’s “all done up in furs,” stepping out of her new husband’s motor car in a foreign country. She’s older, of course, and dyes her hair. But she hasn’t changed as much as you’d think, and can still be recognized by the sound of her joyous laughter.
Trouw, January 4, 2014. John Williams, Stoner (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Lebowski, 2012); Jetta Carleton, Het bloeien van de avondwinde (Amsterdam: Van Gennep, 2013); Willa Cather, Een verloren vrouw (Amsterdam: Cossee, 2011).