Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


An Open Letter to Myself

Dear me,

Some reading material bears close introspection:

John Williams' Stoner: A man of the land (both poor) finds his calling, and refuge, at University in English Literature. The hook is Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, setting the tone, as Stoner, a self-assessed indifferent student, scholar, and teacher, despite obstacles met with a detachment born of and shielding a love of his subject, still contributes marginally to the literature by bringing that love into another love, brief as Indian summer, an instructor with whom his affair intertwines her thesis. Dickstein's recent NYT re-review calls it 'the perfect novel' (no, but very very good -- the style and structure is spare but loaded, the erudition worn lightly has depth, and it is surely a page-turner), and points to (but doesn't link) Irving Howe's New Republic and C.P.Snow's Financial Times pieces (404), Dan Wakefield's profile/interview, and Steve Almond's appreciation. Williams' own assessment of his protagonist, from another late interview, is included in the nyrb intro:
"I think he's a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important ... The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner's sense of a job. Teaching to him is a job -- a job in the good and honorable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was ... It's the love of the thing that's essential. And if you love something, you're going to understand it. And if you understand it, you're going to learn a lot. The lack of that love defines a bad teacher ... You never know all the results of what you do. I think it all boils down to what I was trying to get at in Stoner. You've got to keep the faith. The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilization."
This points towards a didactic aspect, but with a curious omission: For all that Stoner is defined as a teacher, none of his students merits more than passing mention. In the only extended classroom scene, only the aforementioned instructor (soon to be lover, auditing the seminar) and the interloping protégé of another professor (soon to be department chair, with whom Stoner will be at odds) are more than walk-ons. An experiment in pedagogy succeeds primarily in relieving an undue burden imposed by the department chair. It isn't that Stoner isn't diligent about his responsibilities to his students, just that these are subordinated to the institutional ramifications. This says something about both the institution of the University and the institution of the Hero. And, at another remove, that of the Novel.

But I've said enough about all that, especially since you've read it too. Sometimes your correspondent just needs to get these things out in the open (note those 'things' in the above quote). Coming a generation after Williams, I find myself at variance with him on many points -- things have changed. I have long resisted identifying vocation as defining self, perhaps because I have had no calling as such. Instead, I was fortunate to find a venue in which my analytical abilities (cf the précis bridging the chapbook and reading journal this became) were found useful, even valuable, and have made my own minor, incremental contributions to the profession I landed in. I bring the same kind of skills to my haphazard study of literature, a field in which no apologetics is necessary, pace Ray (repressing giggle); whether these are appropriately deployed is beyond me ("When all you've got is a jackhammer, everything looks like a street"). To my way of looking at things, writing remains an amateur profession (so too my reading); Nabokov was consummate in this regard (aside: from the latest NYRB: "... partake of the spirit not so much of the chess player, who naturally focuses on plausible lines of play, as of the chess problemist, who relishes positions that wouldn't normally arise. He shares with the problemist both the love of ingenuity for its own sake and a penchant for outlandish configurations." No, not him. Louis MacNeice, per Brad Leithauser [not online]). Literature is no less important a part of my life than the dayjob (though not as day-to-day, though over a goodly stretch it wasn't every day); blogging about it is subsidiary (wholly pwned). That it can also be a living, well, for a lucky few -- talent and motivation aren't sufficient, and what persists may never have made the author a dime -- but the institution makes for many middlemen, where the insufficient isn't even necessary, while some of the better middlemen operated outside its ambit (e.g., Wilson, Mencken). The institution certainly eases access to the literature, but, as Williams says at the end of the Wakefield piece, "You know, novels are `useless,' really, we don't have to have them, like food or shelter, but we make them anyway, and making those `useless' things, that's what separates us from the animals." It also provided the platform from which Williams (and co-NBA'73 winner John Barth, whose interpretations helped put me on to this mind-altering substance) could operate. To me, the NBCC campaign would have been better directed towards an institutional problem all along (and btw it's not just the publishers; these guys blog).

Enough for now. Don't be a stranger.

Very truly yours,

Yours truly

PS Also read Thomas Bernhard's The Voice Imitator (trans K.J.Northcott; excerpts): The review[s] a bit harsh relative to the scope, though it doesn't measure up to Merwin or Manganelli for example. One wonders whether the translator has written anything himself. (Probably does interpretations.)


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