I have been reading Stoner by John Williams.
The American writer John Williams was born in 1922. He served in the American airforce during WWII. The rest of his life he wrote and researched for his books during which time he taught literature for 30 years at the Denver University. In 1972 he won the National Book Award for his last book Augustus, about the first Roman Emperor. He died in 1994.
His novel Stoner written in 1965 hast just been re-discovered. It was recently translated into French and other European languages and now everybody hails it – especially because of the way it is written. Andreas says: the words have such a wonderful flow; he’s found the essence of what he wanted to say – nothing to add, nothing to take away. It seems the most incredible English. With a few words you’re drawn in: an extraordinary labour of simplification.
I feel that Williams mastery of language comes from Aristotle who set out the rules necessary to the full expression of an idea. (I understood Aristotle’s power when I read the Poetics. One day I must read the Rhetoric).
It is interesting to know that the words grammar and glamour are the same, they come from the same root, due to the one-time respect for the power of words: at a time when most people were illiterate words seemed magical, especially in the form of magic incantation.
In the context of the whole story the first paragraph is astonishing; Williams sets out bluntly the impression Stoner left behind, which was unremarkable. Williams then proceeds to subvert that judgement by carefully bringing William Stoner to life. Stoner discovers himself.
He is born honest and brought up honest – His parents know only how to survive with hard work on their farm and his father, though incredibly poor, sends him to study agriculture at university. His foundation course includes literature, something he’s never confronted and he struggles. It must have a meaning but he can’t grasp it. He sits desperately gripping the edge of his desk.
The day Stoner falls in love with literature is the most memorable event in the novel. His teacher is called Archer Sloane, the sonnet is the 73rd.
He has just had what in an earlier age would be considered a religious experience. He saw everything as one (God).
Stoner becomes a teacher. I found myself supporting him in everything he does – rooting for him – because he is true to himself. In contrast we see the harm done by people who are self-deceiving.
The novel has the power of a Greek tragedy. The characters are lit like monuments, revealed according to the events of the daily drama. At the end I marvelled at the integrity of Stoner – of a life fully realized. Only truth is left.
This is a great book, original. Now hailed as a classic. William Stoner / John Williams – William – sJohn(er). Fiction. But you do feel Stoner is Williams.
Tue 4 Aug: I went to see Julian, this time taking Teddy. I want him to take a few notes so we can tell you some of the things Julian says. – put them up on Climate Revolution Talking to Julian.
Julian’s fantastic. His view is so sharp, it gives me ammunition. We’re both in this fight for human rights and to halt the destruction. The people in the embassy are so kind and I do appreciate my best cup of coffee.
7.30 pm. With Andreas to the Albert Hall. We are friends of John Eliot and Isabella Stuart Gardiner and we are really privileged to be invited to a concert. John Eliot’s life-long work is the Monteverdi Choir.
The music is different, brighter and clearer. – I imagine, due in part, to the use of old instruments. The opera is Monteverdi’s Orpheus. Though Orpheus (sung by Krystian Adam) goes to Hell, a metaphor for the exhilaration caused in me would rather be a climb up to the gods of Mt. Olympus. It was performed in concert (orchestra and choreography on stage – not a full dress opera). At the end I said, I had never heard a work of Monteverdi before but later I remembered exactly seeing this as a full dress opera in Vienna. This was so different.
Thu 6 Aug: Yesterday Andreas couldn’t make his mind up if he should visit Yasmine who had rented a house on the island of Tinos. You know who she is – my French friend, stylist – works on our shows and has her own lingerie collection – Yasmine Eslami. My luxury is to stay at home and I wanted to write. But at the last moment I said, OK I’ll come. So off we are, for a week.
The plane left at 11 at night and by the time we got to Athens it was still dark. We had 2 hours to wait for the boat, and this was my favourite part of the holiday. I was dressed in a sack-cloth short cape, long black skirt, brown socks and white medium high heels and I felt glamourous as if I was travelling in an earlier decade, when to travel was glamorous – sitting at dawn in one of the rough cafés on the key watching people as they turned up.
Tinos is barren hills and rocks with tiny one cell churches here and there (I think they are visited just on their saint’s day) and bird houses, cubes of stones and holes, perhaps from previous years when people farmed here – perhaps for pigeons or doves. There were walls all over the hills, mostly embedded into the hills. We think they are to hold the ground, much of the land was for goats, though not now. Small trees looked like giant heather. Yasmine said they were called Tamaris.
Yasmine’s house overlooked the sea and we could walk down to the shore. It was wonderful – lying under the Tamaris – the warm calm sea of the ancient Mediterranean. There was a wind which kept the climate comfortable.
Yasmine was with her boyfriend Dominic. I had not spoken to him much before, because he thinks his English is so bad. I never realized. Yasmine’s friends are always speaking English and I thought he was the quiet one. I could have practiced my French. Anyway we got talking and he’s great. The holiday was about reading Stoner, and afterwards I stole Andreas’ Augustus by John Williams when I could. I did my last “talk to camera” video but we did not have the technology to send it from here. I need 2 days to do this talk – think about it and work out how to say it – how to get the message across, then memorize it, then do it. I somehow find myself able to concentrate on nothing else until it’s done.
I did not go with the others when they went shopping for food down at the port town. The rest of the time was about dinner at the tavern with Yasmine’s friends. I discovered that Tinos is popular with French fashion people, they rent houses and know each other. Andreas bumped into John Galliano on the beach one day and he was surprised to hear I was there as I don’t go to seaside holidays. He must know that!
Olivier who runs Purple magazine talked to me about his daughter, India, 10. She was at the table with her pals and they were all texting. Any discussion was about the texting. Olivier gave her one of my leaflets with the map on and she immediately texted it to all her friends. I can remember what he said and I’ll just set it out in bullet points.
- No confrontation, no real engagement between friends, easy to side-step, pass to something else.
- No wonder they don’t engage with the world. Vote, demonstrate.
- Young men don’t want long-term relationships.
- India has strong opinions. But she’s not interested in arguing, adapting her position. Olivier tells her, her opinions are not her own opinion. A true opinion is built.
- She must read a book: to be able to build discourse, step by step; to sustain an interest and develop her mind so that she can appreciate the wonders of the world. On the internet there is no progress in one’s discoveries, nothing enfolding. Her interest instead is atomized.
Sat 15 Aug: The day we left there were celebrations in the town. On Sunday, the next day an icon was carried from the church and worshippers walked from the port to the church on their knees, but we were home by then. We came back in time to see Gaelle who leaves tomorrow. Her boyfriend Aurelien is with her. I don’t have a phone so I had asked Andreas to text her because we had left so quickly that we didn’t see her. But I don’t think he did because she was 2 days not knowing where we were and then because she follows Yasmine on Instagram she discovered that we were in Tinos.
Tue 18 Aug: 6:30 Evening get together for staff and friends, Doodle Bar. We showed Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales. Pasolini was a genius film maker who was murdered in mid-life (ca. 53).
The costumes and the casting were really good. The cast were not film stars but real people and therefore a very unusual bunch from what you usually see in film – they were just as good as actors but their real pimples and crooked teeth made you constantly aware that the light images in front of you were actually real people pretending. This got you personally involved and taking part in the fun.
The Doodle Bar will be demolished along with anything else interesting that or a high-rise flat. We take advantage of it whilst we have it. I am pleased the Vauxhall Tavern won’t be wrecked.
Wed 19 Aug: Meeting with Trillion Fund, a company building crowd-funding for renewable energy. Which means you get clean energy and change the corrupt banking system. The present government is now withdrawing support for clean energy and adding support to energy from fossil-fuels, none of which was in their manifesto. The 2 ladies who manage the company will need to expose what the government are doing. Otherwise the business they are building will founder in England. We will continue to support them. Let you know! Government’s cause Climate Change.
Tue 25 Aug: Hamlet. Barbican. A big production, great use of the Barbican stage, lots of running up and down. Viridian green with an electric blue glow (sometimes strobe lighting) in the second half black slag had blown in and buried everything. Costume reference, Edwardian mixed in with today. In the beginning e.g. at the banquet the court was staid, whereas the play gives out that it is decadent, corrupt and drunken. Hamlet contradicts the staid impression by telling it like it is. And the invading slag in the second half confirms it.
I agree with the press criticism, Benedict Cumberbatch was wonderfully intelligent in understanding his role yet he did not move you. Ophelia moved me more than any other Ophelia I’ve seen. The Queen was good and so was Pollonius.
Cumberbatch starred as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate a film that gave an untruthful portrait of Julian.
At the end of August the lamps were out in Battersea Park. Cycling home Andreas got a different impression of the twilight, the trees were somehow ever more present but yet they loomed and filtered into the universal shade.
I had memorized Shakespeare’s sonnet from Stoner and I quoted the second stanza. Andreas, “That’s it, I must have kept the poem and that’s what I noticed.”
When you read the sonnet let it take you over. Don’t try to match the microcosm (you) with the macrocosm (the world and its beauty). Let the poem find its way to tell you of your beauty, fuse you with the world.
However I did have to stop and work out the metaphor in one part – the glowing fire that makes the body its death-bed “consumed by that which it was nourished by”. This comes from the idea that life enters the body at some point or, put another way, that energy and innert matter combined – the idea that mind and matter are two different things. We have names for the different forms of fire: energy, spirit, mind, soul. The sonnet suggests that the fire feeds on the body and the body feeds on the fire. Our science tells us that nothing is lost e.g. a decomposing body gives off heat.
The Greek philosophers had all different ideas. Heraclitus circa 500BC said that fire is the fundamental substance out of which everything else arises. I’ll tell you more about him next time.