‘[Stoner] felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man. It was a knowledge of which he could not speak, but one which changed him, once he had it, so that no-one could mistake its presence.’ A lot has been written about this fine novel, and most of the praise has been well deserved. I was moved by this account of a life which on the face of it has not been a success: Stoner is an academic who makes no great impact either through his teaching or his writing. His marriage is a failure, more, a kind of hell, and his much loved daughter eventually becomes an alcoholic. Yet in an interview quoted by John Mcgahern in the introduction to the Vintage edition Williams gave he described Stoner as a hero, who had a very good life. ‘The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner’s sense of a job. Teaching is to him a job – a job in the good and honourable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was . . . ‘ This is what I find most interesting: so few novels really describe the working lives and yet, as with Stoner, they make us we are. I remember when I first started teaching: I assumed the role, and then the role became part of me.
It is always hard to know what impact you have had as a teacher. It can’t be measured just in exam results. When I taught for the Open University it wasn’t always my most successful students who benefitted most on a personal level. Looking back I myself was lucky enough to have two wonderful English teachers in those long ago days at Cleveland Grammar School – Miss Robinson and Mrs Fowle – and they had a profound effect on me, instilling in me a confidence that lasted through university and beyond.
Some of my new books were really for my birthday, but one way and another I’ve got a good haul this year. Not many suuprises as most of the books were on my wish-list. They include a couple of books that have been highly praised this year: John Williams’s Stoner and James Salter’s Collected Stories, and I expect I’ll write about them in a future blog. I hardly ever buy hardbacks for myself, and it’s lovely to have these two very attractive volumes. I have almost finished Stoner, and, yes, it is very good. Of course there are always plenty of crime novels on my wish-list, and I’m looking forward to reading Snow White Must Die by German writer, Nele Neuhaus (her novels were originally self-published and this one has sold over three million) and Andrea Camilleri’s The Dance of the Seagull, so one writer new to me and one old favourite. I’ve also been given The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris by Edmund White, who lived in the City for sixteen years: I’ve have a little virtual holiday as I read it. And finally, a couple of surprise gifts. One of them is Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. I’ve had a flick through and I’ve read the first few pages: I’m going to enjoy it. It’s always nice to get something you might not otherwise have read and that also applies to Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines, a collection of essays on our relationship to the natural world. I’ve read good reviews of her work.
I love getting books as presents, and often give them too. The gift of an ebook just wouldn’t be the same.