Stoner ~ John Williams

9780670671243I’m really not very good at climbing on bandwagons, especially where books that are being hyped in the media are concerned. This is a character trait I noticed first when Watership Down was the must read title one summer back in the early seventies.  I wasn’t going to succumb to public opinion and read a novel about rabbits (for goodness sake) even though I was blithely prepared to say good morning to the numerous representatives of the species that I passed every day on my early morning cycle rides into Stratford.  Eventually, of course, I gave into the pressure and finally realised what all the song and dance was about, months after everyone else had had the pleasure of Richard Adam’s insightful commentary on both extremes of human society.

You would have thought, then,  that I would have learnt my lesson.  If that many people are singing the praises of a particular novel it is just possible that it may have something to recommend it.  Nevertheless, despite all the publicity, despite the fact that every time I’ve walked into Staff House at the University for the past year I have seen someone reading it, it has taken the appearance of John William’s Stoner on one of my book group lists to get me to pick up a copy and to discover what a really wonderful book it is.

I could sing the praises of this book in so many ways.  I could tell you about how beautifully it is written.  There is nothing spectacular about the writing, nothing intensely lyrical or poetic, but every word is placed with care and precision and there is a rhythm about it that echoes the rhythm of the life of the novel’s central character, University English Professor, William Stoner. For the most part this is a steady beat reflective of what some have seen as a dull and even a sad life, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments that elicit in the reader real emotion, most often in my case anger at the way in which other people take advantage of a man who never really comes to understand the lengths to which some individuals will go to get what they want, regardless of the damage that may be done to others in the process.

I could tell you about the accuracy of the portrait it paints of life in the University sector.  For example, even though many things have changed in the years between the early part of the twentieth century depicted here and the present day, I’m afraid that the departmental in-fighting still goes on.  I have met Holly Lomax, the Professor who is determined to get his own way about a student who everyone else can see is struggling, insisting that he be allowed to continue even though eventually not only will the student be damaged by the experience but so too will any others he comes into contact with.  I have actually worked with Holly Lomax.  There have been the occasional days when I have specifically wanted to strangle Holly Lomax – for the ultimate good of the student, the department, the University, the world.  Like Stoner, I have resisted.

But what I actually want to tell you about in praise of this novel is what Williams has to say about the joy of being a teacher, because for me this is the ultimate truth and the heartbeat at the very core of this book. From the moment when his mentor, Sloane, asks Stoner

‘Don’t you understand about yourself yet?  You’re going to be a teacher.’

Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded.  Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, ‘Are you sure?’

‘I’m sure,’ Sloane said softly.

‘How can you tell? How can you be sure?’

‘It’s love, Mr Stoner,’ Sloane said cheerfully. ‘You are in love. It’s as simple as that.’

to the point of his retirement dinner where after a couple of false starts Stoner finally says

I have taught at this University for nearly forty years.  I do not know what I would have done if I had not been a teacher.  If I had not taught, I might have – ‘ He paused, as if distracted.  Then he said, with a finality, ‘I want to thank you all for letting me teach.’

Stoner is, quite simply, a teacher.  He is defined by his job, and by the way in which he does his job, he defines what it should mean to teach.

I wish I had read this book by the time I retired, I would have plagiarised that final speech unmercifully.  But I suppose that would have been to suggest that I was something like as good a teacher as Stoner is.  That would be difficult.

Interestingly some of the things that show him at his best are times when Williams tells us that he upsets various students.  The most obvious of these is the case of Holly Lomax’s protégé, Charles Walker, who Stoner refuses (rightly) to pass through his oral examination as part of his progress towards a doctoral qualification.

‘God damn it,’ Lomax shouted. ‘Do you realise what you’re doing, Stoner?  Do you realise what you’re doing to the boy?’

‘Yes,’ Stoner said quietly, ‘and I’m sorry for him.  I am preventing him from getting his degree, and I am preventing him from teaching in a college or university.  Which is precisely what I want to do.  For him to be a teacher would be a – disaster.’

Sometimes your job as a teacher is to prevent your students from following a path that would damage not only them but also many generations of other students.  It is never easy, but if you really are a teacher you have to do it.  Just occasionally, I had to take the same decision in respect of students who wanted to be primary teachers.   It hurt, but the thousand children they could well have encountered in a forty year teaching career had to come first.  The thought of Charles Walker being allowed to stand in front of a class of undergraduates frightened me so much I couldn’t read on for a time.

Less immediately apparent to the non-professional eye may be the moment when Stoner reflects on the way his teaching style unsettles some of his students.  He gets so caught by his enthusiasm that he stutter[s], gesticulate[s], and boldly, proudly displays the love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words.  Many of his students respond to this with renewed efforts of their own, showing hints of imagination and the revelation of tentative love.  However, there are also those who had been able theretofore to plod through his courses by the repetition of mechanical steps who begin to look at him with puzzlement and resentment.

Teaching is not about rote learning, it is about enthusiasm and inspiration, but there will always be some students and a great many people in power who will be frightened of the freedom of thought that not only allows but actually encourages.  A good teacher wouldn’t have it any other way.

As you will have noticed, I have now climbed on one of my soapboxes.  It is time to get off and to say simply that I wish I hadn’t waited as long as I did to read this book and to urge those of you who may not have yet done so to get hold of a copy as soon as you possibly can.

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The Shock of the Fall ~ Nathan Filer

str2_ma_1901_p14a Shock Of The Fall Costa Winner 2013One Saturday in May of last year I had the pleasure of hearing Nathan Filer read from his debut novel at a local Readers Event. The Shock of the Fall, which had been published just two days previously, was already garnering praise from all quarters and it was evident that its author was more than pleased, but nevertheless a bit bemused, at its reception.  It was immediately apparent that this was a book I was going to want to read. After all, how can you not be intrigued when the passage you hear begins:

I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother.  His name’s Simon.  I think you’re going to like him.  I really do.  But in a a couple of pages he’ll be dead.  And he was never the same after that.

Well you wouldn’t be, would you?

Unfortunately, I was so certain that this was a book I was going to want not only read but also discuss that I put it on one of my reading group lists as my next selection and as a result have only just got round to engaging further with both Simon and the narrator of this book, his younger brother, Matthew.

We very soon discover that Matthew is not going to be the most reliable of narrators so perhaps we should take his initial assessment of himself with a pinch of salt.

I should say that I am not a nice person. Sometimes I try to be, but often I’m not. So  when it was my turn to cover my eyes and count to a hundred –I cheated.

However, there is that in his opening statement which should begin to trigger questions in the reader’s mind.  What adult is going to see cheating at hide and seek as a major moral breakdown?  Well, in Matthew’s case, one who has suffered from so many other breakdowns that his perspective is no longer as clear as it might be, because when we first meet him Matthew is receiving treatment for what it gradually becomes apparent is schizophrenia, possibly exacerbated by what happens to Simon, but also clearly a trait that has appeared in his family before.

Gradually, Matthew builds a picture for us of the events that led up to Simon’s death and its aftermath in terms of the breakdown that followed in his family life. What is remarkable about the book, however, is the way in which Filer allows us to experience something of the confusion in Matthew’s mind through the style in which the novel is written.  Although we are never less than certain what is going on we can still experience the changes in his behaviour as he withdraws from the programme (medical and social) intended to help him stabilise.  In part this is because much of the book is written in very short sections and it possible to indicate a change in mood or reaction to a medication (or lack thereof) in the turn of a page.  But it is also due to the way in which Filer has caught some fundamental characteristic about  Matthew’s voice and that characteristic stays with him throughout.

This may well be beginning to sound like a seriously depressing read and when I add that as well as dealing with death, mental illness and family breakdown the novel is also concerned with the wanton destruction of public services for those who suffer from mental ill health I am almost certainly confirming that opinion in your minds. However, that simply isn’t the case.  There is a great deal in the book that is really uplifting and a lot that is just downright funny.  Sometimes, of course, there is a wry edge to that humour.  Filer has a knack of putting his finger on a truth about either the illness or the services that makes you smile at the same time as making you wince. Anyone who has had anything to do with people suffering from schizophrenia will recognise the veracity of Matthew’s claim that this illness has a work ethic only too readily.

Filer is also very good at drawing heart-warming portraits of some of his characters. Who wouldn’t want to know Matthew’s Nanny Noo?

My grandmother (Mum’s mum, the one we call Nanny Noo) reads books by Danielle Steele and Catherine Cookson, and whenever she gets a new one the first thing she does is flip straight to the back to read the last page.

She always does that…

Nanny Noo made nice food.  She is one of those people who tries to feed you the moment you walk trough the door, and doesn’t stop trying to feed you until the moment you leave.  She might even make you a quick ham sandwich for your journey.

It’s a nice way to be.  I think people who are generous with food have a goodness about them.

Whatever lies behind it, whether it is food or her need to know what happens in a story before she reads it, Nanny Noo certainly has a goodness about her.

And there is a lot of goodness about this book as well.  Yes, there is heartbreak and there is anger as you are faced with the senseless way in which the state deals with the needs of those who are challenged by mental ill health.  (One in four of us, remember will have mental health problems at some point.)  But ultimately this is a book about the successes that it is still possible for anyone in a seemingly desperate position to find in their lives.  Those successes may be small in the eyes of some but that is their inability to appreciate what really counts.  For Matthew and his family every step forward is one that isn’t backwards and deserves to be celebrated as such.  If you don’t come away from this novel with your heart gladden I will be very surprised.

The Fishing Fleet ~ Anne De Courcy

FISHING FLEET UK ppbk Cover res 600dpiTwo of my reading groups are dedicated to reading fiction but the third occasionally adds a non-fiction book to the list, to leaven the load as it were, and so this month we’ve been reading Anne de Courcy’s book, The Fishing Fleet, an account of the women who travelled to India (and I use her words) husband-hunting in the Raj.

I am uneasy about this description because I think it makes these women out to be more mercenary than was the case.  Yes, for many of those concerned, the primary reason for undertaking the trip was the hope of finding a good marriage and indeed some of them were packed off by their families with that as the stated expectation, but when you consider the alternatives that faced so many women in a society where to be single was considered a failure, then I find it difficult to take what seems to me to be such a damning view.

It becomes even more difficult when you read about the hardships that these women, many not out of their teens, had to face.  While I actually found the chapters dedicated to particular individuals the most interesting to read, those which detailed particular aspects of life in the Raj over the years of Empire were often the most descriptive in terms of the harrowing life the women endured.  As well as extremes of climate, which meant that depending on your husband’s posting you could find yourself sweltering in the appalling heat and humidity of the hot season or preparing to be snowed in for months at a time, there was also the threat of illnesses that struck so fast a person could be well at breakfast and yet dead before the evening meal.

Between the mid 1880s and the early 1920s India were struck by a series of major epidemics. As well as malaria and cholera, both endemic, there was Spanish flu and bubonic plague.

Inevitably the young were the most vulnerable and many families left the graves of children behind when they finally returned to Britain.

Then there were the pleasures of rats and snakes to be dealt with, not to mention the possibility of earthquakes, floods and landslides.  And, above all, for those who did not live in the major centres of population but who found themselves instead isolated on a small plantation or rural army posting, there was the sheer boredom.  They might not see another British family from one month’s end to the next and not only were they without the paid occupation that kept their husbands busy they were also without those entertainments that we now take for granted.  There was no radio, no television, very little in the way of cinema and (gird your loins for this revelation) very few books. Books were not only cumbersome to take with you on a  hazardous journey from one posting to the next that could often take over a week, sometimes on camel back, but they were also unlikely to survive the ravages of mildew and the often fatal attacks of the local insect population.  This is one instance where an e-reader would have been a life saver,  except, of course, no internet – no electricity!

The hardship that de Courcy writes about most movingly, however, is that of separation.  For many wives of the Raj, as their children reached school age, there was the decision to be made as to whether they returned home with their sons and daughters when they were sent back to Britain for their education or whether they stayed in India with their husbands.  At a time when the journey between the two countries could take anything up to two months and when, at best, the men would be granted leave only once every four years (and often less frequently) this was a decision which they all had to make.

To be a Fishing Fleet girl who married into the Raj was to face this appalling, inescapable burden: separation from either husband or children sent home at a tender age to England for their education. ‘Early or late the cruel wrench must come – the crueler, the longer deferred,’ wrote Maud Diver. ‘One after one the babies grow into companionable children; one after one England claims them, till the mother’s heart and house are left unto her desolate.’

In her epilogue de Courcy asks

[d]id the Fishing Fleet girls have any real influence on the conduct of affairs in this vast country that was home to so many of them during the time of the Raj?

The short answer is no. The Raj was entirely run by men…the role of the British female was as wife, helpmeet and mother

While on one level that is clearly true, on another it is surely the case that without the women to keep their lives on an even keel many of those men would not have succeeded in the roles to which they were assigned.  Discouraged from marriage until they had reached an age (usually around thirty) or rank where they could afford to support a family, the men lived either in army quarters or in ‘chummeries’ where several bachelors together shared the expenses of a household. As might be imagined, this did not necessarily lead to a settled life style.

Writing to his father about his forthcoming marriage, Lieutenant Stuart Corbett says:

I shall be able by this step [his marriage] to lead a regular and steady life which I have not been able to do for the last 4 months, the Officers of the 2nd Battn being all single and fond of sitting up till 3 and 4 in the morning which I do not like and still as a single man am not able to avoid it. … I really think I shall be much more comfortable and be able to lead a life more after the manner in which I have been brought up and be better able to take care of my health which is one of the most important considerations in the world.

Unfortuately, de Courcy doesn’t tell us whether or not this marriage was a success but almost everything she does tell us pays tribute to the fact that those women who went out to India as part of the Fishing Fleet were in every way remarkable and as responsible for the success (or otherwise, depending on your point of view) of the British Raj as the men they so ably supported.

Taken By Surprise

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60One of the best features of belonging to a book group (or in my, perhaps extravagant, case, three book groups) is that just occasionally you are taken completely by surprise by someone else’s selection of a book that, left to your own devises, you would never have chosen to read.  This has just happened to me in respect of my Wednesday Morning group where the choice for March is Nevil Shute’s 1949 novel A Town Like Alice.

For no really good reason (i.e. I know nothing about his work and therefore don’t really have a right to have an opinion) I have always consigned Shute’s work to the internal shelf marked ‘romantic novels, not for me’.  Consequently, when this turned up on the group list I can’t say I was particularly looking forward to reading it.  How wrong can you be?  It is, as one member of the group said, quite simply a good old fashioned read.  Shute doesn’t try to do anything clever with his narrative; he simply sets out to tell a first-class story about characters with whom the reader will be able to empathise.  I have spent the weekend laughing and crying my way first around the Malay peninsula during the Japanese occupation, then followed by the Australian outback in the years immediately after the Second World War and I can honestly say that I haven’t enjoyed a book so much for a long time.

This set me thinking about other books that have similarly taken me by surprise.  Watership Down was one.  I mean, Rabbits?  And One Day (another book group choice) had much more substance to it than I was expecting.  So, with apologies for a very short post today, it having been an unexpectedly difficult weekend, I thought I would ask you to share with me your own surprise reads.  After all, it might just be that you recommend another of those books that I am sure simply isn’t the one for me and start me down a whole new path of enlightenment.