I’ve spent the past two weeks reading Stoner by John Williams and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. The beauty of literature is that every book is its own carefully arranged, delicate bouquet of ideas, bursting with color and life. But between the two and their unique scents, and the divorce in the authors, settings, narratives, and contexts, lies a similar beauty. Both are books that through simple, uncomplicated prose reveal the inner beauty of a life that could otherwise have been dismissed as ordinary. They invite us to consider how much more beautiful life is than we first assume. And that is why I love reading.
Stoner, published in 1965 by American author John Williams, is the unassuming life story of a humble William Stoner, his hopes and failures, loves and passions. From the opening paragraph we have a sense of the unimportance of his life after his death – he has few who remember him and little he left behind. But the rest of the book will spend time refuting this initial statement, till by the end Stoner will seem to us a stoic hero, a solitary figure standing against the massed forces of a merciless world.
Stoner rises from the unforgiving sediment of his bleak Missouri farm to discover the wonderful world of Literature, of beautiful verse and dedication to knowledge. But he remains disquieted by the divide between his self and his aspirations, between the beauty towards which he aspires and his own mundanity. Time and time again he will find his passions betrayed by everything from the first World War to minute university politics. His own marriage will end in failure, his work will be stonewalled, and he will only manage one significant publication in his lifetime.
Stoner is a beautiful novel in spite of the cruel and relentless world it depicts—or perhaps because of it. It is a stark reminder of the simple fact that life and the simple passions we discover, such as teaching, can be their own reason to exist in themselves. The only true failure in life is to admit defeat. We can do a little bit more, be a little bit more day by day, to rediscover ourselves. The meaning of strength, of real triumph over life is to be able to stand erect in spite of its inadequacies and failings.
Stoner is not an entirely perfect novel—Stoner’s wife, Katherine Driscoll, provides the strongest, most unpredictable antagonistic force in his life. She will torment him, and later their daughter Grace with her neuroticism. Though she is written as a negative image of the education of women at the time, some modern readers will find this explanation still ultimately distasteful. Some will balk at the description of Stoner’s enemy at work, Hollis Lomax, and his pupil, Charles Walker, as cripples. Still, at times the novel and Stoner himself can manage to acknowledge them as fellow humans or even friends—Stoner forgives, and is partly forgiven in turn by both Katherine and Lomax by the end.
Things Fall Apart is another novel dominated by contrasts—between the traditional Igbo society it depicts and the encroaching Christian morality, between masculine and feminine, between beauty and cruelty. In many ways it depicts a world and culture even more remorseless and painful than Stoner’s — including the main character, Okonkwo, whose life centers around the affirmation of his own masculinity and his domination over others, including his family.
The excellence of Achebe’s voice is that he can describe the charm and magic of Okonkwo and the society he lives in even as he details the flaws and failures that lead to their collapse. The novel is written in simple English that is nevertheless rife with exquisite metaphor—narratively and stylistically it integrates the traditional, oral myth that Achebe heard with the breadth and reach of the novel. The choice here is deliberate.
Things Fall Apart is remarkable in that it is the first novel to depict a traditional African society from the inside rather than the outside. For once we can understand the inner motivations of a people and culture rather than the outward observations of the colonizer. The exotic and mystical is replaced with the familiar and intimate, and through the years of plantings, rains, and harvests, we too can feel we have begun to understand Okonkwo’s world somewhat.
Ultimately, it is Okonkwo’s focus on hypermasculinity that destroys him. But we are given to understand its origins—in his contempt for the weakness of his father, his pride at being the maker of his own destiny, and his desire to bring prosperity to his village and family. We also occasionally see glimpses of the more tender, caring side he is careful not to show in public. And despite the cruelty of the Igbo customs such as leaving newborn twins to die, we can also see the beauty of their myths and leadership, of their reverence for the past and for nature. And we know from both later events, the Christianity that replaces it will invite untold sufferings upon their people and ultimately rob them of their agency as a people.
Achebe’s purpose is clear. It is to challenge the tired, simple Eurocentric assumptions of his times and to unearth and illuminate the beauty of a culture that even by then (1958) was already beginning to fade into distant memory. His goal is to provide a new vantage point, to determine a new point from which the modern Africa could begin to craft its own narrative destiny.
Stoner and Things Fall Apart are both amazing novels. They are amazing in that they succeed at what all literature strives for: to create new understands and perspectives of the world we live in, to cultivate a sense of warm empathy towards those that live in it alongside us. And best of all, they argue convincingly for the universality of great literature—about how books written about people removed by decades and continents can touch the ways we live now and seem intimately familiar even to the present day reader. Because all stories are ultimately human, and the human experience is as eternal as it is beautiful.