Williams John

John Williams: Butcher’s Crossing

John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner was the sleeper hit of 2013. A groundswell of word-of-mouth success in some European countries early this year coincided with the reissue of the book in the UK by Vintage Classics in December 2012 (having previously been published by NYRB Classics in 2006), and soon every UK newspaper wanted a piece of the action too. Attention is now beginning to turn to his other novels. This one was brought to us again by NYRB Classics in 2007, and next year it will be reissued, unappealingly emblazoned, in the UK.

John Williams: Butcher's Crossing (Vintage Classics, UK, 2014)

Butcher’s Crossing (1960) was Williams’s second novel, though he disowned the first, Nothing But the Night (1948), written in his mid-20s, so we might consider this to be his first mature work. It is written in a similar quiet style to Stoner, slips down just as delightfully, and has a likeminded lack of consolation. In subject, it is I suppose a western – check out that Panther Books edition from 1963, below – though I’m unsure exactly how to define that. It has men in battle: against the landscape, against animals and against one another.

Will Andrews is the reader’s eyes. He’s a 23-year-old Harvard dropout who has come west to find “his unalterable self”, and something related that he struggles to define: a “wildness”, or “a freedom and a goodness”, and in reality his quest may be more about evading than finding. It’s the 1870s, and he comes to Butcher’s Crossing in Kansas, not much more than “six rough frame buildings bisected by a narrow dirt street.” Encouraged by news of the burgeoning buffalo hide economy, and of one resident’s confident prediction that “this town’s going to be something two, three years from now,” he smooth-talks – and pays – his way onto a team of buffalo hunters, led by the experienced Miller.

John Williams: Butcher's Crossing (NYRB Classics, 2007)

What follows is pretty gripping, even as it takes its time. Miller takes on the role of a Captain Ahab, a driven, possibly demented figure who is determined to complete his quest whatever the outcome, and who drives the fate of the other, weaker, characters. The story is full of strong and immersive physical descriptions – a snowstorm, the skinning of buffalo, a journey across a treacherous river. At these times, Williams manages to enter some primitive part of the reader’s brain, to bypass reason, to grasp the reader by the tailbone and shake. This is impressive because the quietness of Williams’s style means that his story, horrifying though it is in places, lacks the sort of apocalyptic feel that Cormac McCarthy can whistle up. But it has a restrained power of its own.

During the journey, Andrews finds himself changing – “he thought at times that he was moving into a new body” – and the men on the hunt generally find that “rather than being brought closer together by their isolation, they were thrust apart.” The struggles through the journey are thrown cleverly into relief when the men discover near the story’s end that weather and landscape are not the only elements they cannot control, but larger challenges created by the mass of mankind – forces we are all prey to – may be even more difficult to surmount.

John Williams: Butcher's Crossing (Panther Books, 1963)

Along with Stoner, Butcher’s Crossing might cement Williams’s reputation as a man who wrote mostly about men. You could say the same about James Salter or William Golding, but when reading Butcher’s Crossing, I kept thinking about the accusations of misogyny laid against Stoner by writers and critics such as Elaine Showalter, Linda Grant and David Baddiel. Does Butcher’s Crossing fare any better? It’s not a good start to see that there are only two female characters in the book and both are, in the language of the men, “whores”. We don’t expect satisfaction of the Bechdel test from a western, any more than we would from Melville’s sea stories, but it’s more disappointing that the main female character (it’s a stretch to call her that) is not much more than a convenient vessel for Will Andrews, with uninspiring dialogue to match. (“I wanted you the first time I saw you. Without you even touching me, or talking to me.”) Williams does put some well-intentioned but clunky words in Andrews’s head – “He saw her as a poor, ignorant victim of her time and place” – which hardly helps. No real defence to those charges here, then. There is, it is true, one scene where women are discussed other than as an adjunct to men. High in the mountains, the crew discusses that the best way to draw the stiffness out of the buffalo hide is to pour urine on it. “Woman piss is best,” says one. “But we’ll have to make do with what we got.”

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2009

It’s that time of year again, and as usual there are several titles I’d like to have included but didn’t have room for.  Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke thrilled me with its boldly selective account of the approach to the Second World War; Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener provided a keystone for much of my reading that I didn’t realise I’d been missing; Kafka’s Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor ditto, but I left it out since it wasn’t so much a book as a story fragment in dandy packaging.  Probably David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide would have made the cut too, if it hadn’t been a late victim of my inability to blog and be a parent at the same time.  The following titles are listed alphabetically by author.

César Aira: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter
A strange book which, despite its brisk length, I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of. That it nonetheless stuck in my mind for most of the year must be a measure of its force.  It’s about art, life and more.  “We come up against the words, and before we know it, we are already emerging on the other side, grappling with the thought of another mind.”  Resolution #1 for 2010: read more Aira.

Ronald Blythe: Voices of Akenfield
A bit of a cheat, as this is an extract from the full book (Akenfield), published in the Penguin English Journeys series, but thrilled me so much I had to include it.  It is an exceptional recreation of a world proceeding from one age to another, a magical oral history of time and place.  “People believed in religion then,” says Leonard Thompson, a farm worker, “which I think was a good thing because if they hadn’t got religion there would have been a revolution. Nobody would have stuck it.”

J.M. Coetzee: Summertime
One of those books which first makes you realise that you are in the hands of a master, and then forces you to accept, with a willing sigh, that you are going to have to read everything he has written.  “He had decided he was going to block cruel and violent impulses in every arena of his life – including his love life, I might say – and channel them into his writing, which as a consequence was going to become a sort of unending cathartic exercise.”  The best new novel I read this year.

Simon Crump: Neverland
A book which at first seems ridiculous and laughable – and then seems ridiculous and laughable, but also clever and mesmerising.  Neverland is effective and affecting on the modern subject of celebrity, and its timing, published a few months after Michael Jackson’s death, was spookily apt.  “For a while there was gold, lots of it, and there were cartoons and songs and dance and lunar walking and Motown and I want you back. We fixed him though. Then we fucked him. And we took it all.”

L.J. Davis: A Meaningful Life
Here is the perfect example of the art of the reissue.  A fine, miserable comic novel (a sort of funny Richard Yates) which died a death when first (and last) published in 1971, is given new life by NYRB Classics.  Its misanthropy and set pieces make it a sort of comfort read for me: the tale of a man who realises that his life is not going to get any better.  “He’d found his level, and here he was, on it.”

Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone
Another ‘lost classic’, and for once the hype was justified.   Fallada’s forgotten novel about a personal crusade against the Nazis, written in six weeks, was rough around the edges but compelling and real.  “Danger is somewhere else, but I can’t think where. We’ll wake up one day and know it was always there, but we never saw it. And then it’ll be too late.” The only mystery remaining about its publication is why the US and UK publishers gave us different titles; but to balance that we have the prospect of more Fallada reissues to come.  Goody.

Susan McKay: Bear in Mind These Dead
OK, I have to admit that this is probably not a better book than the titles I left off my list (see intro), but it had a particular revelatory quality for me.  In previous years I would have shunned a book about Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ (too close to home), but this tragic, infuriating account of the victims and their loved ones has a power I couldn’t get over.  “I find it terrible hard to live without him. It is like my own right arm is off me.”

Guy de Maupassant: The Horla
Versions of this short story are available in most selections of Maupassant’s work, but this Melville House Art of the Novella edition is the only one you should read.  It takes three distinct but linked forms of the story and creates a new work of art from them.  The material is compelling, the translation by Charlotte Mandell is perfect, and the impact remains – as you can see – for a long time.  “After mankind, the Horla!”

Dag Solstad: Novel 11, Book 18
The best way of pulling the rug from under the reader is to approach the turning point in an entirely deadpan manner.  In fact, make the entire book as flat and uninflected as possible, then they really won’t see what’s coming.  This book stayed with me longer perhaps than any other this year, not for its ‘twist’ but for its solid refusal to pander to the reader.  “He wanted a novel that showed life to be impossible, but without a trace of humour, black or otherwise.”

Fred Wander: The Seventh Well
The second Michael Hofmann translation in my top twelve, showing that my admiration for his choice of material shows no sign of diminishing.   A new translation of a 40-year-old book which brings a fresh eye, and an elegant prose, to the much-written-about subject of the Holocaust.  “He lost his mind when he saw them killing his mother. A heart like a glass bell, a light crack, and it doesn’t ring anymore.”

Hugo Wilcken: Colony
A scandalously overlooked novel from 2007 provided my greatest surprise of the year. A multilayered novel which teases as much as it satisfies, Colony should be a huge hit, but isn’t. The most admirable pleasure in this box of delights is Wilcken’s refusal to try to impress the reader: he creates a complex and memorable work from the most lucid prose.  “Only the past remains obscure. It hasn’t happened and perhaps it never will.”

John Williams: Stoner
A traditional novel in a traditional mode – the story of an ordinary man’s life – Stoner succeeds through the respect it pays to its characters and in particular, the honest and affecting portrayal of its hero (the word is appropriate).  It tells of a man who learns that the love of literature and work can be the match of any other kind of love.  ”It was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study … it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.”

Please add your own best – or worst – reads of the year, or a link to your own list, below.  Happy Christmas, and see you again in 2010.

John Williams: Stoner

The cover design of the NYRB Classics edition of John Williams’ novel Stoner might have been expressly chosen to emphasise that, even though the book was published in 1965, this is not a sort of literary Cheech and Chong.  It is a sober study of one man’s slow journey to finding out who he is, and it is quietly magnificent.

John Williams: Stoner

Williams hits the reader straight away with a devastating summation of William Stoner’s career in the University of Missouri:

Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

This is a tease, because the next 278 pages explain why such a dismissal is unwarranted.  It gives us a chronological account of a life, and of a man, who grew up on a farm, with a father “stooped by labour” and a mother who “regarded her life patiently, as if it were a long moment that she had to endure.” The anticipation of a life with little expectation and fewer rewards is withdrawn from Stoner when, in the year 1910 aged 19, he attends the University to study agriculture at his father’s suggestion.  Standing on the campus for the first time, “he had a sudden sense of security and serenity he had never felt before.”

Stoner switches from agriculture to English, and realises that he will never return to the farm.  This is a ‘talky’ book, with a good deal of the development coming through dialogue – a difficult and welcome achievement.  First is when Stoner’s tutor, Archer Sloane, takes him aside for a conversation.

“But don’t you know, Mr Stoner?  Don’t you understand about yourself yet?  You’re going to be a teacher.”

Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” said Sloane 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.”

Already we see a pattern developing, of Stoner following the direction of another. However he does often branch out from these directions and make his own decision in the end.  He comes to see the future as “a territory ahead that awaited his exploration.”  When the First World War breaks out and the US becomes involved, his colleagues sign up to fight, with one saying, “I suppose I’m doing it because it doesn’t matter whether I do it or not.”  Not for Stoner such a spirit: he remains in Missouri and courts, and then marries, a girl called Edith.

John Williams: Stoner (Vintage Classics, UK)

His marriage starts out as lukewarm and follows the laws of thermodynamics, and so it is through his work that he finds it “possible to live, and even be happy, now and then.”  At home, his refuge is his study.  “It was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study … it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.”

Work means the university, and if you thought that ‘electrifying scenes of campus politics’ was an oxymoron, then you need to read Stoner.  It is a book which is structurally unadventurous but emotionally and intellectually engaging.  We see a man struggling to be allowed to do the one thing he has learned to do well, and to find the dignity in labour (“I think he’s a real hero,” said Williams of his creation), and to exercise love in the only way he can.

The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and the heart showing themselves in the minute, strange and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print – the love which had to be hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, at first tentatively, and then boldly, and then proudly.