Two Pairs of Novels (Part 1)

Commuting days until retirement: 220

Why two pairs? Well, of my recent fiction reading on the train, I found that four novels fell naturally into pairs which invited comparison with one another. I was drawn to each of the novels by their reputations, and warm praise coming from various reviewers. In each case I found that the reputation of one of the pair seemed to me better deserved than the other.

I haven’t finished writing about the second pair, so rather than holding everything up I’ll publish what I’ve written about the first pair now. What was originally to be a single post seems to have fragmented, with the previous one, into three.

My first pair are both American and 20th century − but the similarities go beyond that. Both are what you would call campus novels, in that the action is centred around the life of a university. Both give you a strong idea on the first page of what is to come.

The first is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History − a debut novel that was an outstanding success in terms of sales when it first appeared in 1992. The setting is informed by Tartt’s experience as a student of classics in an Eastern American university. The second has also been popular, but in quite a different way. Its quiet, cerebral author died in 1994 and this particular book, Stoner by John Williams, attracted only modest attention on its publication in 1965, but was reissued in 2003 and proceeded to enjoy a huge boom on both sides of the Atlantic. Again it derives from the writer’s university experience, but this time as a teacher.

The Secret History’s opening doesn’t waste any time. From the first page we have:

The snow in the mountains had been melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history – state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter… It is difficult to believe that Henry’s modest plan could have worked so well…

The Secret HistoryWell, full marks for grabbing the reader’s attention. The author proceeds to go back and trace how this central event came about, and later its consequences. And trace it she does, in very great detail − sometimes, I found, in rather too much detail for me. Her account certainly has longeurs, as the movement of the characters from one encounter to another is carefully choreographed and each event constructed − at times it’s as if the stage directions are visible. And while from time to time you feel twinges of sympathy for the narrator Richard Papen, he’s hard to like. Clearly Tartt intends this, but 600 or so pages is a long time to spend with a slightly irksome companion.

On the positive side however, Tartt’s major characters − a little outlandish but for the most part just about believable − are well handled, I felt, as is particularly the way they coalesce − or not − as a group. We are introduced to them as a tightly bound coterie centred around a charismatic teacher of Greek, Julian Morrow. We are given to understand that, while employed as a teacher in a minor north-eastern American university and devoting his efforts to a very small circle of hand-picked students, this man is immensely cultured and has been on intimate terms with many major twentieth century figures from show business to high culture. He remains elusive and morally ambiguous; and for me he never seemed to escape from the page as a rounded character, but remained a rather improbable collection of attributes assembled by the author.

However the group of students at the centre of the story did achieve life of a sort in my mind. As Richard, uncomfortably conscious of his working class small-town roots in the West, slowly succeeds in working himself into the circle, what appears at first as an impenetrable, other-worldly group bound together by its eccentricity is slowly teased apart as the foibles of its individual members and the tensions between them become visible.

There’s Henry, the dominant member, perhaps also the most intellectual and serious. Improbably, as we learn at the start, he is the prime mover in the murder that takes place. Bunny, the murder victim, seems the polar opposite of Henry, raffish and unpredictable, yet they appear to have a mysteriously close, troubled – but not sexual – relationship with one another. There is a gay member, Francis, another rootless soul; and the group is made up by the twins Charles and Camilla (did that pair of names have the connotations it does now when the book was written? − an unlucky coincidence perhaps). They are inseparable for much of the novel, and a faint suggestion of incest hangs about them. Collectively, the combination of a devotion to high classical culture and the dependence of nearly all the characters on alcohol and/or drugs seemed somewhat incongruous to me. And I was a little bored at times by the endless passages in which people are shuffled between social events and each other’s rooms; it’s rather like reading a play with an excess of stage directions.

The author does nevertheless exploit well the volatile blend of character and circumstance she creates. But the problem with a spectacularly eventful plot is that you are necessarily placing your characters much closer to the dangerous cliff-edge of credibility. Tartt’s novel, it seems to me, like her unfortunate character Bunny, falls victim to this brinkmanship.

That’s not a charge you could make about Stoner. Here’s the equivalent passage on the first page that gives us our first sense of its flavour:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.”

An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. 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.

StonerPerhaps fittingly for a novel written by a professor about the life of a character whose adulthood is entirely spent teaching at a university, this introductory passage seems almost like an abstract at the top of an academic paper, in the way that it presents us with the boiled down essence of the narrative. Stoner’s life is viewed as if from a distance, so that the details can’t be made out; shrunk in this way it becomes insignificant, an impression which is heightened in the second paragraph. The tone is simultaneously flat and suggestive − inviting rather than compelling our sympathy and attention.

We then begin at the beginning and advance into the detail of Stoner’s life, and as we share his successes and failures, his moments of joy, of disappointment and of frustration, the distant and uninvolved perspective of the introduction stays in the back of our minds. I found this to be a strangely effective way of eliciting my sympathy. The plain, unshowy and dispassionate third person description seen in the introduction continues throughout the book, almost entirely from Stoner’s point of view. This sustained understatement reflects his own earnest, workmanlike character, and leaves us space to feel the emotional effects of his personal and professional high points and, rather more often, low ones. Stoner and his family, lovers and colleagues arise from the page fully formed; I was never aware of the mechanics by which they were created, or the stage directions. While, unlike Tartt’s novel, the story’s events are all too mundane and believable, I was gripped throughout by an emotional power that The Secret History never managed to invoke.

I wondered whether I was a little unfair in pitching the work of a young author against a more mature one; but checking up I find the difference is not that great: Tartt was 28 when hers was published, and Williams 43. We can perhaps point to the fact that The Secret History was a first novel, and Stoner Williams’ third. Either way, for me, Williams wins hands down in this comparison. In a word, I’d say that Stoner had soul − I felt a depth of integrity that was missing from The Secret History.

The next post will deal with my second pair – both English novels.

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