i saw The Town last night, a competent, enjoyable cops & robbers film directed by & starring Ben Affleck. Affleck reprises his role from Good Will Hunting, as an amiable but tough Irish hoodlum/construction worker with a volatile, smaller Irish friend (the excellent Jeremy Renner, star of Hurt Locker)

i’d read rather lukewarm reviews, to the effect that nothing new happens, it’s all been seen before, gunfights, chases, romance, death, etc. There was one “new” thread – Affleck’s robber, who has abducted the Girl during a bank job, later gets to know her, at first to dissuade Renner from murdering her, and then because he gets to like her, and she him. She has no idea that he was one of her abductors, at least till the FBI tell her. i would have made more of this plot thread; there is a Lohengrin-like quality to it.

However, i felt it was a good film. It was a good film because everything is well done, the actors are all solid, the direction sensitive, script full of fine one-liners, e.g. “if we get jammed up we’re holding court on the street”. It wasn’t necessary to have anything new, to be original, different – it was enough to do the old things well. As long as one feels that the old is not old hat, it works. It is only when one cannot personally connect to tradition that it becomes a dead form (for you, at least).

i feel this also applies to John Williams‘ novel Stoner, which i read a few days ago. Published to general indifference in 1965, it is not daringly original, shocking, avant-garde, surreal, post-modern, or anything at all fashionable. Nothing really happens. Stoner, a farmer’s son, goes to university, studies English Lit, becomes a teacher, marries a venomous female, has a brief affair with a student, gets old, dies. Williams makes all this shine. Stoner is at times akin to Camus’ Meursault, seemingly devoid of thought or emotion. Over time, his character develops: a stubborn, peasant character – again, like Meursault, a man accustomed to the bare exigence of poverty, who therefore distrusts flamboyant gestures. A slow, careful man.

Camus, i feel, would have enjoyed an opening such as this:

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.

Meursault’s failure to feel the normal feelings – his failure to cry at his mother’s funeral – can shock. Stoner, likewise, when he realises his daughter has become an alcoholic:

They talked late into the night, as if they were old friends. And Stoner came to realise that she was, as she had said, almost happy with her despair; she would live her days out quietly, drinking a little more, year by year, numbing herself against the nothingness her life had become. He was glad she had that, at least; he was grateful that she could drink.

This almost sounds like Carver or Hemingway at their bleakest. With Stoner, however, there is never the suspicion of bullshit that hovers about Hemingway, master bullshitter as he was. As with Camus, who was early schooled in poverty, Stoner (both the novel and the man) is beyond suspicion. One feels he/the novel has earned every word, with intense difficulty dug from the stony ground. And one may recall Beckett too, for the sense of intransigence and the refusal to posture, to say more than one must.

In spite of all it is not a bleak novel. It is a moral creation; that is, it recognises the good and evil in humanity and indeed the world; and the strange pattern of happiness & misery of which our lives are made. It is not an allegory – too subtle and everyday for that. i read it as a novel of a “fallen” world, in which the intended good is usually corrupted and destroyed, promise wasted. The mish-mash of good & bad is as complex and insoluble as in every life. There are characters one could call evil, because their effect is almost wholly malign (Stoner’s wife Edith; the Head of the English Depot); there are two i would call good – Stoner, and the student with whom he has a brief affair; though i’m aware that many would regard them as damned & adulterous sinners, since Stoner is married. There are other characters who, while they lack any shining virtue, are nonetheless benign, such as Gordon Finch, the successful man of the world (and one has a sense that he is so successful precisely because he isn’t exactly one could call “good”; but he is certainly decent).

The novel does not allegorise. Even with Edith one feels she could have become a different person, maybe, and likewise the malevolent Head of the English Depot is only so because of an inner flaw, an obsessive neurosis. Most poignantly, Stoner’s daughter:

Stoner looked upon her transformation with a sadness that belied the indifferent face he presented to the world. He did not allow himself the easy luxury of guilt; given his own nature and the circumstance of his life with Edith, there was nothing that he could have done. And that knowledge intensified his sadness as no guilt could have, and made his love for his daughter more searching and more deep.

She was, he knew – and had known very early, he supposed – one of those rare and always lovely humans whose moral nature was so delicate that it must be nourished and cared for that it might be fulfilled. Alien to the world, it had to live where it could not be at home; avid for tenderness and quiet, it had to feed upon indifference and callousness and noise. It was a nature that, even in the strange and inimical place where it had to live, had not the savagery to fight off the brutal forces that opposed it and could only withdraw to a quietness where it was forlorn and small and gently still.

Such natures attract malevolence and sadism. “Alien to the world” – every human being is so, thrown into a maelstrom of hostility and rage, against which one must fight, against other, variously damaged and corrupt human beings. The spots of light are real, and to be treasured; but the violence and the dark are greater, almost ubiquitous in humanity as one can see from the internet, from any casual reading of blog comments, for example. In this, one would do well to recall Sgt Welsh from The Thin Red Line: “only one thing a man can do. Find something that’s his. Make an island for himself. Let nothing touch him.” Stoner becomes as stone but this is an ambiguous process – as in the myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha, there is an interplay of hard and soft; and as Deucalion and Pyrrha recreated the human race from stones, so with this novel – Williams creates the warm, living human from the very stone.