At this point, I think it’s safe to assume that most people reading this blog have heard of John Williams, if not from me directly then from someone, because over the last decade his work has become better known than it was in his life. Stoner in particular has become a phenomenal posthumous success story, enjoying praise and condemnation in news outlets even today, fifty years since it was first published. Stoner may be the most famous now, but Butcher’s Crossing and Augustus deserve are just as good — I could never choose a favorite.
NYRB Classics has published each of this trio of masterpieces and should receive credit for inspiring Williams’ posthumous resurgence. But I didn’t think any one would go back to the beginning and publish Nothing But the Night. Indeed, in her introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of Butcher’s Crossing, Michelle Latiolais, who knew Williams and loved his work, admitted she’d never read Nothing But the Night, and didn’t intend to since Williams himself had repudiated it. But here we are! NYRB Classics has just published a fine edition of Williams’ debut, giving us all the opportunity to come to our own conclusion. I, for one, think it’s a fine work and if I wrote it I’d be proud. Then again, maybe I’d feel differently if I had also written three brilliant novels that are clearly better . . . maybe. Truly, though, Williams was gifted, and Nothing But the Night is well worth reading for its own qualities and not simply as a curiosity.
Sure, this debut novel is clearly the work of someone who hasn’t quite found their voice. Williams wrote it during World War II when he was in his early 20s. At the time, he was enlisted in the U.S. Army Airforce and was stationed for a couple of years in India and Burma. He published the book a few years later in 1948. The writing is, more often than not, superb. The content is brilliant at times, but always promising. And what descriptions!
I’d always thought, because it was written by a soldier during war, that the book was a war book. That’s not the case, at least, not explicitly. Rather, the book is about a young man suffering from a shock that occurred a few years earlier. At first, we don’t know what happened, other than whatever it was clearly involved his father and mother and that his mother is now dead.
The novel begins with a great fever dream chapter.
In this dream where he was weightless and unalive, where he was a pervading mist of consciousness that seethed and trembled in a vast stretch of dark, there was at first no feeling, only a dim sort of apperception, eyeless, brainless, and remote, whose singular ability was to differentiate between himself and the darkness.
The dreamer is Arthur Maxley. He prefers this state of unfeeling, of non-being. As he begins to wake up, and maybe this is part of the dream, he gets more unsettled, unhappy to find he is a “something.” I admire this opening chapter. It’s not that the writing is clean and crisp (which is a strength of his later novels), no: you can see he is a bit indulgent. It’s that Williams is describing the disorientation of someone who wants to stay disoriented, someone who fights feeling, but who can do nothing to stop feeling.
I’ve seen others say that Nothing But the Night is a book about angst, something like Catcher in the Rye, written before Catcher in the Rye, but I think it goes deeper than that. Arthur Maxley is angry and he is disaffected, but Williams is describing this state of being from the state of mind of someone who has post-traumatic stress. This isn’t a young man who is dissatisfied with the world because it disappoints him.
Ultimately, though, Nothing But the Night comes apart a bit. As it goes on, Arthur visits one person or place after another and it becomes clear that the cobbled vignettes don’t do as much to explore as they do to describe, and Arthur’s is a story worth exploring. That didn’t prevent me from finding Williams’ debut well worth reading and including in his oeuvre.