Stoner, by John Williams

review published on January 9, 2014. Reviewed by Erin Britton

Like the literary resurrection of Richard Yates a few years ago, John Williams is a great American novelist who toiled away for years, received some modest success before being generally forgotten, only to be subsequently rediscovered and showered with heaps of posthumous praise. While perhaps previously best known for Augustus, the one novel of his that has never been out of print (not in his native USA anyway), Williams’ greatest work is now considered to be Stoner, a novel of university life that was originally published in 1965 before falling out of print one year later. This year has been the year of Stoner (ahem) after the reprinted Vintage edition achieved surprising commercial success, went on to be named Waterstones Book of the Year and has featured in many newspaper ‘Best Books of 2013’ lists.

William Stoner grew up in humble surroundings on a farm and had no other expectation in life than that he would one day take over and work the land that his parents had worked before him. Until, that is, one precipitous day when a county agent told his father about a new agriculture course that was being started at the University of Missouri and suggested that William should enrol. Stoner thus begins university life with the intention of learning how to make his parents’ farm great but instead discovers the greatness of the written word, the epiphany he has after reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 leading to his dedicating his life to the study of literature.

Under the mentorship of Archer Sloane, Stoner stays on at the University after completing his Master of Arts and embarks on a career as an assistant professor of English. He remains at the University for the rest of his life, writes one book, and maintains a singularly undistinguished academic career. Stoner plods along, not loved by his students and not esteemed by his colleagues, making a poor matrimonial choice along the way. Stoner’s home life is as tragically unfulfilling as his career with the vindictiveness of his wife leading to an estrangement from his daughter, the one person he has loved. Later on in his life, while still plodding along undemandingly at work, Stoner’s last chance at happiness with a likeminded student is snatched away by a hateful colleague. Still he keeps plodding on.

Stoner is a truly great novel that is, at times, almost indescribably difficult to read. William Stoner is a complex character whose greatness somehow lies in his mediocrity. At the end of his life, Stoner looks back and ponders on whether that is really all there is to his life but really his life has been one of surprising strength. Against all the setbacks and heartbreaks, professionally and personally, that he has endured, Stoner has remained stoic in his work and he has endured. His life may not have been memorable to the other characters – Stoner in fact begins with an incredibly moving passage that says as much – but he is certainly memorable to the reader.

A lot of Stoner’s trials and tribulations are those of the everyman – unhappy marriage, frustrating career, disconnection from children, etc – and that’s no doubt why they are so moving [occasionally traumatic] to read about. When his deeply unhappy wife sets about creating the estrangement between Stoner and his daughter – even though she perhaps doesn’t consciously make a decision to do so – it makes for incredibly painful reading. Stoner is actually one of those strange books where the reader wants to speed through it because the writing is so good and the characters so compelling, but at the same time it’s such an emotional read that taking breaks away from the book is sometimes necessary.

Fortunately, while Stoner is certainly the story of failure, it is also the story of joy and love, albeit the all consuming love of literature rather than of another person. Despite the many, many setbacks that he encounters – most of them deliberately brought down on him by other people – Stoner never waivers in his belief that great books are surely worth suffering for. Even when his mind begins to decline during his final days, Stoner is able to draw some comfort from his own book. Despite his apparent inherent ordinariness, Stoner’s life is beautifully written and the book clearly illustrates its central character’s belief in the power of words to convey and produce emotions.

It’s hard to actually describe just how brilliant a book Stoner is; I can only suggest buying a copy and finding out for yourself.


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