Book Review: ‘Stoner’ by John Williams
It could very well be that the first book I read in 2014 might be the best book I’ll read all year.
Stoner is an unusual book. It has a fairly “meh” title. It’s written by an American academic and poet by the name of John Williams, who only published four books during his career and died in 1994. It was first published in 1965 and enjoyed little, if any success. But now, after being reissued in 2006 by the New York Review Classics, it has become a bestseller, primarily through word of mouth (apparently after a French translation gained traction). It recently won the Waterstones’ book of the year for 2013, with celebrity endorsements coming from all directions, and it has been called by the New Yorker as “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of.”
So what is it about this 50-year-old book that has everyone so excited? On its face, Stoner is simply a biography of the eponymous protagonist, William Stoner, focusing predominantly on the time he enters the University of Missouri as a student in 1910 and stretching until his death as a teacher there in 1956 (none of these are spoilers).
It’s difficult to find a less spectacular premise for a novel, and yet it is one of the most emotionally affecting books I have read in a long time. It’s also one of the most melancholic novels I’ve ever read. The tone is doused in melancholy. Drenched in melancholy. Steeped in it. But it’s not exactly depressing. There is a poignancy that is buried beneath the words and the pages that is beautiful, moving and painful.
Stoner is essentially the tragedy of William Stoner’s life, or rather, his failures from going through life without a sense of its meaning or purpose. It’s not a tragic life in that horrific things keep happening to Stoner — far from it. On paper, Stoner’s life is better than most people from that era, but there is an understated sadness about his forgotten existence. From the cold relationship with his farmer parents and his hastily entered marriage, to the touching but fractured relationship with his daughter and the doomed affair with his one true love, Stoner goes through life taking things as they come, never expecting things and seemingly accepting the hand dealt to him with stoicism and a quiet dignity. Teaching literature is his profession, and while he occasionally exhibits passion for it there is little enthusiasm or love. And yet, without it, Stoner wouldn’t know what to do with himself.
He is an odd but wonderfully constructed character — distant, almost removed from himself — but you understand who he is. He feels real; you feel like you know him. He accepts life for what it is, and yet he has a stubborn streak inside him that makes him difficult to grasp. I found myself rooting for Stoner, feeling the pain that he feels but doesn’t express, and longing for the happiness that eludes him.
The two main arcs in the novel that stood out for me were his relationships with wife Edith and his crippled university nemesis Hollis Lomax. Stoner’s relationship with Edith is so incredibly sad but masterfully depicted. She’s just a young and naive girl who married a stranger because she understood from her upbringing that it was her duty, and yet throughout the novel we watch her deteriorate into someone who silently and wrist-slittingly (though not literally) loathed her husband — who never mistreated her outwardly — in ways she could never explain in words. It breaks your heart; it broke mine many times.
The Lomax arc is a fascinating and exciting one about a bitter disagreement between two academics over a brilliant but arrogant and manipulative student. Both are biased in their own way, but neither see it; for Lomax, it becomes deeply personal, whereas for Stoner, it’s simply about principle. It’s an excellent insight into university politics and how a petty quarrel can develop into a lifelong feud.
I never thought I would be so mesmerized by a 1960s novel about the life of a bland university professor, and yet I could not stop turning the pages to see what would happen to Stoner next. I didn’t have the opportunity to read it in a single sitting, but it’s the kind of book that could pull you in and immerse you in its world. It’s a testament to William’s writing, which utilises clean, unpretentious prose that is deliberately lacking in exaggerated adjectives and manufactured melodrama. After reading a lot of modern novels where everything is stuffed down the reader’s throat, everything in Stoner comes across as subtle and nuanced, and it’s a delight.
I will conclude this review with what John Williams said about his own novel in a latter to his agent in 1963. When he was told by his agent not to get his hopes up over Stoner, Williams replied: “I suspect that I agree with you about the commercial possibilities; but I also suspect that the novel may surprise us in this respect. Oh, I have no illusions that it will be a ‘bestseller’ or anything like that; but if it is handled right (there’s always that out) – that is, if it is not treated as just another ‘academic novel’ by the publisher, as Butcher’s Crossing [his second novel] was treated as a ‘western’, it might have a respectable sale. The only thing I’m sure of is that it’s a good novel; in time it may even be thought of as a substantially good one.”
He couldn’t have been more right about that.