Described by The Sunday Times on its cover as ‘The greatest novel you’ve never read,’ Stoner by John Williams is a superb piece of prose fiction.
First published to little acclaim in 1973, thanks to John McGahern for one, it enjoyed a successful renaissance in 2003. I first read it a few ago at a book club, and enjoyed it so much, I decided to read it again and review it here.
An only child, brought up on his parents’ farm in Missouri, William Stoner led a small sheltered existence. In 1910, he goes to the University of Columbia, Missouri, to study agriculture, so that he can help his father out more on the farm. However, during one semester when he has to take an extra subject, he takes a course in English Literature and falls in love with language and literature. His life is changed by his professor Archer Sloane who recognizes a fellow traveller and encourages his passion.
Much to his parents’ dismay, he abandons his studies in agriculture and instead pursues a degree in English literature, followed by further academic studies, in order to become a professor of English literature himself.
This is a simple story of one man’s life and the struggles he faces. Written in the third person, the narrative style is factual and understated, but with such an elegant beauty that it rendered me tearful on several occasions throughout the novel.
William Stoner is a quiet man, full of integrity, who builds his life on solid principles and values. Sadly, there are always those who would seek to take advantage of such goodness. Stoner’s wife Edith is one such character. She is so manipulative and evil towards her husband that you are desperately hoping he gives her a good clout. He is too good a man for that. He faces everything she throws at him with equanimity and good humour, and this is frustrating at times, if not admirable.
When Edith seeks to separate his daughter from him, I was disappointed in him for the only time throughout the book, for not standing up to her.
Stoner faces challenges from both students and professors at the university. He remains true to his principals at all times when refusing to pass a student – Charles Walker, for work that does not deserve to pass. In doing so, he incurs the ongoing hatred of a fellow professor called Lomax, who tries to ruin Stoner. Stoner quietly continues to stand by his values, do what is asked of him (even when it is horribly unfair) and heroically does so without complaint.
There are times during the novel when you wonder how much more the poor man can take. He does at times question this himself:
“He had come to that moment in his age when there occurred to him, with increasing intensity, a question of such overwhelming simplicity that he had no means to face it. He found himself wondering if his life were worth the living; if it had ever been.”
He finds happiness later in life with Katherine Driscoll, a student, and as we cheer him on, we know that yet again he is fated to lose the one true love of his life.
Whether you feel Stoner is a weak man or a hero, you cannot doubt his integrity, goodness and calm perseverance through the unfair blows of fate he is dealt. He is not without passion and has given love as well as receiving it. He reflects on the love he has given:
“But he was not beyond it, he knew and would never be. Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there. In his youth he had given it freely, without thought; he had given it to the knowledge that had been revealed to him-how many years ago?-by Archer Sloane; he had given it to Edith, in those first blind foolish days of his courtship and marriage; and he had given it to Katherine, as if it had never been given before. He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life.”
I loved this book as much, if not more, on a second reading. The narrative pace is as perfect as I have ever read in any novel. It is the understated elegance of the prose and the sadness of one man’s heroic struggle against those of ‘meaner natures and lesser minds.’ I cannot recommend it highly enough. It deserves the status of a classic.
As ever, feel free to share your views on the novel. I would love to hear them!
I am having a little break from my list of betterment, but in July will return with the next book on my list, which is ‘The Razor’s Edge’ by Somerset Maugham. It was supposed to be ‘Of Human Bondage’ by Maugham, but I have read that and couldn’t put myself through it again! I read ‘The Razor’s Edge’ over 20 years ago, so can’t remember a thing about it. Let’s see how I get on this time!
Feel free to read along or share your current reads. Any books that have changed your life lately? Don’t keep it to yourself – be kind and share!