Review: Stoner by John Williams

“An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. 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.”

Literary trends are an interesting and fickle thing. Although lifetime success is a relatively reliable indicator of a novel’s success after an author’s death, there are too many that fade into the ether of collective amnesia. Alternatively, some of the world’s best loved novels are ones that received only lukewarm reception at the time of their publication. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is just one example of this pattern. It is difficult to predict when and why these novels encounter a sudden reintroduction into literary consciousness, particularly when this growth in popularity comes long after the author’s death. It is perhaps a well-timed review or recommendation from someone in the spotlight, or a poignant reflection on the social and personal malaise that inflicts humanity in waves. A combination of both factors lies behind the sudden and unexpected rise in popularity of John William’s Stoner. Originally published in 1965, the novel enjoyed little success, selling just 2,000 copies. By 1966, the book had gone out of print. Yet, here we are, over 40 years later. Stoner has been reissued and is now celebrated as “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of” (The New Yorker).

Stoner follows the life and career of the titular character, William Stoner. From an inconsequential background as a farmer’s son, Stoner is sent to the University of Missouri as a student in its newly established agricultural programme. However, a revelation in one of his required English Literature classes sparks a change in all that Stoner had assumed about his future path. He switches his degree, earns both a Masters and a PhD in English, and secures a teaching position at the university. Stoner’s life from here on is replete with defeats and pain. His marriage, fatherhood, and career are co-opted in a number of ways by those who suspect his intentions and work ceaselessly to take control of that which Stoner loves most. The reader follows Stoner as he encounters challenge after challenge, with the knowledge that his life is already destined to become one of obscurity.

“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 ever had been. It was a question, he suspected, that came to all men at one time or another; he wondered if it came to them with such impersonal force as it came to him. The question brought with it a sadness, but it was a general sadness which (he thought) had little to do with himself or his particular fate; he was not even sure that the question sprang from the most immediate and obvious causes, from what his own life had become. It came, he believed, from the accretion of years, from the destiny of accident and circumstance, and from what he had come to understand of them.”

From the novel’s audacious opening pages, the reader is already aware that this is not a book with a comfortable resolution. William Stoner fades into relative anonymity following his death, an end that might be expected after a life wherein “few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses.” To say that this is a painful read would be an understatement. It is a book that is, in many places, incredibly difficult to face. The circumstances surrounding Stoner’s marriage and his wife’s determined elimination of the closeness between him and his daughter are raw and uncomfortable. It is the contrast between those who prove themselves so resolute in their determination to sabotage his happiness and Stoner’s own quiet resignation that makes for the most troubling element of the novel. Stoner faces each new defeat with an acceptance that is incredibly frustrating.

Were this any other novel, the reader would be patiently awaiting Stoner’s coup – a moment in which he will tolerate no more and wrests control of his own happiness. The reader is afforded no such comfort in Stoner. We know from the novel’s opening that Stoner’s life is one of relative mediocrity and ends with a death that is equally unremarkable. Affording the reader this foreknowledge was a risky move on Williams’ part. It forces us to confront Stoner’s suffering with an inevitability that makes the novel a struggle. I found myself having to allocate a set number of pages each day in order to force myself through Stoner‘s most painful parts. While one might typically decide to ditch a book at this point, there is so much that makes Stoner a truly remarkable read.

“She stiffened beneath his touch, and he made his hands go gently to the sides of her thin neck and let them brush into the fine reddish hair; her neck was rigid, the cords vibrant in their tensity. He put his hands on her arms and lifted gently, so that she rose from the chair; he turned her to face him. Her eyes, wide and pale and nearly transparent in the candlelight, looked upon him blankly. He felt a distant closeness to her, and a pity for her helplessness; desire thickened in his throat so that he could not speak. He pulled her a little toward the bedroom, feeling a quick hard resistance in her body, and feeling at the same moment a willed putting away of the resistance.”

Although a struggle for the reader to confront, Stoner’s pain propels the novel forward with a tenderness that is truly unique. The urgency of emotion that one might expect from Stoner as he confronts so much loss is replaced with an understated resilience born out of Stoner’s continued disbelief in the path that his life has taken. Williams’ prose – almost hypnotic in its powerful simplicity – reinforces Stoner’s own restrained approach to the challenges that he faces. It is a story that is masterfully told from beginning to end.

Stoner is a novel that has been celebrated as a story for book lovers and academics. Certainly, there are many ways in which this book will appeal directly to these groups. My own history in academia definitely had me nodding my head at some of the plot’s turns. The dynamics at work in the hierarchy and egos of the university departments depicted in the novel will certainly ring true for many readers with experience in the academic world. Similarly, book lovers will enjoy the centrality of literature as Stoner’s purpose and comfort. His initial revelation upon hearing Shakespeare’s seventy-third sonnet is something that will feel familiar to many of us:

“Sloane’s eyes came back to William Stoner, and he said dryly, ‘Mr Shakespeare speaks to you across three hundred years, Mr Stoner; do you hear him?’ William Stoner realized that for several moments he had been holding his breath. He expelled it gently, minutely aware of his clothing moving upon his body as his breath went out of his lungs. He looked away from Sloane about the room. Light slanted from the windows and settled upon the faces of his fellow students, so that the illumination seemed to come from within them and go out against a dimness.”

The transformation that Stoner undergoes in this moment determines the course of his future. For those of us who have experienced that spine-tingling moment when confronted with a book that truly speaks to us, it is easy to understand Stoner’s sudden enthrallment. However, to sell Stoner as a novel only for the most serious and academic among us is to massively understate its excellence. Although it certainly reads as a love letter to literature, this novel is one of universally challenging questions. At the end of his life, Stoner asks himself “What did you expect?” By his own admission, however, this is not a question steeped in sadness and defeat. Rather, “A kind of joy came upon him, as if borne in on a summer breeze. He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure – as if it mattered. It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what life had been.” One criticism levelled at Stoner by its original publisher was the pessimism that seemed to ooze out of its pages. Setting the novel up as one in which Stoner’s life disappears into obscurity would seem to confirm this conclusion. Yet, there is an undercurrent of celebration in Stoner’s resilience and purpose that transcends the negative. Stoner never relinquishes the meaning that he has uncovered for his own life and, whether the world fails to recognise that on his passing, is something that ultimately means nothing to him.

Stoner is an incredibly poignant examination of the individual and his meaning. It offers a degree of challenging realism that perhaps explains popular discomfort with the novel upon its initial publication and the relative obscurity that continues to exist around it today. My own initial ambivalence is something that took time and reflection to shake. Stoner hits very close to home. Yet it is an incredibly powerful novel with a courageously confronting take on purpose versus posterity. Combined with Williams’ masterful and determined prose, Stoner is a novel that deserves the copious praise and celebration that the 21st century has brought its way.


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