This book, Stoner by John Williams, is hailed by Julian Barnes as the ‘must read’ novel of 2013 (The Guardian 13 December 2013). This is curious as the book was written in 1963 and is therefore 50 years old. However, I’m very pleased my attention was drawn to it. Stoner is beautifully written, published in 1965, it did not become a best seller at the time though. I had not come across it all, nor recognised the name John Williams as that of an author I had ever come across. So what happened? Why is it suddenly being reviewed and hailed as a book of the year?
The book became a best seller across Europe, even if not in America (Williams is an American author) and so Julian Barnes eventually received his copy and read it and was very much taken in by it, as I am now and so many others.
It’s a very calm, but sad book, nothing makes you sit on the edge of your seat, there are no mysterious plot twists or hidden agendas. No, this is a book about one man, William Stoner, who against his own and his parents’ expectations becomes an academic, a teacher and lecturer who loves the written word and who loves to quietly read and develop ideas about books and literature. He comes from a very small farming background, is an only child and the expectation is that he will carry on with the farm after his parents. His father sends him to attend a university because of a farming course that is being taught. From then on, his life changes, not immediately, but through one of his lecturers who is just as aloof and other worldly as Stoner will become, but who nevertheless opens up Stoner’s eyes to the fact that there are other possibilities, that he does not have to be a farmer.
Stoner falls in love and marries a girl who is totally unsuitable and who for the rest of his life will try to undermine him quietly, perhaps not even because of an inherent malice but simply because the two are totally unsuited and she is unable to love the man who is undemanding and who does not respond to her own uneasiness about who she is. Eventually she will also try to destroy the relationship Stoner tries to build up with their only daughter, whom he loves. Stoner’s life appears sad from beginning to end, he is bullied by the Chairman of the university department he works in, has few real friends and is despised by his wife, who makes sure that his home life is as uncomfortable as the Chairman tries to make his position in the University untenable. When he falls in love, much later in life, and it seems as if he can obtain a kind of happiness, this is made impossible and so he retreats even further into his own life and his love of his work and teaching.
Not an uplifting story but then perhaps it is the case that most people’s lives are sad, mistakes are made, wrong turnings, impossible relationships and unexplained antagonisms between people can provide impressions that a life has been unfulfilled. Stoner loves his profession and this provides him with a core of himself that no one can take away from him. He loves what he does, he loves academia and academic life, his students and his writings and he has been happy for a short period of time.
John Williams is (was) a superb writer, evoking characters and developments within the big world events (first and second world wars) without a superfluous word or sentence. You cannot but help feeling for and with Stoner even though he himself would probably have been surprised to know this.
A highly recommended book – I agree with Julian Barnes. I have now also downloaded one of Williams’ other books, Augustus, which is about the emperor Augustus and already I am engrossed. It’s exciting to come across superb new names of writers every so often.
- Stoner: the must-read novel of 2013 (theguardian.com)
- John Williams’ Forgotten Novel Stoner Is Worth Remembering (texasobserver.org)
- Stoner wins Waterstones Book of the Year (theguardian.com)