Many of you, I am sure, will remember the enormous hype which surrounded the republication of John Williams’ forgotten classic Stoner in 2013. (If not, I refer you to this Guardian article.) I, of course – as a self-confessed fan of American literature, and with the dream of becoming a lecturer myself – wanted to read the novel as soon as I heard about it. I decided, though, to let the hype die down a little, so that I could get to it in my own time and make up my own mind – hopefully untinged by Times Literary Supplement reviews and the like – about it.
The plot of Stoner put me in mind of Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, which I read earlier this year and very much enjoyed. Stoner – as one inevitably comes to expect with such a popular book – has been incredibly well reviewed over the last couple of years; Colum McCann writes that it ‘deserves the status of a classic’, and The New Yorker believes that it is a ‘perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving that it takes your breath away’.
The novel focuses upon William Stoner, who enters the University of Missouri in order to study agriculture and improve his father’s farm. Rather than return to the family homestead once he has finished his degree, Stoner decides to remain in academia, studying first for a Master’s, and then for a PhD. He marries the ‘wrong woman’, and has a relatively quiet life, to the extent that ‘after his death his colleagues remember him rarely’. The blurb of the beautiful Vintage edition pictured writes, ‘Yet with truthfulness, compassion and intense power, this novel uncovers a story of universal value. Stoner tells of the conflicts, defeats and victories of the human race that pass unrecorded by history, and reclaims the significance of an individual life’.
Stoner begins in the following manner, in which Williams gently sets the tone for the whole: ‘William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same university, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses… 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’.
The introduction to this particular edition has been written by John McGahern. Whilst I did read the majority of it, McGahern’s introspective does give away several major plot points, and is perhaps best left until last. I personally found those elements which included deeper analysis about the work far more useful than his recounting of the plot. McGahern does, however, reference the following statement which Williams made about Stoner, in a rare interview which he gave towards the end of his life: ‘I think he’s a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do… His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was… It’s the love of the thing that’s essential. And if you love something, you’re going to understand it. And if you understand it, you’re going to learn a lot’.
Williams won the National Book Award for his novel Augustus in 1973; it is shameful that he is neither more widely read, nor better known. Of his four novels, McGahern believes that ‘Stoner is the most personal, in that it is closely linked to John Williams’s own life and career, without in any way being autobiographical’. He goes on to say that, ‘The small world of the university opens out to war and politics, to the years of the Depression and the millions who once walked erect in their own identities; and then to the whole of life’.
I was reminded of Richard Yates’ novels in places, particularly due to the control which Williams holds over his vocabulary and characters. The psychology which he perceptively depicts here is often startling, and the entire novel is incredibly profound. The historical and social contexts which have been drawn as backdrops for Stoner to live his life against are well wrought, and used to good effect.
Before I began to read Stoner, I must admit that I was expecting it to be incredible, and thought that I would more than likely adore it. I am so pleased to be able to report that in this instance, my expectations were not set too high; the novel astounded me throughout, and was even better than I had been led to believe it would be. I found myself reading at a far slower pace than usual in order to savour every single word.
Go now, readers; run to your local bookshop, pick up a copy of Stoner, clutch it to your body like a precious child, and read it from cover to cover without stopping. It is a decision which you will not regret. Stoner is admirable, stunning, beautiful, and rather perfect to boot.