Every so often the book group will strike upon an absolute gem, the book of the year you simply knew was going to be great and that duly delivered on all fronts. Stoner by John Williams; the understated life story of a Missouri professor, was largely overlooked from its publication in 1965 until it was reissued by Vintage Books in 2012, it’s brilliance immediately pushed into the limelight.
Stoner is not, as I first reasonably thought from the title, a hazy tale of vice and drug addiction, but the life story of a fairly ordinary man; William Stoner; following him through his teenage years on the farm in Missouri right through college and eventually inexplicably into a life of academia. Stoner’s parents are simple, loving people, keen to better both their son’s and their own prospects in the future by sending him to the new agricultural college at the University of Columbia. One day, in the English Literature module he must take as part of his course, this young, unassuming young man has an epiphany:
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…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…
From that moment on Stoner’s life ceases to be one of simplicity as the beauty of art and thought reveals itself to him until all he wishes is to devote his life to study and the transmission of his passion to other people. Declaring his intention to his resigned parents, he embarks on a career in academia and a dutiful yet strained marriage to a disturbed young local woman who stifles their life together with paranoia and pettiness.
I fully expected, given all the reviews and raving from bookish people I know with impeccable taste, to love this book. I thank my lucky stars I did as there is nothing worse than dashed expectations. The subtlety and beauty of prose from an author I’d never even heard of struck me to my core, turning an often deeply mundane, ordinary life into a series of incredibly poignant, memorable moments:
Nothing moved upon the whiteness; it was a dead scene, which seemed to pull at him, to suck at his consciousness just as it pulled the sound from the air and buried it within a cold white softness.
The despair and fatalism present in these out-of-body experiences accurately express Stoner’s attitude to the destructive elements in his life; a wife with mental health problems, a colleague destroying his career, a war raging on the other side of the Atlantic…all are met with the same resolute attitude, to the point where the reader is simply desperate to reach on in there and shake in some self-preservation.
Is this all a little too realistic?! I hear you cry. Perhaps so. But it is executed with an aplomb reminiscent of the very best in American literature. Stoner is a meek, forgettable anti-hero of sorts; a man lay hidden for far too long. Frustrations aside it is this very stoic, ever so slightly tragic passivity that makes this book so special.
Feel a little invisible and ordinary at times? That’s because, somewhere, deep down, a Stoner lurks with us all.