STONER by John Williams (Vintage Books, 2003)
First published in 1965 and then largely forgotten, this remarkable novel is nothing short of a masterpiece. I want to press into the hands of everyone I know and tell them ‘you absolutely must read this’. The book’s belated word of mouth success illustrates I am not alone.
The opening page gives fair warning that this will not be a story of heroism or valiant deeds. Instead, it charts the life and death of William Stoner, a professor at the University of Missouri who achieved no high rank and was not generally regarded with any great affection. “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”.
This introduction might make you think this will be a bleak, even depressing read but I came away from it profoundly moved by its humanity and compassion. I have read reviews that describe Stoner as a failure but this also gives a false impression. It’s true that he did not fulfill all his ambitions but his life was not without achievement nor devoid of meaning.
What Williams does, so elegantly, is to present a vivid picture of a man from a working class background whose narrow outlook is expanded through a passion for literature. Attending university to study agriculture, he switches courses and pursues an academic career. In so doing he severs a link with the world of his parents but never forgets his origins: “there was always near his consciousness the blood knowledge of his inheritance, given him ny forefathers whose lives were obscure and hard and stoical and whose common ethic was to present to an oppressive world faces that were expressionless and hard and bleak”.
His harsh background makes him aware that life is more likely to be full of pain and suffering than pleasure and “a quiet sadness for the common plight was never far beneath any moment of his living”.
Stoner’s wife Edith is the daughter of a banker and therefore accustomed to greater material comforts but the couple are both only, and lonely, children brought up by loving yet emotionally distant parents. On their wedding night, Williams stresses their isolation and lack of worldliness: “they seemed to themselves far removed from the run of humanity and its pursuits”
Edith is as much a victim of circumstance and narrow-minded convention as Stoner. She was “educated on the premise that she would be protected from the gross events that life might thrust in her way” and raised to see her role as subservient to her husband and to passively fulfil her duties.
Her character is blighted to the point that she is by turns ghostly and demonic. Williams’ writing is precise and poetic throughout. He has the gift of bringing his characters to life with great economy, such as when he describes this young woman’s life as being “invariable like a low hum”.
He also brilliantly contrasts what he calls the “heavy clumsiness” of Stoner with the delicacy of grace of the woman who would become his wife: “Several women were gathered around the table, at the head of which a young woman, tall and slender and fair, dressed in a gown of blue watered silk, stood pouring tea into gold-rimmed china cups”.
Stoner’s life is not a happy one but neither is it one of unremitting sadness. He has a stubborn streak and his resilience to overcome hardships and even comes to learn “that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another”.
Through this everyman figure, John Williams shows that even when lives are full of quiet desperation they are not worthless.
If there is sadness it is for the universal plight of humankind that Shakespeare’s lines from Macbeth encapsulate:
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
You absolutely must read this novel.