Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Stoner by John Williams Review

Stoner is a novel that is so overbearingly bleak that, before you’re even halfway through, you want to put the book on suicide watch. 

In the same breath, you can’t stop reading it and not in the sense that you can’t avert your eyes from a train wreck but because it is a really good novel, well written, and surprisingly captivating given the academic subject matter. 

Born in late 19th century America, William Stoner grows up on his parents’ farm, an only child, and goes to the University of Missouri to study agriculture. There, he falls in love with literature, and becomes a Professor of Literature at the University for the rest of his life. As the major events of the 20th century occur around him – World War 1, Prohibition, the Wall St Crash, the Great Depression and World War 2 – he mistakenly marries a cold woman but remains her husband until his death, they have a child together, he has an affair, and he eventually dies of cancer. 

It’s a very straightforward story. John Williams chronicles the outwardly unremarkable life of Bill Stoner with an elegance and wisdom rarely seen in fiction and then only in the acknowledged classic writers like Fitzgerald, Hemingway or Steinbeck. This campus novel and Stoner’s life is tackled in a linear way with no fancy literary tricks or ideas, just a steady, subtle storytelling way and it’s his inner life and thoughts that are so compelling and original.

But it’s definitely depressing! 

Stoner’s parents are stoical farmers, grimly going about their lives, rarely smiling or speaking to their son. Stoner goes to university and makes just two friends, one of whom dies in France during WW1! The first woman Stoner falls for is Edith, an upper-middle class ice queen whom he marries. Their courtship is awkward and rigid, their honeymoon is cringe-worthy and sad – Stoner attempts to make things better by getting some champagne for them and even then the concierge is miserable, muttering that it’s not good champagne! His new wife views sex as practically akin to medieval torture. This guy cannot get a break and we’re not even past the first 100 pages! 

It became so unrelentingly downbeat that it became funny to me. Stoner’s parents die within a few pages of each other, his father-in-law commits suicide a few pages later – as I was reading this chapter I was laughing at unbearable sadness. Of course! More death, more melancholy! I was surprised the mother-in-law didn’t die or Stoner didn’t watch a kitten get beaten to death by some townies! 

I won’t detail every single personal tragedy of Stoner’s but suffice it to say that in a 290 page novel, a mere 20 pages are given over to Stoner finding any happiness at all, in the arms of another woman – who of course has to leave his life forever to avoid scandal, returning him to his state of despair! 

But here’s the thing – even though I found the tone of the book to be one of misery, and it is a prominent feature of the book, to dismiss it as a morbid piece of literature is too reductive and easy. I saw a review of Stoner that simply said “Life sucks and then you die”, but it’s much more than that. If it was just depressing, I wouldn’t have been compelled to keep reading like I was.

In some ways, Stoner could be argued to be the story of a content man – Stoner does the job he most wants, teaching literature; he has just one friend but at least he has a friend and a true one at that; he experiences real love (albeit briefly); and he has many moments of happiness with his daughter Grace. And there’s the other aspect of the book – the celebration of learning. This is a novel about an academic, and about academia, and the rewards of study, learning and teaching – and Stoner is a good teacher. 

Yet even if the subject could be dry and tedious in the wrong hands, Williams manages to find a vitality and edge to it, possibly due to his also being an academic at the University of Denver in real life. The hearing scene where a panel, upon which Stoner sits, cross-examines a graduate student who believes he has been unfairly failed by Stoner is absolutely riveting and yet all that’s happening is a snotty self-entitled student complaining to a group of teachers and administrators about a teacher. The scene goes on for a lengthy chapter but the pages fly by. And the pages where Stoner falls in love with a female graduate student and the two have a whirlwind romance, is utterly convincing and real. 

Damn, I’ve done it again: written too much in my review! Ok, broad strokes – the characterisation for the most part is perfect though I was never totally convinced of Edith’s enmity toward Stoner. Their horrible marriage felt real but for Edith to turn on her husband so desperately was a bit odd – though the way she turns on him by using their daughter against him is heart-breaking. And this is a massive point in favour of this novel: it makes you feel things. 

More often than not a book engages your mind and you can enjoy it on an intellectual level, maybe it even makes you laugh, sometimes you’re bored with it, and sometimes you’re annoyed with it. It’s rare that a book hooks the brain and the heart at once in such a way that the brain is yearning for more while the heart is waving a white flag of surrender while weeping silently. Stoner is a novel with a powerful emotional punch you can’t avoid. Most of us read to escape reality; Williams describes reading Stoner as an escape to reality (and a pretty grim one at that!). But, having read John McGahern’s introduction, I liked that Williams shares my own philosophy of literature: reading without enjoyment is worthless, so make reading enjoyable – and he did! 

Finally, I picked this book up on a whim, having read about Stoner being published in 1965 and not finding an audience for several decades until a new French translation in 2011 turned it into a bestseller in France. Since then it’s sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Holland, Italy and the UK, is taking off in Germany and is about to launch in China. John Williams died in 1994 but his widow is still alive so it’s wonderful that she’s able to receive the royalties of her husband’s work and that Williams has finally been acknowledged as a notable writer of the 20th century. All of these things pushed me to pick up Stoner and I’m so glad I did. It really is an American classic and a brilliant novel. 

I could write more about the quality of the prose but Williams says it best in the novel itself as Stoner reads the book written by the love of his life and thinks: 

“The prose was graceful, and it’s passion was masked by a coolness and clarity of intelligence.” p.259


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