Book Reviews

Stoner – John Williams – Book Review

Stoner John WIlliams

It was the intriguing story behind this book that caught my attention initially. The novel was first published in America fifty years ago. At the time it sold no more than 2,000 copies and soon fell out of print. The novel was largely forgotten but yet did not disappear completely. It came to the attention of our own John McGahern and on his urging Random House republished it in 2003. McGahern penned an introduction and the book very slowly gathered momentum. Another Irish writer, Colum McCann, also championed the novel and contributed to its international revival. When he made it known that he personally had purchased over a hundred copies of the book as gifts for family and friends, further translations of the work were commissioned. In the past year critical praise has been heaped on ‘Stoner’, it has topped best selling lists in several European countries and Waterstones bookshop have just named the re-discovered novel as their ‘Book of the Year’ for 2013.

The novel is the story of an unremarkable man called William Stoner who teaches in the English department of an American university. He was born a farmer’s son and attended university to study agriculture. The intention was to return home to work the isolated family farm, but while at university he discovers the wonders of English literature and his life’s trajectory changes.

There is no clever plot or twisty turns in this book. The reader is told on the first page that William Stoner lives a forgettable life: “Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now”. This brushes away any expectations we have of the main character. It’s a good ploy for it allows the reader to relax into the bleakness of the novel and absorb the melancholy of the main character.

While William Stoner is deliberately cast as something of a failure, he evokes both admiration and pity. He cuts a tall awkward figure around the university, out of place among his colleagues. He works tirelessly at his academic work but reaps few rewards.

His marriage too is a failure from the outset. On realizing this William lapses into a state of quiet resignation while his wife Edith is filled with spite and resentment. Stoner soundlessly tolerates his wife wrath, even when she tries to damage his relationship with his only daughter. Much as Stoner’s stoicism is admirable there are times his lack of gumption is saddening.

Although he has a sad life it is not joyless. Love provides a balm for William and is his salvation when he is at low ebb. He falls in love with a graduate student at the university. So dismal is his home life that you can only rejoice for Stoner and the joy the relationship brings. William’s teaching and passion for literature is another source of joy, but regrettably like the love affair, it is poisoned when he becomes a victim of university politics.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes this a great book. Undoubtedly there is something pleasing about the style of the prose. The writing fits well to the story: spare and plain. The understated use of language is confident and very moving. If you live a fairly banal and ordinary life like me, this book shines a light on what makes a life extraordinary. Simply by living and loving and being just like Mr. Stoner- no remarkable feats or deeds necessary.

In the last scene of the novel William Stoner picks up and lets fall a treasured book he had written but is long forgotten. It is sad and ironic that the novelist John Williams died in the 1994 also believing his book ‘Stoner’ to be forgotten. However 2013 was the year when it finally received the acclaim it deserves from both critics and readers. And what is being called “one of the great forgotten novels of the past century” will hopefully be treasured for years to come.

Stoner by John Williams is published by Random House.

Review by Helen O’Leary

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