About two years ago was the first time that I heard about John Williams’s novel Stoner. Like many New York Review of Books reprints, it was mentioned in reverent tones. “You have to read this,” people said, “it’s a masterpiece.”
In the Guardian, author Julian Barnes called Stoner the “must-read novel of 2013” and went on to talk about how Stoner, originally published in 1965, has become a word-of-mouth success 50 years after its publication in Europe.
Williams was an American writer and academic and Stoner follows the life of a farm boy, William Stoner, who becomes unexpectedly seduced by literature and academia when his parents send him to college to enroll in agricultural classes. Stoner leaves his destitute, dusty upbringing behind to become a teacher, disappointing his parents who must toil out the remainder of their days without him. But Stoner has found the key to a richer life and makes his own way without so much as a backward glance.
The novel delves into his personal life, his marriage, his life as a father. Stoner is both an apathetic and a take-charge character, and his oscillation between these two poles describes the contradiction and catastrophic ruptures that occur in his life. A drama unfolds early in his ill-fated marriage to the mercurial girl he meets at a university party. Much is taken from him, he withholds much, but he finds and even enjoys those bursts of sweetness that life affords him.
When I reviewed the book at Goodreads.com, I wrote:
I have grown weary of novels that simply portray lives of quiet desperation and disconnection and little more. I was afraid this was going to do the same, and it does, but unlike a lot of contemporary novels of its ilk it retains an emotional core. At the end, I cried for this character that I didn’t particularly like. Williams breathes life into poor, striving Stoner. It reminded me a bit of Jane Gardam’s Old Filth–which is more layered and nuanced, really–that also features a character I would not like or relate to in real life but whose life on paper moved me beyond words.
Stoner moved me. It is gratifying to know that a novel of its kind can gain success so many years after its publication. It is also the perfect book for book groups to discover and discuss. I will leave you with part of Julian Barnes’s assessment of the book:
I think Williams himself got it right: it is “substantially good”. It is good, and it has considerable substance, and gravity, and continuation in the mind afterwards. And it is a true “reader’s novel”, in the sense that its narrative reinforces the very value of reading and study.