Stoner: A Novel by John Williams
Vintage Classics: paperback published 2012: 278 pages
William Stoner enters the University of Missouri at nineteen to study agriculture. Later, he becomes a teacher. He marries the wrong woman. his life is quiet, and after his death his colleagues remember him rarely.
Yet with truthfulness, compassion and intense power, this novel uncovers a story of universal value. Stoner tells of the conflicts, defeats and victories of the human race that pass unrecorded by history, and reclaims the significance of an individual life. A reading experience like no other, itself a paean to the power of literature, it is a novel to be savoured.
When it says that this book is one to be savoured, I cannot agree more. I won it on Twitter as part of the #weareallStonersnow Vintage Classics promotions, and received two copies – one for me and one to share. Aside from the beautiful cover, this is a novel of beautiful scope. Poetic in its prose, it draws you in – like a comforting evening by the fire with an old friend, it’s all at once familiar, but with a new conversation.
William Stoner is a character to fall in love with. He’s sweet and earnest and naive, and life is cruel to him when it should be kind, and kind when he no longer needs it. You loathe his wife and Lomax (the antagonist of the whole thing) – you feel your heart break for Stoner, even though he seems to take it all with great fortitude. You want to shake him and tell him to stand up for himself, but his eternal sweet nature is most of what endears him to you.
There’s a small part of you that’s waiting for the adventure to begin, but this isn’t a novel for adventure – this is as varied and exciting as a normal person’s life. You’re born, you live (to the best that you can), and you die, and that’s exactly what Stoner does. He experiences happiness, sadness, fear and anger. He meets people and loses people, and he grows old.
Is there anything else I can say about what this novel is about? Not really. I would recommend reading the Introduction (written by John McGahern in 2002) because it will set you up for what you’re about to read. Read slowly, carefully, and enjoy.
The only time it falls down – as with so many books – is the ending. I don’t feel I’m giving it away if I say that this book ends with Stoner’s death. And it’s nigh-on impossible to write a death without falling in to clichés and just being a bit weak overall. I almost feel like it could have finished 10 pages before and not been the worse for it. I also think that his daughter could appear in it a lot more – she has such a powerful presence which isn’t utilised, perhaps because the narrative is so tightly honed in on Stoner.
I think that the other characters sometimes seem a bit flat, or don’t get enough screen time for this exact reason – we’re too focused on Stoner to look around. But somehow this doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things – like an old friend telling you a story, but missing out some of the details, it doesn’t matter.
Next book: I have both a hankering for Hemingway and to increase my Vintage Classics collection (I’m too weak and the covers are too pretty), so I picked up a copy of A Farewell to Arms.