Thursday, April 10, 2014

Stoner by John Williams

The first question is:  how come a book originally published in 1965 to no great acclaim has become the must read of 2014?  And all due to word-of-mouth - with a little help from Waterstones who made it their book of the year for 2013.   It is the story of an ordinary man living an ordinary life in an ordinary university in mid-west America in the 1930's and 40's.   And yet it is a page turner and unforgettable.   Perhaps part of the answer is that it is more European than American.   Nothing too much out of the ordinary happens and Stoner is no American hero and not living the American dream.   It is the story of a life, not a drama.

William Stoner, we are told in the first paragraph, entered the University of Missouri in 1910 at the age of nineteen, received his Ph.D. in 1918 and taught in the same University until his death in 1956.   Few remembered him after his death.   He came from humble origins, the only son of a small farmer, old before his time from working the arid land but who had the vision to send William [or Stoner, as he is known throughout the novel] to college to do an agricultural degree.   Stoner spent two hard years working methodically at his basic science subjects while, at the same time, supporting himself by working on a local farm.   However, being required to take an English literature course, he came under the influence of Arthur Sloane and had a veritable epiphany.   Totally enraptured by the beauty of poetry,  he promptly ditches his agricultural degree and devotes the rest of his life to literature.

Not wanting to be a spoiler, I can only tell you that the succeeding years follow the path of an ordinary life - love, internecine staff quarrels and enmities, friends and accompanying issues - until, as the end of his life is very near, his daughter remarks that things haven't been always easy for him and he replies, 'no, but I suppose I didn't want them to be'.

Williams writes a beautiful limpid, fluid and quiet prose that draws you in and on page after page.   He brings to mind the Dutch author, Bakker, who similarly can make the ordinary exciting.   Julian Barnes commented that Stoner is a '"reader's novel", in the sense that its narrative reinforces the very value of reading and study'.  And it is more than that - this book is elegant music.

 Stoner, John Williams, published by Vintage, pb, £8.99  [€7.64]

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