It’s easy to believe we get to read, to hear and to see the very best, that only the skimmed off brilliance is left as the cultural entails sink into oblivion. But you only have to look back at history and then around you at the piles of candy-floss coloured novels stacked on supermarket shelves to know that talent doesn’t always win out. Luck and circumstances have as much an impact on so many cultural success stories as talent – too often the book, the song, the painting just don’t chime with the zeitgeist.
Stoner by John Williams was published in 1965 to a reaction that hasn’t, as far as I know, been recorded. A tutor in literature and the craft of writing at the University of Denver, Stoner was Williams’ third novel (he also had a book of poetry published in 1949). Stoner may or may not have won the hearts of the critics in his own time, but it certainly didn’t capture the imagination of his contemporaries or storm the New York Times book chart and the novel slipped into the great book perjury in the sky only to be resurrected by Ian McEwan who name checked it in a Radio 4 show earlier this year, describing it as a “beautiful novel… a marvellous discovery for everyone who loves literature”. As one of the literary world’s few superstars, McEwan’s rapturous praise got his fans and the larger publishing world very excited, and the book was republished by Vintage weeks later to ride this belated enthusiasm.
The book is about the life of a man named William Stoner, the son of a farmer who discovers Shakespeare during supplementary studies in literature taught by the enigmatic Archer Sloane while reading agriculture at the University of Columbia. Stoner’s slow understanding of Shakespeare’s 73rd Sonnet (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold…”) changes his life forever, as he is finally brought to life by literature, admittedly in his own unassuming way.
Stoner’s new found thirst for literature leads him from student to teacher at the same university, where he attempts to pass on his own love and enthusiasm for the subject to non-plussed adolescents. When he doesn’t have his nose in a book, he gets married to the wrong woman, has a daughter, an affair and a career-damaging fallout with another university lecturer. And, that’s pretty much it.
Although, it’s so much more than that. This man’s quiet life is taken to new heights by the beauty of Williams’ writing and his understanding of the human condition. He’s able to fill the pages with waves of emotion and so much heart while saying very little. There’s a terrible sadness that runs through Stoner, the novel and Stoner the man, that is truly heartbreaking in its ordinariness. It’s easy to see why McEwan is a fan, there’s the same sparseness and economy of words that evoke a world more fully than many who try much harder; a coldness and detachment that creates so much heat and emotion.
If there’s a fault with Stoner, it lies with the depiction of his wife Edith, a battle axe of the kind we’ve seen so many times before – running round the house with a metaphorical rolling pin, ruining her poor husband’s life. I was uneasy with her, and didn’t know whether I was meant to read her as a pinafored-tyrant, or, as I choose to view her, as a victim of her era, her sex and her class. She is as much a pawn in this game of life as Stoner is, more so in fact – as a man he holds enough power to stamp on Edith’s dreams, to whisk her off into matrimonial hell just as she was due to embark on a tour of Europe with her aunt. To me, Edith was clearly suffering from depression that grew worse after the birth of their daughter, the unfortunate Grace who didn’t stand a chance between her mentally ill mother and her mute, emotionally detached father. They are none of them winners.
Stoner is a flawed man, an unexciting man, but one whose story is as thrilling as James Bond’s thanks to Williams’ perfect prose. McEwan was absolutely right to describe it as a “marvellous discovery” for people who love reading; if books make up the fabric of who you are, it’s such a treat to see that same experience recreated in novels. To be reading about the joys of reading is like some kind of meta-warm word bath.
by Suzanne Elliott