Stoner By John Williams

I started Stoner at my hotel in Limassol but mostly read Stoner on a flight from Cyprus-London. Inspired by several references at Anecdotal Evidence I bought the book last year. Boarding the flight, an administrative cock-up separated me two seats behind my family. Guilty joy, the possibility of an uninterrupted five hour reading jag. Even the twenty minute circling of Heathrow, awaiting a landing slot, failed to irritate me as I reread the final few pages.

The style of John William’s 1965 novel reminds me a little of Frank Norris’s McTeague. As Patrick Kurp accurately says in his post “Published in the decade of V. and Portnoy’s Complaint, Stoner must have seemed at the time like a musty anachronism to many readers. In fact, 41 years later, it has aged beautifully.”

Stoner is the story of a man from a dirt-poor farming family who falls in love with literature and becomes a teacher of English at a Missouri university.

Having come to his studies late, he felt the urgency of study. Sometimes immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realised the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.

With the possible exception of Harold Bloom, do we not all share these sentiments occasionally?

William’s depiction of Stoner’s stony-hearted wife and their dismal marriage is chilling. The evolving relationship with his daughter as she matures is heart-breaking. But although the story is sad, Williams allows a glimmers of redemption in the transforming ability of love and friendship.

It contrasted with my reading in the same holiday week of Adam Thirlwell’s Politics and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, novels that both make use of postmodern contrivances to challenge the form of the novel. John William’s Stoner is a reminder that, however exciting and glitzy such experiments are, they are no substitute for good writing. The novel is flawless and gets my complete recommendation.

 

As John McGahern comments in his introduction:

There is entertainment of a very high order to be found in Stoner, what Williams himself describes as “an escape into reality” as well as pain and joy. The clarity of the prose is in itself an unadulterated joy.

. . . . . . . . .

If the novel can be said to have one central idea, it is surely that of love, the many forms love takes and all the forces that oppose it. “It [love] was a passion neither of the mind nor of the heart, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance.

I read the New York Review Books edition and have ordered Butcher’s Crossing.


One final excerpt of this memorable book:

As his mind engaged itself with its subject, as it grappled with the power of the literature he studied and tried to understand its nature, he was aware of a constant change within himself; and as he was aware of that, he moved outward from himself into the world which contained him, so that he knew the poem of Milton’s that he read of the essay of Bacon’s or the drama of Ben Jonson’s changed the world which was its subject, and changed it because of its dependence on it.

3 thoughts on “Stoner By John Williams

  1. Interested in the McTeague link as I have a special friendship with that book, all of Norris’s books really. Took this out to read a few weeks back and then it disappeared. Truly. This never happens to me. I have never lost a book before. Now for that reason and yours here, I think I just have to woman up and go buy another.

    • I never thought to read any other of Norris’s books, despite enjoying McTeague, which is unlikely given my tendency toward completion. You have a rare treat ahead, Frances, with Stoner.

  2. I never thought to read any other of Norris’s books, despite enjoying McTeague, which is unlikely given my tendency toward completion. You have a rare treat ahead, Frances, with Stoner.

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