It only took a few pages to know that I was reading an unknown, forgotten masterpiece. The writing is incredibly beautiful, the kind that is so smooth, so fluid, that you forget you are even reading, reaching straight into the heart of the matter. Stoner has become one of my favourite book of all times. It seems slightly incredible that such a good book could be about the very uneventful, sad life of a professor in an American university. You follow Stoner from his young years as a student and farmer, right up to his death, married, with an estranged daughter and a half-failed career behind him. It is somehow difficult to say how fascinating, gripping this book is, but it is. Stoner struggles to affirm himself as a formidable intellectual that he is in his field, because he is so self-effacing, so humble of character. You really wish him to take a more vigorous stand against his dreadful colleague who will undermine and ruin his whole life eventually. But at work like at home, with his very demanding, difficult wife, Stoner always chooses the path of least resistance, and lets his life ebb away...This attitude becomes near unbearable for the reader when it comes to the love of his life and yet again... He is a maddening character yet so real that you love him and desperately want him to be happy. There is certainly a lot of Stoner in us and why his story is so moving, so affecting. It also talks of an attitude to life that is the complete opposite of what we want now. It is about a very quiet character, and an inner life that does not need outside validations. It is about valuing the life of the mind above all else, even if it means renouncing happiness in other ways. It is about avoiding confrontations with loved ones even if it means giving-up your own rights. Stoner really is a great, great story, with a deep flamboyance, resonance very few novels possess. To read and to cherish.
on 3 July 2013
This is a lyrical classic novel, inducing empathic feelings of despair mixed with irony and humour and occasionally some hope. Stoner's main comfort and compensation is in his life's work as a scholar (which he feels passionately about), and also in his intense though relatively brief love affair with a much younger woman. The departmental politics at the University are extremely well described and, again, I could only identify and feel outrage for Stoner. I found the book difficult to stay with at first (wanting to read a thriller or something more exciting). But the novel inexorably drew me in at an increasing pace, until at last I was hooked. Then I fell in love with it.
on 24 September 2013
Our house is full of books. My wife is an avid reader - I was, but am not anymore, tending to find my busy life and increasing age prefers the short attention span reading of magazines, the easy entertainment of the telly, or increasingly I simply relax listening to music. Occasionally, a new author will be found that captures my imagination and I will enjoy reading novels once again - Raymond Feist for instance for some pure fantasy escapism, or Ian Banks for some slightly more challenging ordinary fiction - but in general, reading books is not something I do very often these days. So, when my wife put STONER down and said "you must read this" I thought ok, lets take a look at it.
It doesn't sound particularly inspiring. It tells the tale of an fairly ordinary person - Stoner - leading a not particularly eventful life as an English lecturer and assistant professor in a middle-of-nowhere American University. It starts before the first world war and ends with his death in 1956. It doesn't contain the obvious heroes of science fantasy, or the twists and suspense of more normal fiction. It's just his life - personal, work and everything around it. Don't worry, I haven't spoiled the story - the author tells you all this on the first page of the book. Not particularly inspiring.
Don't be mistaken though. This is just so beautifully written, so keenly observed, so evenly paced and so complete, that it might really be THE PERFECT NOVEL. Quite why I say that I don't know; maybe it's the right amount of detail that paints the picture without overdoing it; maybe it's the times Willam's simply cuts to the chase and tells you the outcome in one sentence; maybe it's simply the ordinariness and realness of Stoner; or maybe it's the parallels with the vast majority of us who lead "ordinary" lives. I don't know and I'm not sure I care - it's just the most moving, beautiful book I have ever read. I've never written a book review before and doubt I ever will again, nor do I every think I'll read such a perfect novel.
If you're reading this you must be thinking of buying Stoner - just do it - now.
on 9 July 2013
The first two paragraphs of this novel summarise the unremarkable life of William Stoner, and the rest of the book gives the details of this unremarkable man, unhappily married, a failure in his career, with an alcoholic daughter. But he dies content and fulfilled, and remarkably the reader comes to believe that this is richly deserved. His is an examined life, and his failures and a few small successes add up to a rich and profound existence. I have absolutely no idea how the author conjures up so much from such apparently sterile material, but he does, and it is a masterpiece.
on 10 January 2013
I loved this story. A tale of a life lived flat but told with such internal depth and subtle emotion. It deals effortlessly with the layers of deceit and self-deceit that sometimes exist in relationships - particularly 'public' relationships - and the creeping discomfort that comes with understanding that life is short and it often belongs to other people. It is sad. But not depressingly so. Our hero, Stoner, could have made other choices - he just didn't.
I finished it this morning, buried my head in my pillow and cried a bit. I realise that I will miss William Stoner. Technically, I spent only two days with him but I felt the whole life of the character. This is one that will keep flooding back.
on 21 March 2003
It's great to have Stoner back in print in the UK, along with Augustus, both with wonderful new introductions. It's been 30 years since I first read Stoner and reading it again for the third or fourth time I can only confirm that the novel more than stands the test of time. It is a story of an honest man, of personal integrity in the face of considerable obstacles. Very few contemporary novels have moved me to the same extent or depth as this one. C.P. Snow in a review of the first British edition asked the question, "Why is this novel not famous?" Why not, indeed.
I must admit that although a friend of mine and a bookseller was championing this before it suddenly became a bestseller I had always shied away from this due to the title, as I thought it was about drugs and drug taking. As this is our current book group choice though I was glad to see that Stoner refers to the surname of the principal character, and the only drugs that are ever mentioned in this are towards the end, and are painkillers.
The main reason we as a group decided to read this was to see why it had suddenly become such a big success; it was first published in 1965 and was well received, but for whatever reason it then seemed to disappear. Perhaps fashions changed and more people started to read others books such as thrillers and horror, but there doesn’t seem any valid reason why this should have been neglected, or really such a big reason why this has suddenly become so popular.
Beautifully crafted John Williams here tells the tale of William Stoner, up unto his death, with such clarity and at less than three hundred pages such brevity that you can only read this amazed. Stoner is born in the Mid-West to a farming family trying to scratch a living off the land. It would initially seem that his life will be the same as his father’s as he takes over the farm, especially as he is being encouraged to go to Agricultural College. But at college Stoner’s life alters as he finds a deep love in literature. And thus Stoner becomes a teacher at the college. We follow him through his marriage which is rather a dead affair, through his affair and his fights at the college.
On the surface you could say that nothing much happens to Stoner and that his life is rather unmemorable, but why this book works is because his life is memorable, at least to him and those who are in regular contact with him. He is an Everyman and quietly gets on with living through its trials and tribulations, and thus speaks to us all. His life to us as a reader is deeply eventful and you really can feel for him, and like Stoner himself we also feel that his wife is a bit of an enigma.
With beautiful and elegant prose and so strongly realistic this is really a novel that is well worth reading, both rewarding in what it makes us think about, and in the way that you can thoroughly lose yourself in the life of William Stoner. Why it is suddenly now popular will always remain a mystery, as surely it shouldn’t have been forgotten about in the first place.
on 20 December 2013
Like the literary resurrection of Richard Yates a few years ago, John Williams is a great American novelist who toiled away for years, received some modest success before being generally forgotten, only to be subsequently rediscovered and showered with heaps of posthumous praise. While perhaps previously best known for Augustus, the one novel of his that has never been out of print (not in his native USA anyway), Williams' greatest work is now considered to be Stoner, a novel of university life that was originally published in 1965 before falling out of print one year later. This year has been the year of Stoner (ahem) after the reprinted Vintage edition achieved surprising commercial success, went on to be named Waterstones Book of the Year and has featured in many newspaper `Best Books of 2013' lists.
William Stoner grew up in humble surroundings on a farm and had no other expectation in life than that he would one day take over and work the land that his parents had worked before him. Until, that is, one precipitous day when a county agent told his father about a new agriculture course that was being started at the University of Missouri and suggested that William should enrol. Stoner thus begins university life with the intention of learning how to make his parents' farm great but instead discovers the greatness of the written word, the epiphany he has after reading Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 leading to his dedicating his life to the study of literature.
Under the mentorship of Archer Sloane, Stoner stays on at the University after completing his Master of Arts and embarks on a career as an assistant professor of English. He remains at the University for the rest of his life, writes one book, and maintains a singularly undistinguished academic career. Stoner plods along, not loved by his students and not esteemed by his colleagues, making a poor matrimonial choice along the way. Stoner's home life is as tragically unfulfilling as his career with the vindictiveness of his wife leading to an estrangement from his daughter, the one person he has loved. Later on in his life, while still plodding along undemandingly at work, Stoner's last chance at happiness with a likeminded student is snatched away by a hateful colleague. Still he keeps plodding on.
Stoner is a truly great novel that is, at times, almost indescribably difficult to read. William Stoner is a complex character whose greatness somehow lies in his mediocrity. At the end of his life, Stoner looks back and ponders on whether that is really all there is to his life but really his life has been one of surprising strength. Against all the setbacks and heartbreaks, professionally and personally, that he has endured, Stoner has remained stoic in his work and he has endured. His life may not have been memorable to the other characters - Stoner in fact begins with an incredibly moving passage that says as much - but he is certainly memorable to the reader.
A lot of Stoner's trials and tribulations are those of the everyman - unhappy marriage, frustrating career, disconnection from children, etc - and that's no doubt why they are so moving [occasionally traumatic] to read about. When his deeply unhappy wife sets about creating the estrangement between Stoner and his daughter - even though she perhaps doesn't consciously make a decision to do so - it makes for incredibly painful reading. Stoner is actually one of those strange books where the reader wants to speed through it because the writing is so good and the characters so compelling, but at the same time it's such an emotional read that taking breaks away from the book is sometimes necessary.
Fortunately, while Stoner is certainly the story of failure, it is also the story of joy and love, albeit the all consuming love of literature rather than of another person. Despite the many, many setbacks that he encounters - most of them deliberately brought down on him by other people - Stoner never waivers in his belief that great books are surely worth suffering for. Even when his mind begins to decline during his final days, Stoner is able to draw some comfort from his own book. Despite his apparent inherent ordinariness, Stoner's life is beautifully written and the book clearly illustrates its central character's belief in the power of words to convey and produce emotions.
It's hard to actually describe just how brilliant a book Stoner is; I can only suggest buying a copy and finding out for yourself.
How glad I am that I belatedly discovered John Williams ( see my review of Butchers Crossing). He is simply the best author I have read in years.
This is set in a completely different place and time with the story poles apart from Butchers Crossing , but every bit as enjoyable. How can anyone write such dissimilar books with such utter authority and conviction.
We follow the outwardly uneventful life of William Stoner the son of a dirt poor farmer who went ,at great sacrifice to his parents ,to Columbia University to study agriculture. The plan was for him to return to the farm with his new knowledge and bring the farm into the twentieth century thus making life a little easier for his folks. Alas the plan fails as Stoner discovers English Lit. and a whole world of knowledge heretofore unknown to him is embraced at the expense of science.
He devours his studies and never leaves his alma mater. He seeks no promotion or recognition as he becomes a damn fine teacher. Thank goodness he has his students, his research and his beloved books as there is little love or happiness in his married life. His career has it's battles which he fights fairly. He has one true and beautiful love which has to be abandoned. He has one child whom he worships and loses to his strange, cruel wife . There is a hint that his wife was sexually abused by her father which might explain some of her attitudes. His daughter becomes estranged and destined to a useless , drink fuelled life.
This sounds like a dull, doleful tome, but it is certainly not. There is humour and light interesting passages describing the life in Academia from WW1 to the middle of the last century. Believe me this is a gripping page turner which I read in two "sittings".
By the end as I said farewell to Bill Stoner I was almost brought to tears at the passing of a truly decent long suffering man.
on 17 November 2013
I read this on recommendation from, possibly, the Guardian. "One of the great unread novels" - so I thought I'd better attempt it. And started in, to find it was about this dull, forgettable, not exceptionally talented in any field, young man.I kept wondering why I was still reading around page 20, 30, 40 - I mean, this bloke was ordinary in spades. And so little happened to him in those pages.
And yet I couldn't stop reading. And as I read I began to see that William Stoner was in many ways myself. Not in solely "good" ways, but in terms too of what he nearly achieves, fails in, omits to do, overdoes. He's a man with virtues, quietly hinted at; and flaws, briefly outlined. I found, to my surprise, around half way in, that I was fond of Stoner. Concerned for him, took ridiculous pleasure in his successes and small victories, grieved with him over his losses. I empathised with his far from appealing appearance, with his obsessiveness, his moral honesty. And all those feelings and reactions just got stronger the more I read on.
The pages describing the last weeks of his life were hugely and deeply moving. And the writing throughout was limpid, easy-tempoed - "monotonous" but not in any bad sense at all. It carried you along like an autumn leaf in a brook. There are many passages of lyrical beauty. There are moments when you punch the air, shouting "Yesss!!" There are some moments when you want to cry.
I never thought, even once I actually pushed myself to start it, that I would ever get to read, or finish a book like this. It's far from my "cup of tea". And yet I did, and am so very glad I did. I don't think I will read it again, because so much of the appeal lay in the gradual unfolding of "une vie ordinaire". And I now know that life of Stoner's. But I will send the novel to friends, and I recommend it without reserve to anyone who has read my eulogy thus far.