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 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.
on 16 January 2012
Stoner is the story of an inconsequential man, the author tells us so right at the start, then proceeds to prove himself wrong. Even the "smallest" existence can be so full of life, so full of meaning, Williams seems to be saying.
John Stoner grows up dirt poor but discovers a passion for literature and becomes a teacher at Columbia University. The book chronicles university life and politics, love, marriage and parenthood and finally, the thoughts a man has as he prepares himself for departure from this world.
The book is very quiet and elegantly written. It is also profoundly sad. At every turn, Stoner is denied happiness, and yet he faces every situation with integrity and stoicism, like his farmer parents. Life is endured, not enjoyed.
"...within a month he knew that his marriage was a failure; within a year he stopped hoping that it would improve. He learned silence and did not insist upon his love."
For all it's sadness, the book is strangely compelling. Williams' insights into the working of human relationships are timeless. And his eloquent prose is an absolute pleasure to read and has a poignancy that I found deeply moving.
Rating: thoroughly readable
on 16 September 2014
Stoner is in each of us, and each of us is in Stoner.
From the outside he is an ordinary, anonymous man; indistinguishable from thousands – millions – of others. He lives an unremarkable life and dies, and nobody remembers him, much.
And yet inside, inside, Stoner’s life is a diorama, as ours is; a kaleidoscope of ever-shifting granules, some dull, some sharp, others iridescent. Within the little landscape of his life is a vista of hopes and dreams, a reality of drudge, moments of soaring passion and elevation of the soul, periods of disillusionment which is almost despair. Professionally, he has times of fulfilment, also sloughs of disenchantment. Often he takes the line of least resistance but sometimes he digs his heels in and refuses to budge. He has those occasional infinitesimal shifts of self-awareness and understanding which connect him for brief, glorious moments to himself, to others and to the world. But for the most part he exists in the semi-gloom of half-consciousness, extended periods of absent-mindedness and inattention which cause him to miss out on the mountain-peak moments which would have stayed with him to the grave and which, in the end, cause him to label his life as a failure.
Stoner’s is a passive life – rarely is he proactive in his own fate - taking what comes at him with a stoic resignation; he is no hero, but he has a quiet honour. He makes wrong choices, living to regret the choices but embracing the consequences of them all the same, so that we can only admire the waste in spite of ourselves.
Am I not describing us all?
John Williams uses Stoner’s ordinary, extra-ordinary life to explore the enormous gulfs which exist between what we see and what we understand, and between what we understand and our ability to express it. It is literature – a Shakespearian sonnet about death – which awakens Stoner from an almost insensate state to emotional life. Up to that point he is described in terms of the dead, dry earth; he is grey and brown, he is hard and calloused, he moves like an automaton feeding sheep and ploughing fields, he attends his classes and completes his assignments but his mind is not touched and his heart remains cold.
Then, an epiphany. The meaning of Shakespeare’s words pierces his understanding; not just their literal meaning but their emotional, their spiritual significance. And he is completely, utterly unable to articulate a word of his revelation. Likewise in his marriage to Edith, the sudden drench of love he feels can find no expression in his mouth. The equally crushing realisation, when it comes, that his marriage is a failure, goes unexpressed and undiscussed. Only sometimes, in his classes, absorbed by his subject and almost released from the corporeality of himself, can what he sees, what he knows and what he says come together, leaving his students breathless and inspired.
Williams’ depiction of the world is nuanced and multi-faceted. Often his descriptions are made up of juxtapositions; contradictory and confusing, but, then, isn’t life? When is anything simply and only one thing? Any stone, when lifted and examined closely, will be found to be much more than plain unrelieved, unremarkable grey; it will have sparkle and colour and texture. And within – who knows what treasure, what mystery, what history it might contain?
on 6 November 2012
Am I the only reader who wanted to give William Stoner a resounding slap?
He becomes infatuated with, and pursues, a woman who appears to be clinically depressed, with possibly a range of additional mental health problems. She subsequently makes his life a misery. And he lets her. He is bullied at work and fails to achieve his full potential. He falls in love, but of course the mad wife proves a bit of an obstacle (among other things). I wish someone would do for Edith what Jean Rhys did for Bertha Mason in Wide Sargosso Sea. John McGahern writes tellingly in the introduction, 'Stoner's wife is a type that can be glimpsed in much American writing, through such different sensibilities as O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald - beautiful, unstable, educated to observe the surfaces of a privileged and protected society - but never can that type of wife have been revealed as remorselessly as here.'
Hmm, common thread here. Cold-hearted shallow women all written by men. No slight on the brilliant McGahern who created memorable and very moving three-dimensional female characters. No wonder he seems to see these 'types' as an alien species from across the Atlantic.
Stoner's stoicism (passivity?) is sometimes irritating but it goes beyond that when he lets his beloved daughter go to the wall, Philip Larkin style. He is too weak to intervene in Edith's systematic campaign to ruin Grace's life, seeing himself powerless to act in the face of his wife's manipulative behaviour. Powerless? Man up, Stoner. Get with the Patriarchy! Read the Women's Room, The Yellow Wallpaper. You have power in this marriage. Wield some of it to salvage your daughter's future.
Stoner isn't always such a victim. He has enough initiative to choose a different life than the one he was born into, even though this is bewildering and upsetting for his parents. He fights a few battles with his nemesis at university and has some victories. He even wins the odd skirmish with Edith. But to stand by and watch his only child disintegrate over a sustained period and do nothing was unforgivable: an abdication of moral and parental responsibility.
I have turned this into a dissection of Stoner's character, but that is essentially what the book is about, a candidate perhaps for one of George Eliot's 'those who lived faithfully a hidden life.' John Williams himself describes Stoner as a 'hero.' Not in my book. Ok, I get it: well written; forgotten classic; quiet beauty about the prose etc. I don't feel I can give it less than three stars, but its central premise for me is flawed. I thought the description of the two disabled characters was slightly creepy as well, both twisted in mind as well as body. Sorry to spoil the consensus and most likely upset a few people but I didn't like this book very much at all.
on 7 December 2014
The New York Times said, 'it takes your breath away'. Ah, these dime a dozen critics and their tired overuse of superlatives.... Every book you pick up these days is either 'extraordinary' or 'dazzling', have you noticed?
This novel is in fact intensely grey and stonelike. Now maybe that's the kind of guy we're dealing with here: William Stoner - the studious, introverted loner type; 'deep' of course, but somehow a bit clumsy with the real world. An underwhelming intellectual. And that's okay, as long as the writer can demonstrate/ tease out the inner complexity, the humanity and drama in that isolated world. But I don't believe Williams achieves that.
Apart from the last chapter, which is, at last, gripping, earnest, touching and vibrant (ironically, in death, Stoner finally comes to life), the significant events of Stoner's life are told in a monotone, detached narrative style which carefully and prosaically casts a very dim light on the ghostly, principal characters. I mean by 'ghostly': insubstantial, unrealised and rather empty.
Even Stoner's love affair with a much younger woman sounds passionless, commonplace and thwarted, in Williams' handling - that's at its sensual heights! The troubled relationships with his wife, daughter and Hollis Lomax (a curious college adversary) are largely unexplored, and only ever observed from Stoner's perspective. It might as well have been written in the first person.
There really is very little life about this novel. Not helped by the over-reliance on narrative exposition rather than action and dialogue, which only enhances the elegiac and gloomy mood. I don't think there is a single moment of genuine humour or exuberance or joy.
I consider the work of that other 'forgotten' American writer of the same era, Richard Yates, far superior.
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.