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Stoner: A Novel (Vintage Classics)
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on 18 February 2017
William Stoner is an unremarkable man. He leads an unremarkable life, with an unremarkable wife, has an unremarkable career and dies an unremarkable death. That quite about sums up the structure of the book, but this is hardly a spoiler because while the novel is about Stoner, what I have described above is just the bare bones of the story.

Williams, through the unassuming and seemingly passionless and passive character of Stoner, paints a convincing portrait of a man who tries to find his place in the world. He wins some, and loses others in the process, as life deems fit to give or take from him. Quite early on in the novel, in his early days when he had quite fortuitously found a niche in the academic life at a university, his friend David Masters makes quite an accurate if unsolicited assessment of his personality and motivations: "you are the dreamer, the madman in a madder world, our own midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky.... but you have the taint, the old infirmity.... You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you'd fight the world. You'd let it chew you up and spit you out, and you'd lie there wondering what was wrong."

In many ways, Stoner fulfils Masters's grim prophecy, but Williams paints Stoner with much empathy and we find ourselves cheering him on when he escapes certain fate as a farmhand to carve out a respectable if unremarkable career as a literature tutor at the university where he had originally gone for agricultural studies. It is the one time we see Stoner take control of his life with some passion. When he marries Edith, a girl he meets serendipitously at a hoary professor's party, we hold our breaths at how the marriage would pan out, with his uncertain nature and her ice-cold and suspiciously vacuous veneer. We feel pangs of both delight and sorrow when we see his unexpected joy at fatherhood and the way that joy is eroded by his own possessive and malicious wife. But even that is an oversimplification of the complex nature of what Stoner goes through, because the strength of Williams's writing is his nuancing. There is no easy distinction between good and nasty characters, or clearcut happiness and sadness.

The novel too, is also emblematic of its time. Stoner's life is bookended by two world wars and he is as much affected by them as the men and women of his time. His perspective of death as a young man is shaped by the war when it touches his own peers: "When he had thought of death before, he had thought of it either as a literary event or as the slow, quiet attrition of time against imperfect flesh. He had not thought of it as the explosion of violence upon a battlefield, as the gush of blood from the ruptured throat".

This is a very satisfying novel which moved me with its reposeful tone and simple yet exemplary prose. I am glad it found success, albeit belatedly after Williams's death. Definitely a worthy masterpiece.
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on 31 January 2017
First of all, this is one of my favorite books (so now for my totally unbiased review!)

Stoner is a beautifully written story of a man who came from a humble background, never achieved any great success, and died largely unknown and forgotten within a few years. And it's an incredible, heart-breaking story. The authors pose is beautifully crafted in a sensitive and deep way that follows Stoner's life as a poor farm boy through his life as an English assistant. Williams writes in an engaging way with little dialogue but a deep third-person look at each character and event, you could almost say the whole book is a window into a man's soul as you follow him through his hardships and moments of Glory. Stoner is humble, always takes the path of least resistance (but isn't above doing hard work when it's needed) and seems to glide through life in his own world of the mind. Some will say how tragic or sad his life was but to me he is a courageous person because he never gave in or let the world beat him, he suffers with stoical pride and little concern for what the rest of society said or thought of him.

This for me is the books greatest strength. Stoner to outside appearances lived a boring and unsuccessful life, yet viewed from his own perspective he has a different view of it, he does have doubts (who doesn't) but keeps a singlemindedness of purpose and lives his life as he see's best fit. one of my favorite quotes in the book captures this perfectly:

"It had not occurred to him how he must appear to an outsider, to the world. For a moment he saw himself as he must thus appear, and what Edith said was part of what he saw. He had a glimpse of a figure that flitted through smoking-room anecdotes, and through the pages of cheap fiction- a pitiable fellow going into middle age, misunderstood by his wife, seeking to renew his youth, taking up with a girl years younger then himself, awkwardly and apishly reaching for the youth he could not have, a fatuous, garishly, got-up clown at whom the world laughed out of discomfort, pity, and contempt. He looked at this figure as closely as he could; but the longer he looked, the less familiar it became. It was not himself that he saw, and he knew suddenly that it was no one"
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on 26 November 2016
A masterpiece of wonderful writing and wisdom. A work of genius that should be read by everyone. I can't imagine that I will ever find a book that I will enjoy as much as this one. So I will read it all over again, starting right now.
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on 22 December 2017
A poignant read - very well written and expertly crafted novel with some really bleak and thought provoking sentences that I loved! Four stars only because I wished it was longer I was enjoying it so much! This is the work of a truly gifted writer.
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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.
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on 21 April 2018
I found Stoner almost unbearable in places, like looking in a mirror and seeing not my physical reflection but the reflection of my feelings and confusions about life and my relationships with the important people around me.

I certainly cried more than once as Stoner tried to make sense of the complexity of his life and relationships and how his good intentions were often misinterpreted or subjugated to the imperative of wills other than his own.

I rarely make five star reviews but Stoner did something to me, that very few books have ever done and oh what a joy and a tragedy it is to discover yourself amongst the pages of a book.
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on 8 February 2016
I read this because I'd heard it's meant to be great, but personally I didn't enjoy it that much. It's certainly quite thought provoking, but I just found the writing style a bit too cold, so I didn't really feel very attached to the characters and found it hard to get absorbed in the story.

Also, this version includes an introduction which contains spoilers - skip this if you don't want to know what happens! I would recommend reading the story first then, if you're interested, coming back to the introduction to see why everyone thinks it's so great. Although it's called an introduction, it's more like an essay-style review.
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on 6 April 2014
A remarkable poetic story of the winter afternoon, stretching beyond sadness to profound acceptance. Williams writes with supremely un-showy maturity about a farmboy-turned-academic whose life is dry and defeated on the outside but stoically resilient to the point of sublimity on the inside.

Stoner was published in 1965 and should be a classic. His unlikely hero, a professor of English Literature in a small mid-West university, maintains a simple integrity which does not break even as Stoner's loves, one by one, turn sour.

Stoner fails his parents, his wife, his friends, his daughter and even his lover, with whom he (mercifully) enjoys a period of sensual and loving joy. Inexorably, William's limpid, unadorned prose details Stoner's defeats in the face of his wife's brittle lovelessness, in the face of petty academic vindictiveness and in the face of his own bodily decay. But Stoner does not become bitter or resentful. This is his long-flowering achievement. He lives with humble resignation. still loving his vocation, which is teaching.

He is sustained simply by being himself without illusion - with moments of Zen-like epiphany, where he loses his sense of separateness: 'he felt himself slip away, everything - the flat whiteness, the trees, the tall columns, the night, the far stars - seemed incredibly tiny and far away, as if they were dwindling to a nothingness ... He moved, and the scene became itself.'

Despite this sense of things greater than an individual life, greater than relationships - sacred though they may be - Stoner is an ordinary human whose fear of change leads him to allow his sweet love affair to be crushed by others. But this failure is transcended in the slow, gentle song of his life as told simply and directly by Williams. Stoner's final victory - careless because non-egotistical - is to forgive his wife and even life itself for the cruelties meted out to him. As he lies dying of cancer, 'A kind of joy came upon him, as if borne in on a summer breeze. He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure - as if it mattered.'

Don't let my possibly lugubrious dwelling on these moments put you off from enjoying a stupendous story of an ordinary life which is just enough. Williams conjures real drama from unsensational material and gives slyly brilliant portraits of the main actors in Stoner's life, such as his remorseless wife, Edith; his declining mentor, Archer Sloane; his complex enemy, Holly Lomax; and his loyal, shallow and feebly powerful friend, Gordon Finch.
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on 23 June 2014
Undoubtedly this book is well written; it's understated, it's evocative, it's powerful. Having heard so many good things about it, I thought I was going to really enjoy reading it, but I didn't. I found the bits about the university politics more interesting than any other parts, but on the whole it didn't grip me, and even though it's quite short I found myself alternating it with other books. By about half-way through, I was just looking forward to finishing it and it didn't get any better. Although I liked Stoner, and admired him in many ways, I became increasingly exasperated with him for not exerting himself more where his daughter was concerned. The book is very sad, the ending is unbearably so. Worth reading, but probably not one to read if you're feeling a bit down.

If I could have, I would probably have given this book three and a half stars.
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VINE VOICEon 12 April 2015
I'd heard a lot about this book and assumed it was a campus novel to go alongside the greats like Lucky Jim, or David Lodge's trilogy, or more like The History Man.
However it's a much quieter novel and is really about a man and his life than life as an academic, which only provides a backdrop and structure to his work.
The book starts off rather bleakly and I wasn't immediately taken with it, but once Stoner (it's his name, not a reference to weed!) gets married and then finds his calling as a teacher, it becomes more engaging. The book opens at the start of the 20th century and ends in the 60s and without even trying it conveys the sense of transformation in society and the way academia can atrophy. The way in which careers are made and broken by professional jealousy hit a few nails on the head for me, and the scene in which a PhD candidate is examined rang very true.
I wouldn't say this was a "great" novel - the way it's been talked about made me expect something much different. But it is a good one, and while overwhelmingly bleak there are moments where you can't help feeling Stoner is at last experiencing love and life to the full.
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