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A Remarkably Unremarkable Life
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.