Compelling melancholy

STONER BY JOHN WILLIAMS

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Stoner, the story of a lifelong academic whose life is full of sadness, loss and disappointment was first published in 1965. At the time it was respectably reviewed and sold reasonably. Now fifty years on it has become a surprise bestseller and was the “must-read” novel of 2013 among avid literary readers.

Prior to its original release, author John Williams wrote to his agent: “The only thing I’m sure of is that it’s a good novel; in time it may even be thought of as a substantially good one.”

And right he was. Stoner is not a great work, it is probably not the “best novel you have never read”as the cover sticker shouts, but it is as Williams suspected a substantially good novel. And for that reason it has become a belated bestseller across Europe, one caused almost entirely by word of mouth.

stoner author

William Stoner works on the family farm before his parents send him off to study agriculture at The University of Missouri. He is required as part of the course to take a class in English literature. When asked to explain his understanding of a poem one day, Stoner is surprised to find himself unlocked by the subject, to see the world around him at last and feel a “sense of wonder” at grammar. He goes on to teach there until his death in 1956. Stoner is a patient and enduring man, good things do happen to him but not for long and they all end badly, all of which he accepts stoically.

 The knockbacks come one after the other for Stoner and as a reader you find yourself limiting your progress through the novel to just a couple of chapters per day such is the onslaught of sadness. But Williams writes in a truthful matter of fact way about these sad events so that we come to recognise them as the inevitable part of life that we can do nothing about.

“He was forty two years old, and he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember.”

I found the first 100 pages completely without warmth but the deep melancholy written with a delicate writer’s hand soon becomes compelling – what will poor Stoner be forced to endure next? When will life give him a break?

Up until last year Stoner had sold 4,863 copies. That figure has now risen to well over 164,000. It has been less successful in the US where may be the understated quietness does not appeal to Americans. But I enjoyed that quietness and subtlety and found myself moved by it.

“In his forty third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”

What I will remember most from this novel is not so much the plot, the characters or the location but how wonderful John Williams is at writing sadness, loss, love making and particularly death. The last two tragic paragraphs of the book are among the finest pieces of writing I believe I have ever read. Such is their beauty I am still dwelling on the words.

SOUTHSEA BOOKWORM RATING: 8.5/10

Notes on the author:

  • Born in Clarkesville, Texas in 1922. Died aged 71 in Arkansas in 1994
  • Writer of four novels and two books of poetry
  • Stoner was named Waterstones Book of the Year 2013
  • Fans of Stoner include Hollywood actor Tom Hanks, About a Boy author Nick Hornby and Atonement and Saturday author Ian McEwan
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