Review: Stoner

Stoner, a novel by John Williams, was copyrighted by the author in 1965, and was first published in the UK in 1973.  As the copy I have was published by Vintage in the UK, I can’t tell when the novel was first published, but a safe bet would be in the mid-60’s in the US.

John Williams was born in Clarksville, Texas in 1922.  During the Second World War, he served in the US Air Force in China, Burma and India.  His first novel, Nothing but the Night, was published in 1948, and his second, Butcher’s Crossing, was published in 1960.  His last novel, Augustus, was published in 1972.  Williams received a Ph.D from the University of Missouri and he taught literature and the craft of writing for thirty years at the University of Denver.  He died in 1994 in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

It would be fair to say that Williams is not a well-known author, but Stoner has recently attracted significant favourable reviews.  For example, Julian Barnes of the Guardian says, “It is one of those purely sad and sadly pure novels that deserves to be rediscovered.”

Tom Hanks writes in Time Magazine: “It is simply a novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher.  But it is one of the most fascinating things that you’ve ever come across.”

The New York Times says: “Few stories this sad could be so secretly triumphant, or so exhilarating.  Williams brings to Stoner’s fate a quality of attention, a rare empathy that shows us why this unassuming life was worth living.”

I think I read that an employee of a major book seller (was it Waterstones?) rediscovered the novel, and praised it to the point where it became the chain’s book of the year.  I decided I had to get a copy.

Having now read it, I can tell you that I agree with the above reviews.  Moreover the writing is beautiful and captivating.  It is clear, clever and without unnecessary embellishment.  It is a novel that makes one reflect on life in general and one’s own life.

Those of you who have read my reviews will know that I tend to be critical of particular developments that occur without reason.  As someone who was educated in the sciences, I believe that for every effect there is a cause, and I’m not content unless a major effect has a cause that is identified (or at least hinted at); I become sceptical, and I begin to question the author’s attention.

There are three effects in Stoner which for me are presented without cause.  First, Stoner becomes an instructor in literature at a major university.  He is an only child, without self-awareness, or any particular ambition, without childhood friends, growing up on a farm, who goes to university to study agricultural science.  He’s likeable enough, but he does not interact much with others.  In fact, when his literature professor asks him a question in class, he is unable to summon the resources to answer.  We are, in effect, asked to believe that he became a teacher because the same professor told him that that was his destiny.  Based on what?  Most university instructors I have known are outspoken extroverts.  Once Stoner becomes an instructor, I can accept that, over time, he develops the skills to become quite a good instructor.

The second point has to do with Stoner’s wife Edith, whom he takes in marriage based on a fleeting attraction.  This turns out to be a disastrous mistake.  Edith has unpredictable swings in mood and behaviour which are not hinted at when Stoner first meets her.  She seems like a shy girl, but she becomes a nemesis, a witch.  He behaviour is so erratic and so irrational that I found myself doubting her as a character.  Could not Williams not have hinted at a psychological defect or at a strategy which Edith was following.  As a result, I lost interest in trying to understand the relationship between Stoner and his wife.  For me, she was just a “problem”.

The third point has to do with the relationship between Stoner and Katherine Driscoll, a young instructor with whom he has an affair.  I can understand how they could fall in love, but what I don’t understand is how their physical relationship could (apparently) begin so smoothly.  Stoner had no sexual experience before he met his wife, and with her it was disastrous.  Katherine has little experience, and it wasn’t very pleasing.  How could these two sexual misfits behave like practiced lovers immediately?  Give them time, author!

The above tend to be my personal reservations, and they don’t motivate me not to recommend Stoner.  It is a rare and captivating novel.

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