Recent reading. Stoner by John Williams


I only picked this book up because of a series of quickly glanced and actually somewhat disingenuous reviews at the end of last year as 2013’s best books were revealed.

“The undiscovered classic” the reviews shouted, but actually John Williams was far from undiscovered having won the National Book Award for another of his books, Augustus, in 1973.  Far from being un undiscovered classic it is perhaps a forgotten one and certainly, until 2013, an uncelebrated one.  But it’s no longer all that forgotten given that the Vintage paperback that I read was the 30th Edition.

But these are all distractions.  Forgotten, undiscovered, below the radar.  Whichever is the truth, for some reason it rose to prominence in 2013 and I for one am very glad that this novel from 1965 fell into my hands.

The opening page  says it all.

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It’s a profoundly unremarkable opening to a book, about a profoundly unremarkable man leading a profoundly unremarkable life.  It’s not autobiographical it seems, but most certainly it’s acutely observational given John Williams’ career

The novel charts the life story, from rags to moderation, across 65 years of a university professor. Sixty-five years in which he endures two world wars, although he fights in neither, a ludicrous marriage and a career so undistinguished it’s almost as if it never happened.

You’d want to slap him, if you could get past comforting him.

You’d shake him, but he might break.

You crave him growing some balls to stand up the absolute bitch that marries him, who sucks his lifeblood away, but that would only upset him.

At every turn he’s trampled upon, walked over, overlooked, ridiculed, cheated and lampooned.

And yet, amidst a life of bitter anticlimax after bitter disappointment, something about this everyman fills you with deep abiding empathy.

Respect almost.

How Williams achieves this is down to writing of the very highest order.  Never is a scene overstated.  Nothing is overly dramatic and yet it’s completely riveting throughout.

It begins in a period where manners and protocol were everything.  They collude to stifle Stoner’s life unbearably but his sense of propriety stops him challenging all that is happening to him.  The only victim of this painful reticence is Stoner.

Again, and again, and again.

Stoner’s is a life that singularly disappoints.  He is shat upon by all but two people that he comes across; his long time college buddy and Dean of the Faculty and, almost unbelievably, his lover.  These two luminous characters make Stoner’s life worth living and it is their presence in it that saves it from one of utter despair.

Perhaps this makes the novel seem depressing but far from it.  It’s too well written. Too beautiful.

In writing about the Great American depression of the 1930’s this stunning passage grabbed me.

“He saw good men go down into a slow decline of hopelessness, broken as their visions of a decent life was broken; he saw them walking aimlessly upon the streets, their eyes empty like shards of broken glass; he saw them walk up to back doors, with the bitter pride of men who go to their executions, and beg for the bread that would allow them to beg again…”

It’s this sort of elegant prose that turns a life so ordinary into a read so extraordinary, so that whatever kind of classic this book is belatedly described as; lost, found, undiscovered,  it IS a classic.

You must read it.