Sunday 23 March 2014

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner is a slow-burning novel in more ways than one. Last year saw the rediscovery of this book about the life of a university lecturer, written some 50 years earlier. And the story creeps up on you until, without quite knowing how, you're enveloped by its quiet, reflective prose.

William Stoner is born towards the end of the nineteenth century into a Missouri farming family, the only child of parents already worn out by the daily struggle for survival. His lot is drudgery and acceptance, toiling on the land, until his father suggests he studies Agriculture at the University of Columbia.

Dutifully, he takes the science courses until, required to complete a survey of English literature, he finds himself troubled by it. Asked by his instructor, Archer Sloane, to explain the meaning of Shakespeare's seventy-third sonnet, he's at a loss for words, prompting the question:
Mr Shakespeare speaks to you across three hundred years Mr Stoner; do you hear him?
Unable to articulate an answer, something yet has shifted in Stoner and he changes courses to literature. Despite his parents' expectations and the outbreak of the First World War, he completes his studies and stays on at the University to teach.

There's always a fear with a much-lauded novel such as this, Waterstones' Book of the Year in 2013, that it won't live up to its hype. And at first it seems this fear might be justified, as Williams sets about telling the reader that Stoner's life is unremarkable. His childhood is one of few words but, along with his discovery of the transformative power of literature, the book itself is transformed.

Throughout life's problems, his battlefield of a marriage and limited professional success, Stoner's teaching role is integral to his identity and a refuge from failure. He goes about it with great ferocity, yet deprived of affection, still feels a numbness.  Then, life changes again as a result of his relationship with one of his students, Katherine:
In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.
Williams's characters, from Stoner's stoical parents to his University friends and detractors, are astutely drawn. The decline of his mentor Archer Stone, as he sees his values being subverted and diminished by war, is particularly moving. Stoner's wife Edith is a privileged, sheltered girl, unable or unwilling to deal with the realities of life as a college professor's wife. Their daughter Grace, like Stoner before her, finds refuge in a numbness of feeling, as a way of coping with her entrapment between two mismatched parents.

It is the portrayal of Stoner himself, and the final passages as he slips towards the end of his life, which are the most poignant and yet life-affirming. Stoner's existence could easily be categorised as a series of failures yet, in a rare interview, Williams argues he had a good life:
He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important...
Is that enough?  In the end, it seems it was for Stoner. The wonder of this novel is how, despite its sadness, it leads you to reflect on whether you'll be able to say the same.

Stoner is published in paperback by Vintage.

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