When I finally purchased this book, I felt like the person arriving late to the party, or rather, missing the party completely. But then again, so had this book. Published in 1965, Stoner, much like its eponymous protagonist, seemed to go unnoticed until last year, when it suddenly took the world by storm.It was difficult not to read Stoner with high expectations considering the wealth of glorious reviews. Nevertheless, John Williams managed to write a story where the ordinary somehow became captivating, and I devoured it in one 3hr train journey.
The book follows the life of William Stoner, from Missouri farmhand to run-of-the-mill English professor, addressing all aspects of his existence, both minor and major, tracking his seemingly uneventful decisions in his career, the First World War, his marriage and fatherhood. Lacking all traits of traditional fictional heroes or distinguished figures, I was surprised at how I was enchanted by his story. Every stage of his life, despite the absence of any dramatic event, is an uphill battle. But this is what makes the read so surprising: with little to detract from the central character, I became engrossed in his emotional instability and the isolation that I so keenly felt on his part in both his working and personal life.
Reflective of the era in which the book is set, there is an overwhelming sense of repression. Freed from the physical fatigue he endured as a child working on the family farm, Stoner lacks any connection with his new home at the University of Columbia, which in itself becomes a heavy drain. Williams’ description of his marriage with Edith is achingly uncomfortable, yearning for a mutual affection that is portrayed on neither side. His profession, though loyally pursued, lacks the vigour and vitality that breathes life into education. And yet it is this ever-growing series of ordinary disappointments and everyday difficulties that makes the novel so moving. Williams creates a depth to the ordinary and masters the art of exquisite subtlety.
I rarely experienced any extreme emotion; there was no anger, passion, enthusiasm or heroism, but at its close, Stoner had stirred incredibly deep emotions that left me startled by the awe I felt in reading what is essentially a story of a normal, conventional life. It’s tragic that John Williams never witnessed the global success that his work finally achieved, something that I found strangely ironic and only deepened the terrible empathy that I had felt whilst reading.
There is no such thing as arriving late at this party. This is a classic piece of fiction that will surprise readers for years to come.