Stoner was first published in the US in 1965 and then in the UK in 1973. Last year the novel had a resurgence across Europe swiftly becoming a bestseller, its reputation growing as a great American novel. I was passed this to read by a member of my book group after he had enjoyed it.
The book title refers to William Stoner, a man who we learn very early in this novel entered the University of Missouri in 1910 as a student; he then remained at the University as an academic until his death in 1956. The novel tells Stoner’s life story from growing up as a farm boy before leaving home to complete an agriculture course at university and then finding a love for English. It is quite a simple story carefully guiding the reader through the various highs and lows of Stoner’s life. The novel has a slight feel of the biographical but when reading it is clearly fiction – whether or not the book is loosely based on someone the author knows, I am not sure. Stoner is a slow paced novel, yet this doesn’t mean that it is not interesting. As the book ambles along it concentrates on the important parts of Stoner’s life, the parts of Stoner’s life that are important to him, the parts of his life that make him the man he is. Considering the book covers a period of more than 60 years it is quite a slim novel. John Williams does not dwell on the mundane too much (although it is clear that Stoner’s life is repetitive and boring in some respects); he simply passes over periods of Stoner’s life to show that it is ‘business as usual’.
I found Stoner to be an incredibly readable novel, Williams has a smooth style of writing that helps the reader fall faultlessly into the story; I felt that the novel not only drew me in but then also enveloped me so I became completely engrossed with the main character. Stoner is a good man, a nice man; he is intelligent and kind, but vulnerable. He cares about the students he teaches and the academic subject he has fallen in love with. One of the main reasons he book is a success is because Stoner is such a likeable character. The writing itself reminded me quite a bit of John Updike – I read ‘Rabbit, Run’ a few years ago and the style is not too dissimilar. It has an American languor that, from what I’ve read previously, is very much of the time when it was written. The writing and pace of the novel is a reflection of Stoner’s life.
What struck me the most about Stoner was how desperately sad it was, this sadness however did not put me off the novel at all. Stoner is such a likeable man but he is not a happy man. It is not that bad things happen to Stoner or that he is in anyway unlucky, the main point of unhappiness in his life is that he falls in love and marries the wrong person. As the reader, I wanted most for William Stoner to be happy, to be content and to be able to enjoy his life. The novel is not all sad, there are many uplifting parts to Stoner’s life; however, there is almost always an underlying melancholy to his character. There are a few heart breaking moments in the book, moments of pain and anguish that slowly chip away at Stoner’s resolve so that he ebbs deeper into himself.
Stoner is a beautiful novel, one of the finest I have read for some time. I totally hooked from start to finish, letting the author’s use of language flow over and through me. I was often moved by this book, I found it very emotionally charged both with sadness and happiness. I would recommend this book very highly to any reader.