Stoner by John Williams

Stoner, written by English professor John Williams, was published in 1965 with a ripple of acknowledgement.  It went out of print and was perhaps a victim of the turbulent times where a subtle chronological novel on a lowly man from the Midwest becoming an academic was out of step.  However, it was reprinted a few years ago and is being recognised as a lost classic.

The novel concerns the life of William Stoner as he leaves the family homestead before WW1 to attend the University of Missouri to study Agriculture.  However, his intellect is sparked not by crop growing but by literature.  He changes his course and thrives in his pursuit of teaching English.  The story follows his path from doctoral student, marriage, fatherhood, and his career as a professor at Missouri University.  It’s a tale of a restrained man who has a passion for life but has a failed marriage, and over time, he is resigned to melancholy.  He has a passionate affair with a young academic for a brief period, which is doomed to failure.  The story is not remarkable, but how it is described, and the prose used is striking.

The characterisation of Stoner is layered and has the reader wanting him to be recognised and to achieve happiness.  However, it’s the novel’s genius that his tribulations don’t end in him being successful.  Perhaps, a universal tale of compromise and having to accept the humdrum of reality.  It’s the realism that makes the novel so special. 

There is a remarkable passage where a committee of three professors meet to hold a Viva for a potential PhD student.  The student is not able, and his knowledge is limited.   However, he does have his supervisor supporting him.  This professor happens to dislike Stoner.  Why this is the case is never fully explored, and this ambiguity is brilliantly left dangling to allow the reader to fill in the gaps.  It would be hard to imagine such a meeting to be gripping and fast-moving.  But it is, and the interactions are deftly written, with concise language that draws the reader in.  It has the tension of a courtroom cross-examination in a murder trial but with increased drama and emotion.

And this is why Stoner will be regarded as a classic in the future.  I loved the subject, the ordinariness of the struggle, the acceptance of an often-unhappy life and his escape into literature and teaching for solace. 

Read it, and you won’t be disappointed.