Sometimes when people give me novels it can be months or even years before I get round to reading them. I do sometimes feel a bit bad about this, although on the plus side (I reason with myself) at least I do tend to read them eventually. However, no such issue with this latest novel – I was given it by my kind Mother-in-law last month for my birthday, and decided to read it next.

Stoner by John Williams

I have to confess that I’d never heard of either the novel of its author previously, so was doubly intrigued to find out what it was like.

It’s an unlikely novel, in a way, in that it tells the tale of a fairly quiet, ordinary man, who leads a quiet and mostly uneventful life. In fact, the opening page almost seems to have been written to try and put off any potential readers – here is an extract:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910 […] he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. […] Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now.

However, once you start reading a bit further, you discover that the novel’s strength and its appeal lies in its close attention to detail and the compelling account of one man’s experience of existence. Stoner, who has had a basic childhood on a small farm leaves home for the first time to go to University. He then marries young and hastily and very soon discovers that he has made a poor choice. Within weeks his wife and he come to an unspoken agreement to remain married but to essentially live life independent of each other, thus leading to a lonely existence for the young scholar. However, as time progresses Stoner goes on to find meaning and enjoyment in his research and in his teaching.

Some years later, he even finds love – an event that is told with some poignancy in the novel:

In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.

And a little later we read the following passage, which I love:

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.

This was an intelligent, thoughtful tale. It probably would not keep the attention of one looking for action and adventure, but there is much to admire in the quiet, subtle narrative that is perfectly suited to its subject.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham or The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse.

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