William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen.
Last year saw the revival of a forgotten story, a classic reborn into the world of popular literary fiction and onto every reader’s bookshelf. The little-known author, John Edward Williams, soon became the one on everyone’s lips when his novel Stoner stood testament to the power of recommendation. Revived by Ian McEwan’s radio recommendation this recovered classic steadily climbed to the top of every bestseller list and even claiming the accolade of Waterstones Book of the Year 2013. Not bad for a story originally published in 1965!
So when I found myself with 10 spare minutes at Waterloo station, perusing the newly-opened Foyles, I decided to find out if the hype was justified and came face to face with a book that, despite its misleading drug-related title, is calm, considered and absolutely classic.
The beauty of Stoner lies within William’s ability to manipulate a simple story of a fairly uneventful life in academia into a complex, thought-provoking comment on what constitutes a life well-lived. A deceptively simple story told with absolute precision, Stoner follows the tale of a man, William Stoner, a farmer’s son turned literary academic, and how the decisions he makes and the people he surrounds himself with impact on who William Stoner becomes and how his life develops.
This novel is a superb example of an author who directs his audience whilst giving clues and gives them enough room to interpret events themselves. Williams, in the same manner as his protagonist, is obviously in love with language and his choice phrasings have the same impact on his audience. The language is chosen with skillful care, being shallow enough to keep you from getting lost in convoluted flowery metaphors yet deep enough to make an impact.
For a story focussed on one man’s life, told in the third person, I was amazed as to how quickly William Stoner got under my skin and I think for this novel to be successful he has to. There is a deep set stoicism in his manner that creates a deep feeling of empathy between the character and audience – here is a man to whom happiness is fleeting and it is almost always soured by outside intervention but you keep on rooting for him!
Stoner is a novel that matches cold winter nights, a favourite reading chair and a large glass of wine. It is sophisticatedly simple and deserves to be read so. I find it sad that John Edward Williams, having died in 1994, will never know the success of his forgotten novel now billed by the Sunday Times as the ‘greatest book you’ve never read’ – life imitating art a little too closely perhaps.