‘Stoner’ by John Williams

Stoner is a novel published in the year 1965 by the American writer John Williams, who won the National Book Award for Augustus (1972) and the acclaimed Butcher’s Crossing (1960). Now, judging by the limited amount of work John Williams produced in his entire life, he was a man of deep thought, silent and reticent in his fame and readership, and managed to write three great books. His legacy is deeply perplexing yet reassuring if one sees the larger picture, very similar in its graph to his earlier written, later recognised masterpiece Stoner, which was published in the year 1965 only to be out of print later due to only 2,000 copies being sold commercially. The novel, even in the year 1965, proved to stir the hearts of certain critics although commercial expectations were outright shattered. It was reissued, then, in the year 1972 by Pocket Books; yet again, in the year 1998 by University of Arkansas Press. In 2003, it was again published in Paperback by Vintage and finally, in 2006, New York Review Classics published a special version, which is now very popular among readers. Anna Gavalda, the French novelist, translated the novel in the French language in 2011 and it went on to be Waterstones’ Book of the year in the year 2012 in Britain. In 2013, the sales tripled, and Stoner became a global success; it was recognised as a forgotten classic and ‘the greatest American novel you have never heard of…’ by New Yorker. Hence, if one traces the journey to success of this classic novel, one is nonetheless astonished and reassured at the same time.

The novel has been categorised under the genre of Campus or Academic novel, which may be, in the end, questionable in itself as all genre boundaries are. I came across Stoner while browsing the bookshop Waterstones in Canterbury, where it was featured on the best books to read desk. It follows the story of William Stoner, a student turned academic professor at the University of Missouri. The first page sums up his life in a few sentences, and then, the novel paints an unforgettable portrait of a middle-class man, who spends his life away in a university campus. The campus becomes a world full of surprises, heartbreaks and a conveyor of painful human truths of life. John Williams was an academician himself, and his meditations, reflections and portrayal of life in the campus are narrated in a dazzling manner. Astonishing details are spelt out in crisp, short sentences which enrichen the reading experience and showcase the penetrative gaze of the writer, who gives precedence to the ordinary as well as the extraordinary, to the real as the surreal and to the beautiful as well as the sublime.

Stoner goes through the usual course of life from adulthood to friendship to marriage to mid-life crisis and finally, the ageing process, the peak of his career and his own psychological maturity although all of these moments are shaded by a piercing sense of nostalgia, melancholy, and personal as well as professional failure. He gives birth to a child, a child he falls in love with and who falls in love with Stoner. The friendships formed in his younger days with two people he fell in love with. The novel is a comprehensive study of life, it is the Great American novel without actually ticking all the boxes on the checklist. At the time of its publication, a constant stream of modernism, contemporary way of writing and stylistic choices ascended the scales of literature. It is dazzling to read through a novel which never allows itself to veer towards the heavy dosage of postmodernist swashbuckling-ness nor overtly toward the Tolstoyan realism. It belongs somewhere in the middle, uniquely classifying itself as a modern novel while removing the density, pompousness and heavy-handedness and owing to its analysis of genuine human emotions and spiritual truths to the classical realism form of novel writing.

Williams’ prose is sharp, poetic and crisp while keeping the sentences short yet expressive. His language has an effect which reminds the reader of classical lyricism; for the syntax, the linguistic choice and quality are well versed in a very physical, particular way. As James Joyce said once, ‘In the particular, lies the universal.’ John Williams’ prose has a remarkable quality of enlivening and portraying metaphysics of life and the world through the lens of physical sensations, for instance, (I am paraphrasing) the crunch of snow beneath the feet, the snow sprinkle on the mountains, the chilly wind and the pale blue light expressing melancholy through the windows. He is a writer who can create sentences of perfection, with verve and physical intimacy in accordance with the landscape, the American campus rather than the different dimension of the vast stretch of land. To be specific, the description of love in this book is transcendental; as a reader, I always felt that I am immune to the common literary tropes of love because it seemed to be a cheap trick to titillate the human heart, especially the youthful. Nonetheless, this novel moved me to tears and made me feel the burning desire for love, true love that sends shivers down one’s body. It is amazingly dramatic and so beautifully heart-breaking.

Stoner is a sad novel, a novel if translated into real life would be regarded by the people as an incredibly depressing tale of misfortune and downright failure yet magically with the force of subtle wit and meditative force and vigour, John Williams pumps blood into an otherwise, ideally, cliché novel or worse, a dead one. Rest assured, give this book a week, and this novel will stay with you for a lifetime. It makes you feel the deepest traumas of human suffering and yet how life and the instinct to survive persevere to find beauty against all the odds. John Williams with this novel has proved that to give meaning to something tremendously sad, one has to only portray the waves and the moods of the human characters, to breathe life and compassion into a failed life, and in the end, there are moments worth loving and worth living for. This novel asks a fundamentally important question: ‘What is life for?’

Stoner is a masterpiece, a breath-taking journey which will shatter many hearts yet reassure the ones stricken with misfortune and pain with its beautiful melody, transfigured into an eternal music of life by smooth and compassionate writing. This book is a sure reminder of how much the world can take away from us, yet it also surprises the gentle reader by exposing how much the world still has to offer despite the broken pieces of life sprawling in endless waves of debris; the music still weaves its magic across the boundaries of pain and turmoil.

Leave a comment

3 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
3 Comment authors
Irfan Ahmedj johnAnkush Vij Recent comment authors
Ankush Vij
Ankush Vij

Beautifully summarized !!
Would love to read about some Indian authors as well..

j john
j john

very well articulated.

Irfan Ahmed
Irfan Ahmed

Ah! I am immensely thankful to you for the beautiful piece of writing. I always considered Stoner a masterpiece but I always wondered why it was not included in the greatest novels list. And there is hardly any mention of the remarkable John Williams. It’s difficult to forget this novel. Truly, it stays with you lifelong. Thanks a lot.