Allthatsleft Book Club #9: Stoner by John Williams

by Ray_North on March 18, 2014

Unknown-3After Waterstones declared it as their book of the year, Stoner become a bit of a publishing sensation of 2013. Which, I suppose, for a book that was written in 1965, by a relatively little known author, and has nothing whatsoever to do with Warewolves, Wizards or sado-masochism is no bad thing.

What Stoner is, is a study of the human condition as seen through the entire life of a mediocre and largely unhappy man. In that, it is work of art, a true work of genius that stimulates and appals at the same time.

It is the story of William Stoner. A man born to the soil who is given the chance to leave his farm in the deep west and take up a degree in agriculture at Colombia University. When he is there, however, he realises that his real love is English and he changes his degree and embarks upon an academic career that sees him stay at Colombia for the rest of his life as he goes from nervous under-graduate, to Doctorate Student, finally, to Professor. Despite these academic triumphs, the rest of his life is sad and lonely – he ploughs through his books as a farmer might plough a field, he gains a delight from it, but, has difficulty truly articulating that delight to others, most of whom aren’t as clever or as well read as he.

What defines his life though are his two great struggles, one with his awful, frigid and unstable wife Enid, and the other with his great academic foe, Lomax. His wife clearly hates him and their marriage and their relationship is one marked by pain – especially when she embarks upon a campaign to wreck the one of the two truly warm and lovely things he has in his life, his relationship with his daughter, Grace. Tragically, indeed, heartbreakingly, she succeeds in this, forcing Stoner to spend hardly any time with her. Throughout the story she is cold, even at the end of his life, she deals with his terminal cancer in a way that is utterly devoid of affection.

His dispute with Lomax isn’t of his making either. Lomax takes offence when Stoner fails his prodigy for having a cavalier and arrogant attitude to his subject; the result of which is a lifelong battle, which ultimately leaves both men tired and unfulfilled. One of the casualties of this battle, is the only other happy thing in Stoner’s life, his lover Katherine Driscoll, who is driven away, partly by Lomax and partly by the attitude of the time, where an academic having an affair with a post-graduate student was utterly taboo.

When he finds that she has gone, the pain is unbearable, as the reader realises that, with her departure, Stoner has lost the only chance he had to be happy.

It is, without doubt a bleak book. And it’s bleakness spans over half a century and is littered with casualties from the trenches of the First World War (which sees the death of one of his best friends), the great depression (which does for his father-in-law, who shoots himself when he, erroneously believes he has bankrupt his bank), the rise of fascism (which contributes to the death of his mentor) – by the time we have the enlightened 50’s, it is clear that Stoner’s own life is coming to an end.

Stoner, himself is often a character made weak by his desire to do the right thing, sometimes you want him to stand up to his wife, to stand up to Lomax, to write the book that is inside him. But he doesn’t. He continues to live his bleak and cheerless existence – championing the history of the English language and the influences of various long forgotten theorists, which are only important to him.

Perhaps, though, what resonates most about this book is it’s ability to play to the readers own fears about his own mortality, his own, mediocrity – because, in the short 279 pages (in the version I read), this man’s whole life is covered, laid bare, stripped down for us: one mediocre career, one unhappy marriage, one short-lived love affair and one slow, rather painful death.

Wizards and werewolves this isn’t.

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