Stoner: Possibly the greatest novel you’ve never heard of

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Stoner CoverHailed by a reviewer at the New York Times as a “perfect novel”, John Williams’ once-forgotten tour de force, Stoner, has become something of a literary phenomenon over the last six months.

Well-received by critics on publication in 1965, Stoner was a commercial failure, with only two thousand copies being sold in the United States. Having repeatedly fallen out of print only to be briefly rescued by a small but dedicated readership of Williams’ work over the past four decades, Stoner has of late become a surprising international bestseller, with sales rising over 100,000 in the Netherlands alone.

There appears to have been no explicit catalyst for the sudden, sharp increase in intrigue in the novel, but rather its popularity seems to have stemmed almost entirely from word of mouth praise and recommendation in what journalists are already dubbing “The Stoner Effect”. Whilst in the UK, the novelist Ian McEwan, (whose novel Saturday seems to have been clearly inspired by Williams’ realist style), discussed his admiration for Stoner in a recent interview for the BBC, prompting thousands of Brits to discover the novel for themselves through its republication by Vintage Classics.

The title of this convention-defying masterwork is somewhat misleading. Though published in the mid 1960s, this isn’t a book about the drug-culture of the era. In fact, the novel is far removed from the illusionistic, hallucinogenic experiences most likely initially associated with the word “stoner”. Written with a gossamer attention to detail and filled with acute, nuanced observations, this chronicle of the life of William Stoner, an unexceptional lecturer at the University of Missouri who passively encounters all facets of the human condition, is grounded in a startlingly unsentimental realism. The majesty of Williams’ writing is born from a profound appreciation of the potential for beauty and tragedy to be found in the everyday. His narrative voice has the capacity for both compassion and unremitting candour; neither his protagonist, nor indeed his readers are given the opportunity to be taken in by blind idealism or pretentions of greatness. Within the first page of the novel, Williams mentions that Stoner was “held in no particular esteem”, that his name came to hold no more significance to others than being a mere reminder of “the end that awaits all”.

Though there are references to Stoner’s lack of introspection, he is spared the frustration of self-delusion; he is as aware as we, the readers, are by the routine emptiness of his life. In his youth he may have mindlessly fallen for the statuesque Edith, possibly one the least sympathetic female characters in modern fiction, but “within a month he knew his marriage was a failure, within a year he stopped hoping it would improve”. Yet even this inimical relationship, only a marriage in nominal terms, is almost completely free from dramatic confrontation or extended periods of passion. The very fact that Stoner is drawn as being unassumingly acquiescent, and even comfortable in his prosaic world, devoid of any extremes of emotions, is so subtly affecting that Williams can avoid overtly pandering to the reader’s sense of pathos through grand climaxes and turning points. And when Stoner does finally appear to find true contentment in the form of his mistress and postgraduate student Katherine, their loving relationship silently fades away as inconspicuously as it began.

Whilst we may find poignancy in Williams’ artful depiction of Stoner’s lack of progression, ambition or fulfilment and the meaningless decline of his cyclical existence, Stoner is as much a celebration of literature and life as it is a lament. The ostensible simplicity and stagnancy of the narrative does not make it a laborious read. The intricately crafted descriptions, anecdotes and character studies are never superfluous, but rather their precision and eloquence lend the work its vivacity, giving aesthetic significance to the life of an unremarkable man. Stoner, as a work of art may be seen in terms of the paintings of Vermeer and Williams’ relative contemporary, Edward Hopper, in its ability to elevate the status of a common individual subject into something almost sublime. Stoner then triumphs in conveying the power of literature to immortalise the lives of characters within readers, and it is through his writing that the legacy of the late Williams, a university lecturer who passed away in 1994 with little more recognition than Stoner himself, has been preserved

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