Stoner by John Williams
This was given to me by Mark at Brazos Bookstore in Houston. I’m not sure why I got all the way through it — I kept thinking while reading it, “What’s so special about this?” — but the story (about a man who becomes an English professor) was so simple and the prose was so clean, before I knew it, I had finished. (I could really see an audiobook version read by Alec Baldwin, Royal Tenenbaums-style.) And afterwards, I kept asking myself why I had liked it (turns out that the book has been an unexpected bestseller in many countries), which is something Tim Kreider sort of touched on in his piece about it for the New Yorker:
“Stoner” ’s protagonist is an unglamorous, hardworking academic who marries badly, is estranged from his child, drudges away in a dead-end career, dies, and is forgotten: a failure. The book is set not in the city of dreams but back in the dusty heartland. It’s ostensibly an academic novel, a genre historically of interest exclusively to academics. Its values seem old-fashioned, prewar (which may be one reason it’s set a generation before it was written), holding up conscientious slogging as life’s greatest virtue and reward. And its prose, compared to Fitzgerald’s ecstatic art-nouveau lyricism, is austere, restrained, and precise; its polish is the less flashy, more enduring glow of burnished hardwood; its construction is invisibly flawless, like the kind of house they don’t know how to build anymore.
But there really is something about it. I like this passage from an interview with Williams that Julian Barnes brought up in his piece about the novel:
Though he is allowed small victories towards the end of the novel, they are pyrrhic ones. The pains of lost and thwarted love have tested Stoner’s reserves of stoicism to the full; and you might well conclude that his life must be accounted pretty much a failure. But, if so, you would not have Williams on your side. In one of his rare interviews, he commented of his protagonist: “I think he’s a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing … The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner’s sense of a job … a job in the good and honourable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was.”
I’m not going to say I loved it, but I quite liked it. Thanks, Mark!
Filed under: my reading year 2014