In 2013, John Williams’s Stoner was named Waterstones Book of the Year. The award marked the culmination of a slow ascent to fame, its victory secured by a series of translations and reprints decades after its initial publication back in 1965. I first came across the novel shortly after the award, when copies of it graced the tables of the great and good in every bookshop foyer. Adding it to my never-ending wish-list, it was not until a few years later that a copy of the novel found its way into my hands, a Christmas gift from a relative who had noted my selections in advance.
The novel tells the story of the hardy William Stoner, a quiet man of farming stock who enrols as an agriculture student at the University of Missouri. While Stoner is completing a compulsory English module as part of his degree, an eye-opening seminar on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 sparks a life-long love of literature, an experience so profound that he decides to switch his course and devote himself instead to the decipherment of books. After years of careful study, he becomes an academic at his beloved alma mater, never once leaving the protection of the campus he calls home. As we follow Stoner’s footsteps from the cradle to the grave, we see the struggles of an average life laid bare, from a vitriolic marriage to the hatred of a colleague, but in spite of all this heartache, of personal failure and professional disappointment, Stoner’s passion for the book gives him cause to carry on and provides some consolation for the battles he must face.
Williams’s portrayal of campus life in Stoner is no doubt modelled on his own experiences as a Ph.D. student at the University of Missouri and an academic at the University of Denver. His characters are instantly recognisable as the mainstays of academia, from the incompetent and unduly pompous graduate student Charles Walker to the bumbling Josiah Claremont, an ancient scholar who refuses to retire. His depiction of academic rivalry and departmental politics bears the hallmark of a writer who himself was forced to suffer petty squabbles and the overbearing egos of his peers, while his admission from the outset that William Stoner was held ‘in no particular esteem’ suggests the resignation of a man who knew first-hand that mediocrity is often all we can achieve.
In less accomplished hands, the story of a life so unremarkable could easily have turned out uninspiring, but Williams strikes an artful balance between narrating Stoner’s failures and describing fleeting moments of epiphany and joy. Almost all of these moments are inspired by literature, and one of Williams’s greatest strengths in this novel is his ability to encapsulate the transformative experience of reading. When Stoner grapples with the meaning of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, for example, he is jolted from the present and sits ‘staring out before him’, subsequently feeling ‘very distant’ and ‘very close’ to his fellow students. Later, as he reads in his room, ‘the past and the dead [flow] into the present’ and Stoner is rewarded with ‘a vision of denseness into which he [is] compacted and from which he…[has] no wish to escape.’ In moments such as these, Williams celebrates the power of literature to elevate the humdrum and uplift the spirit of a reader who would otherwise have garnered little happiness from life.
Told with great compassion and in plain and simple prose, Williams’s Stoner is a captivating novel that affirms the value of the small and mediocre. Not quite an everyman, nor yet a shining star, William Stoner stands for all who make their way through life with little fanfare or applause and yet somehow stumble forward in pursuit of what they love.