Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Stoner by John Williams

by Marie
stoner coverI had never heard of John Williams, but had picked up some of the excited literary gossip in last year’s papers about ‘Stoner’. First published in 1965, it seems not to have attracted much attention until it appeared as a Vintage paperback in 2012. But when writers of the stature of Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan say of it, ‘a terrific novel of echoing sadness’ and ‘a beautiful novel…a marvellous discovery for everyone who loves literature’ you know you are on to something special.

It seems slightly incredible that such a good book could be about the very uneventful, in many ways sad, life of a professor in an American university. You follow Stoner from his young years as a student and farmer, right up to his death, married, with an estranged daughter and a half-failed career behind him. In his disastrous marriage, and his doomed love match, and his undistinguished career, Will Stoner emerged for me as a hero of ordinary life.

Coming to it after Donna Tartt’s ‘Goldfinch’, I realised that I had gone from a good novel, even a very good novel, to a great novel. The first thing to strike me was the quality of the prose: clear, spare, unadorned, each word and sentence exactly right for the task it had to do. Like the author, the central character Will Stoner is an English lecturer at a Midwestern university whose love is language. Williams’ writing has the craftsman’s mastery of shape and form that comes, I imagine, from a lifetime’s immersion in the world’s greatest literature. When you read prose that has luminous clarity, you realise how opaque so much writing is by comparison.

But I doubt that love of literature is enough to achieve this by itself. It’s the novel’s intelligence that elevates it above the ordinary, even the very good. Its sharply observed take on education, literature and the politics of the academy can perhaps be put down to the author’s experience as a practitioner. Memorable depictions of landscapes or of natural phenomena such as the cycle of the seasons can perhaps be learned from the great poets, though that would not guarantee that they were fresh and vivid.

This book is intelligent in a more profound way that I want to describe as a kind of wisdom. I am thinking of the insights the author brings to human character, how public persona and private life play off each other in the formation of identity, how he notices and finds words for the complexities of love, passion and estrangement, or the gentle decline of a human being in his or her last years of ageing and suffering by which we come to terms with mortality. Stoner’s marriage to a woman of elusive emotional make-up is a masterpiece of psycho-sexual observation. It is all done in a register of plain, straightforward prose that puts you in awe of the capacity of simple words to convey the vicissitudes of the human heart. You feel it’s wonderfully accurate writing.

This is one of those books where nothing much happens, yet everything happens. The career of an agricultural labourer who discovers literature at college and becomes a university lecturer could be told in a few paragraphs. The brilliance of the novel is in uncovering the rhizome under the soil, prising open the interstices of everyday existence that make this ordinary story extraordinary. It lays bare the hidden, unsuspected elegiac character of human life for all to see, maybe even its tragedy. I found myself asking: does Williams mean this of any human life like yours and mine? What if he had written his story about me?

Take the key moment when a literature lecturer reads Shakespeare’s 73rd Sonnet and asks Stoner to explain it:

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Stoner can’t get beyond the words ‘it means…’. Desperately trying to capture what is hovering on the margins of his experience for which as yet he has no vocabulary, he simply repeats them. But Williams’ laconic description of this disclosure that is happening to the student as he struggles to understand makes you realise that it’s a life-changing epiphany, a transfiguration. You know that this will be the text for the rest of the book. A lesser writer would have piled on the prose, indulged the emotions, attempted to dissect that moment of recognition, padded out the detail, and referred back to it later in the book. Williams is content simply to drop the pebble into a pool, allow the waves to travel outwards and trust to the intelligence of the reader to make the connections. This is literary restraint at its best.

‘Stoner’ is a minor miracle of writing. It reminded me of Flaubert’s saying about language, that it’s ‘a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars’. Or, as someone said of Chekhov’s short stories, you could think you were holding life itself, like a fluttering bird, in your cupped hands.

This may be the one book I read in 2014 of which I’ll confidently say, if you ask me: ‘Yes, you must read it. You really must. Trust me. It’s marvelous.’

Originally pub. 1965 by Viking, reissued 2006 New York Review Books Classics 288 pp. ISBN-13:978-1590171998

Marie is an avid reader and player of online games, along with enjoying crosswords, travel and riddles and puns. She lives in the U.K.

14 comments on “Stoner by John Williams

  1. Jackie
    January 30, 2014

    I’d never heard of this book before reading your review, but your praise makes me think I ought to look for it. It seems to work on many layers, as a character study, a snapshot of the time and place, of a relationship and for the writing itself.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings
    January 30, 2014

    Wow! That’s some review! I’ve heard good things about this book but you really have convinced me I must read this – thank you.

  3. Ela
    January 30, 2014

    There was a review in Private Eye not so long ago which suggested (rather grumpily, as is usual for the Eye) that ‘Stoner’ was not an unjustly neglected classic, but had been a moderately well-selling book from its publication and hasn’t ever been out of print in the US… Your review is a rather more positive one of the book than theirs!

  4. Kirsty D
    January 30, 2014

    I don’t think I’ve heard a bad word about this book since its literary star started rising recently. I caved in to the pressure and bought it a couple of weeks ago, and am very much looking forward to it.

  5. Alison Priest
    January 31, 2014

    I have reserved a copy of this book at my local library – ir sounds very interesting.

  6. Alison Priest
    January 31, 2014


  7. Hilary
    January 31, 2014

    Welcome, Marie! I too have been intrigued by the recent rediscovery of ‘Stoner’ as a neglected classic, have been wondering whether I’d enjoy reading it, and your enthusiastic opinion of it is encouraging me to try it.

    I think that cover image is stunning – sadly, I don’t think it is the one used for the latest edition over here in the UK – a minor disappointment!

    Thanks very much for your review!

  8. Marie Green
    January 31, 2014

    Thank you all for your most encouraging comments! It’s a pleasure to be involved in sharing with fellow book lovers.

  9. Noémi
    February 1, 2014

    Thank you for a great review! I bought this book a couple of weeks ago, after reading about it on another blog. I love how literature gets rediscovered like this. After this review I’m even more thrilled to start reading it!

  10. Hazel at The Pantry
    February 4, 2014

    This is an excellent, perceptive and beautifully written review. I’ve just read the novel, and agree with your comments about the quality of the writing – in a different league entirely from most of the writing even in very good novels. I’m recommending ‘Stoner’ to friends, but when I attempt to express why I think it’s so good, I fear I’m at the ‘It means … it means …’ level, rather than your ‘wonderfully accurate’ review.

  11. unsolicitedtidbits
    February 9, 2014

    Oh I love this book! It’s a gem.

  12. Christine A
    February 25, 2014

    Reblogged this on The Marlborough Reading Group and commented:
    After a particularly exhilarating discussion in the Reading Group this evening I think this excellent review by Marie on Vulpes Libris just about rounds it off !

  13. Pingback: Stoner by John Williams | book word

  14. Amyclae
    March 26, 2014

    I’ve also never heard of this book, and apparently for good reason. But it’s so good to see a publisher finally get behind a great book, even if it takes a lot of prodding.

    Added to the list. I wonder if I’ll ever pull the trigger on buying it.

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This entry was posted on January 30, 2014 by in Fiction: 20th Century, Fiction: general and tagged , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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