A human act of becoming

This is my review of Stoner: A Novel (Vintage Classics) by John Williams.

Given the chance to escape from toiling on his father's barren farm to an agricultural course, the aptly named Stoner makes a guilty switch to English literature, for which he has conceived an abrupt and unlikely passion. Pursuing this with his customary determined labour, Stoner achieves a measure of success, but a mixture of misjudgements and fate blight his path.

The book opens with his death, describing him as "held in no particular esteem when … alive", so that our motive for reading is to learn what secrets or underestimated qualities he may ironically have taken to the grave, or which may be revealed to bring him recognition too late. It then becomes apparent that this is a detailed study of the life of an ordinary man who evokes sympathy in his resilience, his integrity, his capacity to appreciate nature, his occasional moments or periods of great joy which show that he does not lack feeling or the ability to love. When he is wronged, I felt anger on his behalf.

Yet, he is a flawed man as well. His preoccupation with his work often seems escapist and selfish, which matters if an innocent person suffers as a result. His passivity and usual habit of avoiding conflict also seem weak, although perhaps a man from humble origins, without connections and too straightforward to make them, cannot be expected to win out in the political jungle of a university campus.

This book reminds me of Bernard Malamud's brilliant "A New Life" and C.P. Snow's tales of academic rivalry, like "The Master". You may wonder at the revived interest in a "lost classic" of 1965 that now seems a little old-fashioned. In a strictly linear plot, Williams develops and disposes of each episode in turn almost too neatly. There often seems to be too much "telling" – as each character is introduced, Williams informs us what to think about them. The "villains" of the piece seem rather exaggerated, and I am not sure Williams' portrayal of women – with the exception of Karen Driscoll – is very convincing. If Stoner has been won over to literature by Shakespeare, I am unclear why he is so bound up in what seems a rather dry obsession with grammar and the classics.

Despite this, the clear simple prose carries you along and I like the efficiency with which all the characters are given a clear function in the plot. The author's ability to express fine shades of meaning is astonishing. Some striking insights make a sharp impact. These may vary according to the reader, but I have made a note to study the Shakespearean sonnet number 73 which was instrumental in converting Stoner to literature. I was also struck by his ability to see the essential unimportance of some of his problems – although perhaps that makes him too quick to accept the unhappiness of others. His thoughts on the nature of love are thought-provoking.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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