Book Reviews

Stoner by John Williams

“Stoner : the Greatest Novel you have never read”   Ian McEwan

Although I am not one to write reviews, and my input in my book club is often less than informative or intellectual, I felt that pen had to be put to paper about Stoner by John Williams. I discovered it in the library about a month ago and was first tempted to read it with the quote from Ian McEwan (one of my favourite writers):

“As soon as you start reading it you feel you’re in very, very good hands. It’s a very authoritative prose. The story, just to list its elements make it sound rather dull, and a little too sad, but in fact a small life out of which John Williams makes a very, very beautiful novel.”

Mr McEwan is right, I feel. From the very beginning of the novel, I was caught up. The premise of the story, whilst not sounding action packed or thrilling, revolves around the life of William Stoner, a man who has never left the State of Missouri, is an academic at the university he attended, marries there and dies there – this is the story of his life. And yet, this seemingly ‘ordinary’ man has so much to offer the reader. The style of the writing is plain spoken, but so beautiful that it draws you into this man’s life – as simple it may seem from the outside, the depth and clarity of the writing, endears him to you. There are so many passages in this book which may give you an example :

“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.”
― John Edward WilliamsStoner

William Stoner is an only child from a poor farming family. His parents send him to College to study agriculture in the hopes that he will return to the farm and bring a wealth of knowledge back to his farming roots. As part of his studies, he must complete some papers in literature. His lecturer ignites in him the passion for literature, through a reading of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and thus Stoner is lead into an academic career teaching literature at the University.

Along the way he makes friends, both who leave to fight in the War, one not returning but leaving a life long impact on Stoner. The other returns to be Dean at the University, and their friendship is one of loyalty and one of the only true friends Stoner has. He marries the first girl he falls in love with, Edith, who is a tense and complicated character, with a mental illness that her family do not acknowledge, partly because there is the possibility of abuse as a child. Their marriage is not a success, they have a child who suffers at the hands of her parent’s estranged relationship and is turned against Stoner by his manipulating wife (only PART of the story!). He finds love in an extramarital affair which appears to be the only time he is truly happy. However, their parting brought tears to my eyes on reading.

Stoner must also deal with many issues at the University – a particularly loathsome character, Lomax (Head of the English Department), decides to ruin Stoner and his career, which Stoner cleverly overcomes. The help of his long time friend becomes invaluable.

However, the most heart wrenching and beautifully written part of this book is on Stoner’s deathbed.

“A kind of joy came upon him, as if borne in on a summer breeze. He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure–as if it mattered. It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what his life had been. Dim presences gathered at the edge of his consciousness; he could not see them, but he knew that they were there, gathering their forces toward a kind of palpability he could not see or hear. He was approaching them, he knew; but there was no need to hurry. He could ignore them if he wished; he had all the time there was.

There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.” As you can probably surmise from my plot summaries above, not a heck of a lot happens in this book and it’s depressing as hell, but I couldn’t stop reading, and my emotions were all over the place. There are small moments of joy and years of crushing sadness. There is tedium and frustration and then suddenly a burst of love, real love, but it can’t last.”

So, although not a lot “happens” in the life of this one man, it brought up all my emotions – sadness, some joy, sympathy, guilt, love. It portrays a life fulfilled (in one way or another) and made me think about how we all know so little about the lives of the people around us. I personally love this book, and would recommend to anyone who would care to listen!

Stoner by John Williams


Kathy Sale
Library Assistant, 
Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts


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