Faced with a book as simple and true as Stoner, it’s easy to fall into the trap of intentional fallacy. It is the portrait of a quiet farm boy, who receives his Doctorate of Philosophy, teaches literature at the University of Missouri, then dies at the age of sixty-five. His colleagues hold him in no particular esteem. We know all this from the first page.
This story of hard graft without recognition, gratifyingly, for literary sleuths, has parallels with the author’s life and the reception of his work. John Williams’ grandparents were farmers and, after completing his PhD in Missouri, he taught at the University of Denver for the following three decades. First published in 1965, despite a glowing mention in the New Yorker, Stoner only sold about 2,000 copies. His next, a novel made up of the correspondence, documents and personal reflections of the emperor Augustus, earned him brief notoriety because it shared the National Book Award with John Barth’s Chimera – the first instance of a hung jury in the prize’s history. His friend Dan Wakefield wrote in Ploughshares, the literary magazine of Emerson College, ‘John is almost famous for not being famous’. It partly explains his enduring appeal; it’s always nice to be part of the happy few.
Williams’ character William Stoner is similarly unassuming. He quietly gives up his agronomy course to enroll in literature. The expression of the impact of this decision is as muted as it is straightforward ‘the required survey of English literature troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before.’
Stoner is a book about a young man’s sentimental and literary education; during his studies he becomes “conscious of himself in a way that he had not done before”. However, like the protagonist, the book is remarkably unliterary. It is only the women, apart from his daughter, who seem like literary constructs. His wife, who alternates between raging lust and neurotic hate, both intensified by her inability to express either and Stoner’s stoical incomprehension, is too perfect a foil to the young woman he eventually falls in love with. When Williams describes Stoner’s wife Edith’s behavior while she is alone in their apartment, it is one of the few jarring moments – tellingly it is one of the only scenes where Stoner is not present.
In one of his first classes, a caustic professor reads out Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 and asks him ‘What does this mean?’ Another student might have answered that the passing of the seasons and the falling of night reflect the encroachment of old age and imminent death. It might get the grade but it does little to convey the sense and worth of the poem. Stoner is unable to answer; he remains silent before the class.
Though his love for literature is one of his few constants, we feel distant from the books he devours and that affect him so. This may be the point; the effect of literature is hard to articulate. This is the difficulty shared by both teacher and writer: ‘he became aware of the gulf that lay between what he felt for his subject and what he delivered in the classroom … what was most alive withered in his words, what moved him most became cold in its utterance.’ Only on his deathbed, can Stoner understand the sonnet and can we see its meaning reflected in his life.
The book itself has also enjoyed belated quiet triumph. After a profile in the NYT in 2010, and a series of translations, Stoner is now reaching a wider audience. It’s not quite tulip fever but this hitherto little known 1965 classic by an American academic has been top of the bestseller list for months in the Netherlands, second only to Dan Brown. Meanwhile the Vintage publicity team have got so excited about the success of the re-release that they’ve even had badges made.
Though the ending of the novel is satisfyingly cathartic, Williams saves us from melodrama with his usual quiet knowing prose. Stoner goes back to the book, a ‘pedestrian’ survey of late Latin literature he wrote at the beginning of his career. ‘He did not have the illusion that would find himself there, in that fading print; and yet, he knew, a small part of him that he could not deny was there, and would be there. He opened the book and as he did so it became not his own.’ The story of one man has become that of every man.
We’ve been conditioned by the Jude Fawleys and Coleman Silks to expect our lower class upstart to lead a dramatic life and suffer a dramatic end. Perhaps the man we need to think of is Sisyphus, who rolls the boulder up the hill only to watch it fall. It is in his moments of rebellion, when he starts an affair, or takes a stand against a colleague’s favouritism, or builds his own office away from his wife’s control, that one must imagine Stoner happy.
Stoner by John Williams is published by Vintage Books. (£8.99)
Fleur Macdonald is co-editor of The Omnivore.com.