Author: John Williams
Genre: Fiction, academic novel, classics
Where I got the book: I purchased this book at Norli.
My rating: ★★★★☆
Summary: At the end of the 19th century, William Stoner is born into a poor Missouri farmer family. He is sent to the university to study agriculture, but later changes focus completely and ends up studying literature instead. He becomes a teacher and later an English professor, but he keeps encountering big disappointments throughout his life – he is estranged from his parents and his background, his career is hindered, his marriage is cold and emotionless, and an affair nearly causes a scandal. The novel follows Stoner’s life through his undistinguished career and failing family life, but also through his love for literature.
“You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world. You’d let it chew you up and spit you out, and you’d lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn’t face them, and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong. And you have no place to go in the world.”
– Stoner, John Williams
When I first started reading this I honestly didn’t think it was going to be that interesting. And for the first few chapters, it really wasn’t. The narrative is straight-forward and very plain, the whole story is really just a series of chronological “and then”s in some random guy’s life, and the characters seem rather ordinary and boring. But as I kept reading I found myself somehow sucked into the story, and the book that started out as unimpressive became a page-turner.
I think some of the novel’s beauty lies in the fact that while it is indeed depressing and melancholic in its content, it is so in an undramatic, quiet way, but this is also what makes it so real and human. Horrible and unfair things happen to not-always-but-mostly good people, but for something to be horrible and unfair doesn’t necessarily mean it has to revolve around large, life-changing, heartbreaking events. These things can be by definition minor things, such as your co-workers being against you, or engaging in passive-aggressive battles with your wife, but consider them occurring in a perfectly ordinary human being’s life and they can seem horrible nonetheless. Add to this a protagonist who is almost painfully patient, who is mostly passive when you wish he wasn’t (and I wanted to shake him sometimes), who never speaks in a grand and elaborate way, who never makes much of a fuss about anything, and who moves slowly through his own life, and you just can’t help but sympathize.
While the prose in “Stoner” is quite straight-forward, it doesn’t mean it’s boring. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, and it’s also very clear. You’re able to read it all with a certain ease and flow but at the same time there are some passages in this that are absolutely gorgeous. Same thing with the characters; most of them are also straight-forward, nothing remarkable, but it feels like they’re real people.
I ended up loving the majority of this book. I just wish that Edith, Stoner’s wife, and her feelings and behavior had been better explained. Even towards the end she remained a character I couldn’t stand, but on reflection I wish there had been something that allowed me to change my mind about her. She’s neurotic through and through, she treats her husband terribly, and she keeps changing during the course of their marriage but these changes are hardly ever good. Was it all just bad communication? I don’t know, I just don’t appreciate how she was written most of the time. I also don’t appreciate the way one of Stoner’s fellow professors, Hollis Lomax, is described as having “grotesque” deformities, considering Lomax’ role in the story. That a character who turns out to be a bit of an antagonist is described as deformed is honestly a strategy I don’t care much for.
Overall, though, I unexpectedly enjoyed this novel. It might strike you as rather short to be about one man’s entire life (288 pages, Vintage Classics paperback edition), but taking everything I’ve said into consideration it’s actually a perfect length. It’s a book that is complex in its simplicity, it’s tragic and real but it’s also inspiring. Human beings are flawed in the most ordinary ways and sometimes they make bad decisions. It’s not hard to relate to that.