27 January 2014
STONER by John Williams
I’m a great fan of early 20th century American literature - I was brought up on F.Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner. Latterly, through watching the film REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet) and also reading the book, I’ve discovered (and lauded) the work of Richard Yates, who continued the tradition in the post war years. Had you asked me to read STONER without revealing its author I might have attributed it to Yates, such are the similarities in its subject and style. You can imagine my excitement then when STONER was resurrected and brought to my attention.
It was initially recommended to me by Ian McEwan (not personally, you understand, but rather through the medium of the radio) and when Ian McEwan recommends something I feel as though I should read it as it’s likely to be my kind of book. I’m glad I did as it’s a masterpiece of literary fiction.
I elected THE UNIVERSE VERSUS ALEX WOODS as my book of the year for 2013 – Waterstones elected STONER. But whereas THE UNIVERSE apportions joy and sadness in equal measure, beyond the quality of John Williams writing there is very little joy to be found in STONER – it’s a book of quiet and unredeemed desolation. If you want to get a feel for the tenor of the work I suggest you look at American Gothic, the painting by Grant Wood. You can find it here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Gothic. For me, nothing sums the book up better than this picture. The faces tell you all.
The plot is simple. William Stoner enters the University of Missouri at nineteen to study agriculture. He finds literature instead and later becomes a teacher. He marries the wrong woman. His life is quiet, and after his death his colleagues rarely remember him.
So if the story is unexciting, what is the book actually about? My impression is that it’s about stoicism and our capacity to endure, that whatever hardships and obstacles we are faced with, we will get through them in order to survive. Because Stoner’s achievement is just that – he survives, but nothing more. And yet it’s not that he’s had to endure anything exceptional, a failed marriage and a failure to fulfill his personal potential - and there are plenty of us to whom that applies. So what makes Stoner any different that we should want to read about him? Why would we want to confront ourselves with what are essentially our own failings?
I can think of two potential reasons. Firstly, that by glorifying Stoner’s life we come to realize that failure and mediocrity are perfectly acceptable and that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about it. This seems to be what the series of glowing tributes on the cover of the book imply. Alternatively, that failure and mediocrity are appalling things to have to cope with and if we don’t do something about them, we’ll finish up like as sad and as unfulfilled as Stoner - and who in God’s name wants that?
Personally speaking, I’m in the latter camp. My quibble with Stoner as a character is that in the face of all this adversity he does nothing other than accept it. For me, his failure lies not in his broken marriage or his stunted career – as I say, these are things that afflict many of us – but rather the fact that he chooses to do nothing about it. At a recent meeting of our Novelists Support Group, we discussed the idea that in order to make a novel relevant, the main protagonist has to change. Stoner doesn’t change and at times this is infuriating - you feel you want to take him by the shoulders and shake him into action. Does this mean that STONER lacks relevance as a novel?
Despite my frustration with Stoner as a person, I don’t believe so. I’m not a great adherent to these theories about literature anyway and in fact STONER helps prove my point. The book is relevant if it tells us something – and what it tells me is that I don’t want to finish up the way Stoner did. My life may well end in mediocrity and failure, just like his – but at least I’ll have the satisfaction of being able to say I tried to do something about it.
I invite you to read STONER for yourself and see which side of the fence you fall on.