Stoner by John Williams

First up, just to avoid disappointment, you need to know that this isn’t a novel about those long haired friends of your brother. You know, those one’s who always carry a certain aroma around with them and have a particular skill at looking at some point in the middle distance rather than at you. There is barely a mention of music, nobody gets high and no one sits around listening to the sound of the grass growing whilst Hendrix provides the musical backdrop.

No, this literary hit around Europe last year is very different sort of novel. The sort of novel that they don’t really write anymore, which makes sense because it was written around fifty years ago. Apparently it did reasonably well upon it’s release before it disappeared from the print runs in 1972, Suddenly last year it became it was reprinted and became a hit in France, Italy, Israel and then here in the UK.

The Stoner of the title is William Stoner and we follow his story from birth to death. Through his unpromising childhood to his introduction to literature, his first and lasting love. Through the two great wars of the twentieth century and through his steady and unspectacular career in academia.

On the surface Stoner’s life is when heavily coated with disappointment, failure and missed opportunities. Yet the book is written with such grace and skill that it never wallows in these misfortunes, They are just accepted for what they are and Stoner moves ever forward, a man desperately and persistently trying to do the right thing. Given the nature of Stoners working life, there are parallels with “Goodbye Mr Chips”.

The opening page of the book bravely informs you that Stoner is not a heroic or revered figure and that he will die at the end, so it cleverly sets you up for the journey through the life of an ordinary person. The final chapter is a beautiful description of a person’s journey towards death. Simple and understated, its shows an acceptance of a life lived with good intentions, the love of complete immersion in a subject and yes, some sadness.

Stoner is a gentle yet immensely fulfilling study of someone who doesn’t hit major heights or crushing lows. A most undramatic lead for a narrative and all the better for that.