Stoner was one of last year’s publishing success stories. Originally published in the 1965 to a quiet reception (it received few reviews and went out of print the following year), it was revived in a new edition and given a new lease of life. I remember seeing all of the buzz about it on twitter last year and finding it quite astonishing that it was for a book published almost 50 years ago. It was even named as Waterstones Book of the Year 2013 which is certainly very unusual as this would have been expected to go to a book first published in 2013. John Williams died in 1994 so was sadly never able to witness the revival in popularity of this wonderful novel.
I can see why this is considered a forgotten classic – it deals with both the First and Second World wars, the deterioration of the land in the American Midwest and at its centre, the life of an unassuming man, literary scholar William Stoner. It’s funny that nowadays historical novels spend so much time setting the scene, creating a sense of place and really making you feel as if you are in that historical period, making it worth all of the research into the time period. The joy of books that were actually written in the times they are set, or at least by someone who has lived through the times discussed, is that there is a natural ease in the depiction of a time because it is second-nature to them. I think that’s what I loved about this book the most, the quiet influence of history. And this is the story of a quiet man, who led a reasonably quiet life.
Stoner reads like an obituary for an ordinary and unexceptional man, which I think was wholly its intent. Stoner marries the wrong woman, Edith, who does not understand him or herself, inflicting her identity crises on him and making him a victim to her whims. He also deals with academic politics, being willingly passed over for important positions at his university as he is comfortable as he is. William Stoner is a quiet and unassuming man, an introvert, who can be at times so frustrating. He talks and doesn’t even realise that the words have come out of his mouth, or forgets what he has said after saying it; his words are inconsequential to himself, and so how can he expect them to be consequential or influential to others? He doesn’t have a feeling of self-worth, surprised that a publisher would be interested in publishing a literary criticism book he has spent years working on, and even more taken aback by the love and devotion shown to him by his daughter Grace in her younger years.
Sometimes I wanted to shake him and shout at him to listen to himself, to stop being pushed around by his colleague and adversary Lomax, to tell his wife Edith to stop messing about with his and, even worse, their Grace’s life. He is passive, and although there are moments of triumph and small acts of rebellion, they seem minute in comparison to all of the wrongs that have been done to him. He is a sad and lonely man in the end, but I’m not sure how sorry I can feel for him when he didn’t do much to help himself. His life just passes by him, and even the love affair he has with a young student (one of the most fulfilling experiences of his life) is doomed to end as things weigh against him and he quietly gives it up. He doesn’t like to make a fuss.
This quote made me feel so sorry for him, but at the same time completely highlighted everything that was standing in the way between his current life and a happier, more fulfilling life:
‘He was forty-two years old, and he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember.’
Isn’t that just the most depressing way to sum up life at that age? I know that when he was born, life expectancy was a lot shorter, more so for the agricultural stock he came from I suppose, but is that really an attitude to carry you through life? It’s an unjust life and I think that’s what’s hardest to deal with – he is a real man, a believable character, and one who stands for all of the people in the world whose lives may not have the gripping plot of a novel, but their lives are no less worth recording for it, are no less worthy of remembering. I think this is a splendid book and very much deserves its status as a classic.
I’d love to discover some more hidden gems from the past, the unsung heroes and heroines of literature, the forgotten (or as yet undiscovered) classics. Do you have any books that you would like to shout about, and wish were given more praise? I remember being very taken with Catherine Carswell’s novel The Camomile about the life of a young woman in Glasgow in the early ’20s, trying to find her own identity in a society that isn’t quite ready for strong females. I’m not even sure it’s in print anymore, the edition I have was a local Glasgow press I think, printed as a short run partially to provide copies for university courses. If you can track it down it is very much worth a read, or there is her more well-known novel and still in print Open the Door! which (for shame!) I haven’t actually read yet but do have on my shelf!