Sometimes only a lucky coincidence results in an exciting acquaintance with a wonderful book. Sometimes it takes fifty years for a book to become a bestseller. This time it‘s the same novel that the first two sentences apply. Stoner by John Williams published in 1965.
The revival of the novel initiated an unexpected success in Europe, mostly all marketing done by word-of-mouth among readers. This at first glance a rather simple reading enchanted them with pure and deep revelation of one man‘s life journey. In a way, Stoner constitutes an ode to human loneliness, a perfect companion in the modern world.
Stoner is the surname of the protagonist William Stoner. The only son of the hard working farmers becomes a student at the University of Missouri and stays there to the last days of his life teaching as a Professor of English. Actually, the first two paragraphs of the novel give a brief summary of his academic career, which might represent how trivial his imprint to the academic society and the whole world has been and how insignificant his life seemed to the others.
However, the third paragraph starts the inner story from Stoner’s point of view and we instantly know that every dull life has its own vortexes and sores. A calm and stable pace of the story synchronizes with Stoner’s character whose childhood was filled with farming duties “from before dawn until after dark” and family communication minimized to almost zero: “the only sound that could be heard was the weary movement of a body in a straight chair and the soft creak of a timber…”
Stoically raised Stoner develops a sturdy backbone, however, no ability to reveal or express his feelings. At the age of nineteen he is sent to the University to study agriculture and return back to the farm afterwards to introduce innovations to the land. But it never ends that way. At his sophomore year Stoner is obliged to take the required survey of English literature and that’s when the turning point takes place.
Young Stoner, who was used to a direct meaning of everything around him, was suddenly struggling. And when asked what the meaning of Shakespeare’s sonnet is, he can only murmur “It means…” But “he thought he could feel the blood flowing invisibly through the tiny veins and arteries, throbbing delicately and precariously from his fingertips through his body.”
This one class predetermines Stoner’s future academic career. Although it is more his passion than career, as he had never aspired for high ranks or titles at the University and tried to avoid competition in academic spheres as much as he could.
Along with his academic affairs, the novel describes Stoner’s personal life marked with disappointment and sorrow. His marriage with Edith is a big failure, though he never even attempts to interrupt it. The reader may resent or even hate Edith for her remorseless behavior but this helps the author to pitch-perfect Stoner’s longing for love ad inner loneliness.
Being a real loner, Stoner has no friends, either, except the two whom he met at his first years at University. To be honest, there’s only one friend in fact working at the same University and shielding him from nasty administrative affairs, as the other has died set on his first mission in France during the WW1. But Stoner admires his long ago dead friend and often wonders what he would have said in one or another situation.
Stoner finds the true love once with his student Katherine but their affair isn’t long lasting due to interference from his academic community. Though he never was beyond his love, in any form of it. Being sixty years old, Stoner finally understands that “he had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life, and perhaps given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance.”
Stoner dies alone by clasping his one and only written academic study in his hands. Symbolically, Stoner thinks of his book as forgotten and trivial, as if thinking of himself. But it’s not sadness that might overwhelm the reader (though it’s almost impossible to avoid), it’s a stirring question whether Stoner would have been any happier, if he had opposed to any of failures or injustices in his stream of life; or what would have happened, if he had dared to leave the walls of his University and travel to see the world.
Written as an academic textbook, Stoner has no features of a modern bestseller. But there’s that human touch that thrills the heart so strongly, as only highly emotional poetry might do. “The only thing I’m sure of is that it’s a good novel; in time it may even be thought of as a substantially good one,“ John Williams wrote to his agent before the novel was published. It certainly is, John, it certainly is!