A remarkable occurrence has been taking place in the literary world over the past year or so. A little-known novel by a practically forgotten writer has resurfaced, kick-starting a kind of frenzy.
When Stoner by John Williams was first released, in 1965, it grabbed a few pleasant reviews, sold something like 2,000 copies, and then quickly dropped off the map. With the benefit of hindsight, this slip into obscurity should not surprise. 1965 was a period of immense change in America, a time of action and confrontation, with the war in Vietnam and the civil rights situation both escalating and the pulse of the counter-culture beginning to race. The meditative nature of a book like Stoner — despite its resonant, if misrepresented title — must have seemed simply out of step.
What makes the novel so unusual, aside from the gentle and exquisite beauty of the writing, is its quietness. It recounts the unspectacular life story of John Stoner, a dirt-poor farmer’s son who attends college to study agriculture but who is quickly bewitched by the charms of literature. From here, he becomes an assistant professor at a less than stellar university, a post he holds until his death in 1956.
Along the way, he falls into a bad marriage; fails his daughter, who becomes a pawn in a game, with tragic consequences; fails to take his one-offered chance at true happiness with a later love; and fails, in his refusal to indulge in office politics, to advance his career in any meaningful way across the decades.
On the surface, Stoner is a study of mediocrity and ordinariness, a depiction of abject failure, in marriage, fatherhood, love, profession and ultimately, in life.
In fact, it is a paean to life itself, the notion of love, and the suggestion that even the most mundane existence contains, within its heart and soul, all the fires of the world.
John Williams may — until now — have slipped into relative obscurity, but he was not a complete unknown. He wrote four novels and two collections of poetry, and had a notable reputation as a writer of considerable skill. His last book, the historical novel, Augustus, shared the 1973 National Book Award, one of America’s two major literary prizes, with John Barth’s Chimera.
The revitalisation of Stoner has been thrilling and unexpected. Writers, in particular, adore this book. Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Colum McCann are just a few who have pronounced their admiration for, as the Sunday Times put it, “the greatest novel you’ve never read”. And public acclaim has been equally bombastic. Propelled largely through word-of- mouth promotion, this vintage classic has muscled its way into the upper reaches of best-seller lists across Europe and even to the top of the Amazon charts. In a world that limits itself to 50 shades, it is comforting to know that quality still endures.
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