Stoner by John Williams

Nick Hornby wrote that this was one of the best novels he had read in the last few years. Originally published in 1965 and reissued in 2006, this novel is the story of a man who becomes a Professor of English at the University of Missouri. It recounts his whole life.

I understand why Hornby loves this book. For readers who liked Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, this is very similar. Both are about undistinguishable men from the midwest with simple lives and backgrounds. Both novels are quiet and filled with instropection. They are both very well written.

The prose is strangely dense. It’s a small novel, but it does not seem anything is wasted. It’s a simple story of an ordinary man told well. It’s not a particularly happy story either, but it’s not a roller coaster of events. I found it engrossing in its way.

Most of the book is actually a bit sad from today’s modern perspective. Professor William Stoner is not close to his family, marries a woman who does not love him, and has a career which is stunted by personal politics. When the novel reaches its most passionate and sensual point, it is lovely:

“That the person one loves first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.” (p. 194)

Still, this not an exciting or particularly vibrant novel in the conventional sense. There is definitely a dignity about the protagonist. I really liked the prose.

I would not say I love this book as much as Gilead though. While realistic, the conflict in the English Department felt a bit contrived. It seemed by that point in the novel, not a lot was going well for the Professor.

All in all, a lovely novel that should be more widely read especially by those of us who like literary fiction.

Read June 15-16, 2013.

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