Stoner by John Williams | Book Review

I remember reading Stoner by John Williams a decade ago or so when it was republished here in UK almost 40 years after it was first published in USA. It had a huge impact on me. When Stoner was published first time in 1965, it only sold 2000 copies and it did not achieve a wider recognition among readers. First going out of print, Stoner was republished in 1970s and then again in the early 2000s and translated to many languages when it became a huge bestseller reaching the status of almost a cult novel. Sadly John Williams died in 1994 and never witnessed the huge success of Stoner.

Many people have a problem to articulate what’s so wonderful about this books. Stoner is a compelling exploration of the individual life, which is very realistic filled with simplicity and existential meaning. This novel attempts to restore the memory of one ordinary man whom history has forgotten.

Stoner is a story of a very ordinary man, William Stoner, not a hero, not a villain, the most human protagonist ever written. It is an honest portrayal of a man who gave his best attempt to live the life of integrity. His life might be considered by some as dull and unspectacular but still with the realm of possibility something decent to occur. Even if one’s life is disappointing, we still can expect small moments of beauty.

The novel follows the life of William Stoner, his career as an academic teacher in literature, the relationship with his wife, Edith, the affair with his work colleague, Katherine, and his relationship with his daughter, Grace.

Stoner is diligent, hard-working, totally dedicated to his job – something that should be appreciated by those around him, but in reality no one cares.

Family dynamics, especially the patterns of interactions between Stoner and his wife, Edith and his daughter, Grace are marred with clear mental health problems that his wife experienced early in their marriage. Stoner was affected by his wife’s behaviour, culminating in the breakdown of their relationship and him engaging in the affair with a younger colleague. It shows Stoner as a flawed character, who made choices that were deeply hurtful for his family, and having a profound impact on his daughter when she became an adult. It is a very humane portrayal of a man. Towards the end of his life, Stoner reflects back on his life and questions himself whether he could do more for his life, Edith, to be more understanding, more loving, more caring. He also realises that his now adult daughter, Grace similarly to her mother, she would never find happiness.

Stoner is a great teacher, but that’s all … he tries to live with dignity, then he dies, he does not exist in other people’s memory. It shows that life is short, banal, and often we will be forgotten shortly afterwards we cease to exist. Once our children, partners, siblings die, then any memory of us will disappear with them.

Reading John Williams’s Stoner, novels by Anita Brookner: Falling Slowly and Latecomers which also portray so called an ‘ordinary’ life, often came to my mind. Also, I often had The Rings of Saturn and The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald on my mind while devouring Stoner – the same veil of melancholy, human condition has been portrayed in the similar delicate, and at the same time very nuanced manner. A great addition to Stoner is also An Unnecessary Woman by Rabhi Alameddine.


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