Stoner by John Williams

I resisted reading Stoner for sometime because of the title although I was aware of people blogging about it and enjoying it. The title seemed to conjure thoughts about drugs, being stoned but nothing could be further from the truth. It is the story of the complete life of William Stoner, his work, marriage, his daughter, his affair and his death. It is a story about academia but also of one man who has an ordinary life and for whom we might feel some sadness.

Written in the 60s, much of this story is timeless. As the only child of farmers, Stoner has the opportunity to study agriculture and does so for two years until he has to take a class in literature. It is during that time he realises the potential of books to change the world, changes his degree and in doing so changes his own world.

He marries a woman who has mental health issues and is at times disturbing. I don’t know of many people who do not have sex with their husband on their wedding night and then some time later lie on the bed naked all day waiting for their husband to come home and impregnate them. At times she is viciously mean, turning their daughter Grace against Stoner, imperious, frightened and often to be found in bed. The impact of her behaviour on their daughter lingers and although she escapes the home, she doesn’t escape the trauma of a mother whose illness was left undiagnosed and untreated.

Stoner makes an enemy of a colleague who becomes the Head of Department and who does everything in his power to get rid of him. An argument over whether a student is brilliant or a sham is played out in detail and nothing is the same at work for Stoner after that. It has to be said that this academic back-stabbing and politicking is played out time and time again in books with nothing changing and with this version being extremely well-observed and recorded for posterity.

All through the ups and downs of Stoner’s life, and it does feel as if there are more downs than ups, he maintains an air of acceptance about what he can not change but is passionate about being a teacher and what it means to teach. When he discovers what it means to be a teacher, there is guilt for all the students he dealt with beforehand. It is as a teacher that he comes to understand himself and literature and its place in our world.

The power of the voice in this book is incredible. It is restrained yet persistent. It never slips for one moment and never lets us out of its grasp. It is of one who is resigned to his life and to the fact that posterity is not his despite writing a book and being a good teacher. I waited and waited for Stoner’s fight back, his triumph, but it never came unless it is disguised as resilience. It feels quite pessimistic but in fact is probably nearer to the truth of most people’s lives

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