Almost fifty years after it was originally published, John William’s Stoner is being rediscovered. Or, perhaps more accurately, discovered for the first time. Dubbed “the must read novel of 2013” by The Guardian, Jenni Kauppi shines light on William’s lucid portrayal of a mid-century American everyman.
First published in 1965 and now enjoying belated accolades, “The best American novel you’ve never read” according to the New Yorker) has been rerelease in Australia under Random House’s Vintage Classics imprint.
It’s early in the 19th century and William Stoner, a young man from a poor farming family in America’s rural Midwest, is sent to the University of Missouri to study agricultural sciences. While there, an elective inspires in him an unexpected passion for English Literature and he stays on to pursue an academic life. And so, before the novel has even really gotten started, our protagonist is undergoing a profound personal transformation.
Or should we say anti-hero? For while he is deeply simpatico – honest, noble and full of moral goodness – Stoner is a man apart, so utterly lacking in guile, that he functions as a discomfiting litmus test to the social climate of his time. For example Williams describes Stoner’s reaction when his two closest friends – along with many others of his generation – are signing up to fight in what will be become known as the First World War. Even as his friends are claiming it as a rite of passage and an opportunity to travel, he cannot help but feel a suspicious dissociation with the upsurge of patriotism it inspires in others. It is a similar dynamic in his (disastrous) courtship and marriage; Stoner is so divorced from the conventions required of him, that the rituals themselves are rendered awkward and almost meaningless, stripped, even for the reader, of any familiarity.
But he is clearly searching for something deeper than convention, and Williams describes with delicate restraint, full of rich and precise prose, Stoner’s ersatz existentialism and spirituality: “…as he repaired his furniture and arranged it in the room, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible”.
He similarly describes the liberating power of literature;
“…The mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print – the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly”.
But the revelation is coloured with melancholy, understanding simultaneously that “…He was beginning, ten years late, to discover who he was; and the figure he saw was both more and less than he had once imagined it to be.”
The novel opens at a point some time after Stoner’s death, with a sobering and lacklustre eulogy describing a man who “did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and [who] few students remembered with any sharpness after they had taken his courses.” In beginning with the end – and an undistinguished one at that – we are left wondering how a novel-length narrative might be yielded and even justified from a character so easily forgotten.
Yet we do not wonder for long. The novel’s beauty is its candid drawing of this strange, yet achingly relatable character. It is not the plot, but Williams’ handling of this unusually sensitive quality that is so heart-rending. So closely are we aligned with his perspective, that as readers we feel both viscerally conscious of his flaws, and deeply invested in his happiness. The result is a profound feeling of pathos for Stoner, and it is with this intimacy that Williams is able to conjure so lucid an evocation of this mid-century American everyman.
While it carries themes of the self-made man striving against an indifferent world, it craftily subverts the idea of the ‘American Dream’. Stoner is no hero – he doesn’t fight in the war, he doesn’t overthrow the hierarchies of university and he doesn’t really even get the girl. But it is this very quality in him – that he is so undistinguished, that at each juncture he seeks not to defy or improve, but to eke out an adequate existence, something bearable and honourable – that makes him so compelling. And for all this, Stoner is a rediscovered classic filled with modern-day resonance.
John Williams – Stoner
1965, rereleased 2012
Stoner author John Williams
By Jenni Kauppi