On the cover it suggests it is “The greatest novel you have never read.” Julian Barnes described it as his “book of the year“.
The novel was published in 1965 and after being out of print a couple of times, became a best-seller in Europe some fifty years later, largely as a result of word of mouth among readers.
Stoner is not about drugs as some may suppose from the title. The story is of an academic, William Stoner, born to a poor farming family in the American Midwest at the end of the nineteenth century. He goes to the University of Missouri in Columba to study agriculture and mid course changes over to English Literature. Stoner is no hero, in the usual sense, nothing remarkable happens to him, but his ordinary life and quiet diligence are what makes the book so fascinating. Stoner reminds me of Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman or of a character from a Hopper painting.
He began his academic career, where he started his literature studies, taking over from the teacher, who had inspired him, teaching the rather unfashionable sophomore review of English Literature.
“So Stoner began where he had started, a tall, thin, stooped man in the same room in which he had sat as a tall, thin, stooped boy listening to the words which had led him to where he had come.”
There is a sadness hanging over the book, Stoner is an only child, he marries the wrong woman, Edith, herself an only child.
“Within a month he knew the marriage was a failure; within a year he stopped hoping it would improve.”
The marriage of two only children produces a third only child, Grace, who Stoner loves, but whose mother turns her against him.
“Edith’s was a campaign waged with such cleverness and skill that he could find no rational grounds for complaint.”
In the University his teaching is hampered by vicious departmental infighting and he is repeatedly given the most awful timetables by his departmental head, which he takes on with great dignity.
The character of Stoner is beautifully crafted, he feels so real, his struggles are almost universal. At 42, he reflects that “he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember”. He does have some good moments, he has good spells teaching his students, he has an affair, which brings some short-lived happiness, he also has a few small victories against his enemies in the university. He also has a love for his work, which comes through on every page.
The writer was himself an academic and I wonder how much of Stoner’s experience tallied with his own.
My rating five out of five, a remarkable book.