Stoner by John Williams

Stoner John WilliamsStoner opens with a four line summary of William Stoner’s life, and then a short description of the mark he left behind:

“Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.”

The book then goes back to Stoner as a young man working on his parents’ farm, going to college to study agriculture, switching to literature, marrying, becoming a teacher, having a child, and, eventually, his quiet death.

It’s an interesting idea, beginning a book about a person’s life by bluntly saying they are not remembered. By ‘not remembered’ we assume he had no impact on anyone/anything, didn’t do anything of interest, and probably won’t be very exciting to read about in any depth. In some ways, that’s true. After he decides to make this huge change in his life by not going back to the farm and instead staying at college to study and teach literature, he never quite manages to become who he wants to be. He glimpses it at times, but something sabotages him and he almost always chooses the path of least resistance. He’s a nearly man. But, like all lives, things do happen to and around him.

I really like this about the book. Aside from a handful of immortals like Shakespeare and Aristotle, no one, ultimately, will be remembered. At some point even the immortals will be forgotten. As I’ve said before I kind of like the pointlessness of everything – it’s scary but very freeing. And because something isn’t remembered doesn’t mean that it has no significance. I think that’s what Stoner is about – the significance and impact of a life, and how engaging it is, even when you know it will be forgotten.

There were a couple of things that did annoy me, though. Firstly, his wife, Edith, is basically a two-dimensional ‘mad woman in the attic’, who her hides her crazy until after marriage, destroying his happiness and his daughter’s life. I know the book was primarily about Stoner’s life, but I would have preferred Edith’s character to have been fleshed out a bit. (Also, Stoner is so bloody passive and helpless with it all. He doesn’t lock her up Rochester-style, but does just watch on while his daughter quietly disintegrates). The main annoyance, though, is that the two physically disfigured characters are the ‘bad guys’ at the university, and basically ruin Stoner’s career and what happiness he manages to create. Sigh. I know it was written a fair while ago but it would be nice to read about a character with disfigurement/disabilities who isn’t evil, or even one where their difficulties have no bearing on the story at all (this is why I love you Professor X – a superhero who just happens to be in a wheelchair, it neither matters nor doesn’t matter). I haven’t read the comic books, but I have hope this is still true on paper

All that said, I did enjoy it. It was a quick read that definitely pulled me in, with some beautiful bits of writing (especially his death). Worth a go.

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One Response to Stoner by John Williams

  1. Pingback: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher | mischief and miscellany

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