Sunday 22 April 2018

Books: How a long forgotten novel was the discovery of the past year

Fiction: Stoner John Williams Vintage Classic, £7.99, pbk, 320 pages

Nicholas Shakespeare

Sometimes, failure is merely success postponed. Published in 1929, William Faulkner's novel The Sound and The Fury sold less than 3,000 copies over the next 17 years. By 1945, almost all of his work was out of print. Then Faulkner won the Nobel Prize.

John Williams's Stoner is the story of a failure which has found posthumous success 48 years after first publication and 19 years after its author's death, and -- most remarkable of all -- without the boost of any Nobel Prize or film adaptation.

Colum McCann has called Stoner one of the great forgotten novels of the past century, but it seems it is forgotten no longer -- in 2013, translations of Stoner began appearing on bestseller lists across Europe. Almost half a century after its first, quiet publication in the US, Stoner is finally finding the wide readership it deserves.

On the deceptive surface, Stoner follows the unexceptional and unglamorous life of William Stoner, a teacher of English literature -- like Williams -- at a second-rate university in America's Midwest during the 1930s and 1940s.

Badly married, treated appallingly by colleagues and students, Stoner leaves no glimmering wake after his death.

The prose, though, gives a clue as to why this novel has endured: it reads as though its author is composing chamber music for one. 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.

Stoner is a study of failure, but also of love. I've never read a more moving account of a young man falling in love with literature. Asked the meaning of a Shakespeare sonnet, Stoner is unable to speak, overwhelmed. A teacher diagnoses: "You are in love, it's as simple as that."

Like all true loves, it has to be pursued -- and he does, and bears the brunt of it, despite the devastating consequences on his family, poor unbookish farmers, and on Stoner's personal life.

His talent, warmth and integrity flutter beyond the vision of those who fancy they know him. But for all that -- the horrendous wife, who colonises everything Stoner holds most sacred, including his daughter -- there is something compelling and even purifying about this desperate life of a man who remains faithful to that revelation which first moved him: "The epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words."

I can't recommend it enough.

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Irish Independent

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