Sunday 25 February 2018

Novel's 50-year overnight success

Stoner, John Williams, Vintage Classics, €11.50

Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

WITH American states lining up to loosen their marijuana laws, it might seem high time for a novel exploring addiction to the drug.

Despite its name, Stoner is not it. The book is instead a forgotten classic, first published in 1965. So slight was its legacy that when its author John Williams died in 1994 his New York Times obituary described him mainly as a teacher and poet. But slowly, he and his third novel have built themselves an international reputation.

The late John McGahern sang Stoner's praises – a quote from him appears on the jacket – and in the last year alone the book has sold hundreds of thousands of copies across Europe and the Middle East. Williams' early letter to his agent about the novel, predicting it may "surprise us" in respect of the book's "commercial possibilities" suddenly seemed eerily prescient.

Stoner has been described as a Western, and at first it does have a simple, almost Steinbeck-ish feel to it. The year is 1910 and William Stoner has arrived at the University of Missouri from a rough farming background, a figure "brown and passive as the earth from which it had emerged", in order to study agriculture. Although intimidated and tongue-tied during the first semester, Stoner quickly finds a vocation as a literary scholar, which in turn alienates him from his parents forever and places him amongst the groves of academe, where he will spend the rest of his life. That early awkwardness never entirely leaves Stoner, and he carries a wretched shyness through life.

Williams describes Stoner's whole sorry life (although the author himself apparently disputed the idea that Stoner was "sad"); he marries but quickly knows that the relationship is doomed and has an affair with a scholar half his age. He loves his work but is thwarted in his career progression by professional enmity. His daughter is turned against him by his wife. Stoner faces each of these sorrows with a kind of stoical resignation. By 42 "he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember".

It unfolds like a painful memory, and Williams records the slow fluctuations and quiet disappointments of his protagonist's life with a deft touch. You know that things are not going to work out, and Stoner's decline is inexorable and his death Eleanor Rigby-ish. But his struggle and his small realisations make the journey bearable and sometimes beautiful. In the final analysis, Williams shows us why this "small" life was so worth living.

Hollywood is already circling expectantly around this book: Tom Hanks is amongst those who have sung its praises and adaptation seems inevitable. Watching Netflix recently I had the thought that TV, with its slower pacing, is now a better medium for simulating the ordinary rhythms of real life than the movies. Stoner is the latest proof, however, that nothing trumps the novel in this regard.

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