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Stoner - John Williams (1965)

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First published in 1965, ‘Stoner’ is author John Williams’ second novel. Garnering poor sales upon its release, it received a generally positive critical reception. It was then out of print for 33 years until 1998 making it something of a lost classic.

The opening passages of Stoner speak of the lasting impression and legacy left behind by the books main character, the titular William Stoner, as viewed by his colleagues at the University of Missouri.

It outlines a decidedly unremarkable life of mediocre achievement and little worth, with those that new him thinking of him very little, if at all. What follows is a novel that breathes beauty and meaning into this ‘unremarkable’ life.

Set predominantly in the first half of the 20th century, Stoner covers the commonplace events of William Stoner’s life such as his career as a university lecturer, his marriage, friendships, and academic pursuits and gives them the weight and importance of an epic spanning several decades, 2 World Wars, and the Great Depression.

Stoner explores what it means to live a successful or full life, be that through success at work, love, friendships or knowledge and asks, how do we measure that success?

One of the main themes of the novel is Stoners love of literature and the pursuit of knowledge. Literature holds a transcendent, almost spiritual power over the character, it is his first true love and the only constant in his life.

Stoner devotes himself to expanding his appreciation of the written word without ego or interest in personal gain, and it is this purity of intent regardless of outcome that is central to the character of Stoner and the novel.

As a teacher Stoner may devote himself to passing his love of literature onto his students, but never really feels he manages to translate that passion into his classes. As a husband he is devoted and attentive, but estranged from his wife almost from the beginning and has a loveless marriage, but perhaps it is simply in living with passion that success is measured.

Stoner could be viewed almost as a love letter to life itself, creating a portrait of a humble and hardworking man with a seemingly failed life, that was none the less, full.

As Stoner himself muses on his life in old age ‘it was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, it’s specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.’

There is an undeniable irony in the fact that a novel that deals so heavily with the joys of working for the love of it regardless of outcome, could be largely overlooked during its authors lifetime, Stoner did not come out of print until 4 years after John Williams’ death. Viewed through a contemporary lens, in an age of selfies and social media ‘likes’, Stoners message of humble dedication to work, both in life and love is a breath of fresh air.

Beautifully written and at times heartbreaking it is a rallying cry for any reader who feels that their life is without achievement. You don’t need to set the world on fire to burn bright.

Adam Volkmer (Collingwood Chapter)

The life of William Stoner is a touching look at a man whose life long love of English Literature, defined him. He came up 'dirt-poor', the only son of struggling Missouri farmers. Stoner worked his whole life; - nothing was ever handed to him. Starting an agricultural degree, he had an epiphany in a literature class & decided instead to study English Literature.

Stoner is a competent teacher in his university job, with a love of imparting knowledge. He is not ambitious and often too honest and principled for his own good. His marriage to a 'flawed female', who was highly strung and psychotic, is a train wreck. Yet, Stoner is stoic and loyal to her, apart from one dalliance in their 40 year marriage.

What is alluded to, is that Stoner's wife, "Edith", could have been molested as a child by her father. This could have been the cause of the erratic and erroneously nasty behaviour to Stoner, during their life together.

Stoner & Edith have one child, - Grace. Edith uses Grace as a weapon against Stoner, ultimately ruining her life as well. The book starts at just after the turn of the 20th Century, travels through 1st World War, prohibition, the depression, the 2nd World War & finally through to Stoner's demise by cancer in his early sixties.

His battles with his department head, Hollis Lomax, is a memorable one. As they say, "Friends come and go, but a good enemy can last a whole lifetime". This was certainly true of Lomax, who gave Stoner the worst teaching roster for a number of years. Stoner endured & finally won through. It is the sensitivity and care that Williams imbues Stoner, that makes him likeable. His doggedly plodding and methodical nature shows in his responsibility to work, family and his love of literature.

An ordinary life, filled with personal hardships & small triumphs.

Peter Mills (Perth Chapter)

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