Stoner – the best novel you’ve never read. No, really.

Well hello, 2014. You’ve started well, on the reading front, at least (not on the flooding front. Heartfelt sympathies to all flood victims…). So far there’s been the very funny and hugely enjoyable Mutton by India Knight (nothing like some clever chick-lit-type comedy to brighten the January nights), the wonderful La liste de mes envies (The List of my Desires) by Grégoire Delacourt (which I’ve reviewed for MyFrenchLife so can’t say too much about it here) and my onward quest with George R. R. Martin’s soaringly brilliant and utterly addictive A Song of Ice and Fire.

So apologies for the belatedness of this post. Too much readin’, not enough writin’. I’ll endeavour to be a more reliable little blogger throughout the rest of the year (and beyond)…

Firstly, a shocking admission: I’m not great at keeping up with the bestseller charts. The books hailed as the hot new reads often take a while to creep on here, if they creep on at all. I subscribe to writer Alison Mercer’s feelings about these things: I like to let the idea of a book grow on me. I try not to feel pressured to keep up with the whimsical Kardashians of book publicity.

But having said all that, sometimes you can be seduced by hype. And that’s fine too.

Hype is how I came by what has to be one of the best novels I read last year – in fact, one of the best novels I’ve read, like, ever. Ladies and gentleman, I give you John Williams’ Stoner.

John Williams photo

John Williams

The scene: Waterstone’s in Middlesbrough, a week before Christmas. My mum admits that she hasn’t bought me a book for Christmas. Sacrilege. She usually does, and I treasure the witty little dedications she writes. Do I have any in mind, she wonders? We’re standing right by a small table piled with copies of Stoner and a sign proclaiming it to be the Waterstone’s Book of the Year. At the back of my mind I also recall a sign in Blackwell’s calling it ‘the best book you’ve never read’. Yes, I said, this one. The fact that it was about an English academic helped. I had seen a pull quote from the book somewhere:

English literature troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before…

Stoner had me instantly. There have been lots of excellent reviews that have tried to pinpoint what it is about John Williams’ prose that makes it so compelling. The book has a strange intensity about it – some critics say it’s the clarity with which Williams writes. I think Adam Foulds comes to the heart of it when he admits in his piece for the Indy that Williams’ skills are ‘hard to demonstrate in a review’ but that

Stoner’s narrative rhythm, its spacing of event, is flawless…The novel flows like a river, calm and smooth at the surface of its unruffled prose, but powerful and deep.

I think it was this sense of calmness – of quiet sobriety, that seemingly untrendy thing – that I most responded to. Stoner himself undergoes traumatic experiences – the sad reality of his marriage; his entanglement with departmental politics. But there is a prevailing sense of calm about this novel and its protagonist – of surety, of the value of stolidly going about one’s work. This is felt, as Foulds recognises, on a formal as well as a thematic level. This is the message that Stoner has inherited from his rural upbringing, it seems, and it’s his application to his work that helps him to keep calm and carry on. Work, as John McGavern explains in the very good introduction to my edition, is an important theme in the book. For Stoner, work is often synonymous with love, too.

Stoner cover

My copy of Stoner. Thanks Santa.

I did find elements of Stoner distressing though. Is he too placid? Is he to be admired for how he handles his wife Edith – does his endurance of her have to be placed in its socio-historical context? Am I modern and naïve to even be asking this? Characters are often described as expressionless, as lacking animation – people’s faces are often ‘masks’ or ‘mask-like’. Just count the number of times this word/phrase is used. It begins with Stoner’s mother and father. These ‘humble’ country people never betray their emotions: when Stoner tells them of his decision not to return to the farm, ‘his father’s face…received those words as a stone receives the repeated blows of a fist.’ All this piling up of references to masks and lack of animation seems to culminate in Stoner’s daughter, Gracie. Her natural, contented calmness and studious quietness – her affinity with Stoner – is corrupted into a kind of soulless passivity and indifference by Edith. By the time she’s grown:

It was a passive beauty she had, like a mask; her light blue eyes looked directly at one, without curiosity and without any apprehension that one might see beyond them; her voice was very soft, a little flat, and she spoke rarely.

I’d love to see what a feminist reading of Stoner makes of it all. I kept longing for Grace to rebel, for her father to rebel, but it never comes.

And that’s perhaps the point. Stoner asks to be reread and not necessarily understood but experienced, just as the whole novel proceeds to subvert the bleak view of Stoner’s life that is announced in its two opening paragraphs.

Believe the hype.

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