I have just completed a remarkably fine novel, widely unknown, from 1965, now reprinted by Vintage Classics: Stoner by John Williams.
How is it possible that the books of this American author, who died about twenty years ago after teaching at the University of Denver, are not better known?
I tend to avoid academic novels, set on university campuses--with the exception of David Lodge's work--because I have endured in real life enough of the petty conflicts and rivalries found in universities. But Stoner, although set on the University of Missouri campus, transcends this genre. It transcends most of the novels I have read in style, subject, and that elusive thing called tone.
The narrative proceeds with a deceptively simple clarity, touched with the tone of ironic detachment found in Tolstoi's masterpiece, The Death of Ivan Ilych, the only work that compares to Williams' novel, even though the American work lacks any religious or transcendent meaning in its powerful account of the ordinary life of an ordinary man..
Like Tolstoi's novella, Stoner ends with the death of its protagonist, a professor named William Stoner, whose passing is announced on the first page in an amazing sentence: "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."
I defy any reader of that first page to do anything but read on, even though the bleak sense of disappointment that Stoner finds in his life evokes great sadness. But it is the sadness of great tragedy, as a man who doesn't believe he has made any difference in the world finds that an inner life pushes through the hard surface of desperation, allowing him to see that love--both the love of literature and the lost love of one woman--give a few glimmers of meaning and purpose to his life.
Stoner, who begins life on a Missouri farm, is a stoic figure whose sense of wonder remains hidden in him, with rare glimpses of light penetrating the darkness around him. His family are half-frozen by fear and beaten down by loneliness: the world of Stoner is grim and full of tragic inevitability. Yet the main character, despite his great reserve and quiet desperation, manages to assert himself in the academic battles of the University while quietly accepting the fact that his marriage, like much of his life, has been a bitter disappointment. (I can't help but think of Thoreau's line: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.)
This simple story is told in a prose style that is plain yet quietly poetic, a perfect reflection of its protagonist. Stoner's life is told dispassionately but so eloquently that we sense its universal power, for the themes are nothing less than love and death. Williams himself referred to his novel as "an escape into reality," and there is something inexpressible about the reality that we uncover as we read the novel, transfixed by its calm, lucid, controlled surface. And by Stoner's dual awareness of himself as living somehow outside his ordinary self, in those timeless moments he finds in his reading that bring him a sense of identity and satisfaction.
Stoner has been called a perfect novel; it is one that I look forward to re-reading more than once for its subtlety and tone, for its mastery of character and style.