Review: Stoner, by John Williams

I didn’t like him at first. John Williams that is, not William Stoner. Towards Stoner I found myself indifferent, unaffected. Towards Williams I found frustration, contempt. I didn’t like the flourishes, the self regarding fluffing. And then that all stopped. Then I forgot about Williams and allowed Stoner to escort me apologetically through his life.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been so invested in a character, his highs, lows, successes and frustration. My favourite characters spring to mind: Robert Jordan, Aureliano Buendia, Thomas Cromwell. None of them has had me ache at the tragic playing of their tale as I did with Professor Stoner.
Williams (yes, I remembered him) achieves a fictional memoir of such depth, such intensity yet such quiet resolve that whilst reading, it would feel impolite to express anything more than mild dissatisfaction even during the most improper attacks on what becomes very much ‘our’ protagonist.
The two defining tragic relationships – with his wife Edith, and colleague Hollis Lomax – play out with such unhappy and vicious constancy, and with such rigorous indifference on his part, that when our hero finds a love – be it his daughter, or be it his lover – its anticipated but unmitigated loss is felt with such subtlety it becomes acute.
The novel is not without frustrating flaws; namely a lack of continuity at times between chapters, and – as mentioned – the occasional authorial flourish which draws the eye and seems out of step and irrelevant to the rest of the story. But ultimately, Stoner dies.
His death approaches with such stealth up to a point about two thirds of the way through the book, and when it announces that he is slipping away, we realise that every single scene has been building to this point. It is what defines our lives, death, and it certainly defines ‘Stoner’ as a life flits before our eyes, page after page, directly addressing what it is to have lived, to have failed, to be satisfied, to succeed, to be sad, yet utterly fulfilled.
“He was himself, and he knew what he had been.”

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