Stoner, By John Williams: Book of a lifetime

 

Stoner is a wonderful novel, rich and sombre, a record of pain and loss but also of moments of vision and tenderness.

The writing is factual, full of what the American poet Wallace Stevens called "the plain sense of things", a kind of steady, stoical reckoning with reality, with low dampness and shabbiness and freezing cold.

It places our solitary hero in a world that does not obviously care about him. But it is touched with that frail and saving beauty – those flashing iridescent ice crystals – that make this world not only bearable but positively alive and alluring.

In the opening chapter, William Stoner has arrived at university from a bleak farming background, a figure "brown and passive as the earth from which it had emerged", in order to study agriculture but at its first exposure to literature, Stoner's mind catches fire and he finds a vocation as a literary scholar that alienates him from that home forever and places him where he will spend the rest of his life.

In fewer than 300 pages, the novel presents a complete biography of Stoner, from his rural birth to the fading of his memory among colleagues and students after his death. To do so while constantly compelling the reader's attention requires a certain sureness of pacing and perspective.

This is an element of the novelist's art that is hard to talk about and impossible to demonstrate in a review so you'll just have to take my word that Stoner's narrative rhythm, its spacing of event, is flawless.

The medium of time feels almost palpably present as the book records the fluctuations of sex into and out of a marriage, the birth and growth of a beloved daughter, the long and tortuous machinations of a professional enmity, the late discovery of love, and the very last moments of Stoner's life. The novel flows like a river, calm and smooth at the surface of its unruffled prose, but powerful and deep.

It's a tough-minded book, not at all falsely consoling or afraid of the mortal facts, but it always shines with that iridescence that is ultimately revealed to be a vision of love and a life well lived.

"Now in his middle age he began to know that [love] was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart."

'In the Wolf's Mouth' by Adam Foulds is published by Jonathan Cape in February 2014

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Arts and Entertainment
Bono throws water at the crowd while the Edge watches as they perform in the band's first concert of their new world tour in Vancouver

MusicThey're running their own restaurants

Voices
The main entrance to the BBC headquarters in London
TV & Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

    Solved after 200 years

    The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

    Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
    Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

    Sunken sub

    Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

    Age of the selfie

    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
    Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

    Not so square

    How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
    Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

    Still carrying the torch

    The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

    ...but history suggests otherwise
    The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

    The bald truth

    How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
    Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

    Tour de France 2015

    Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
    Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

    A new beginning for supersonic flight?

    Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
    I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

    I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

    Latest on the Labour leadership contest
    Froome seals second Tour de France victory

    Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

    Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
    Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

    The uses of sarcasm

    'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
    A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

    No vanity, but lots of flair

    A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
    Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

    In praise of foraging

    How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food