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

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