My rating: 5/5 stars
William Stoner is born at the end of the nineteenth century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life, so different from the hardscrabble existence he has known.
And yet as the years pass, Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments: marriage into a “proper” family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude.
John Williams’s luminous and deeply moving novel is a work of quiet perfection. William Stoner emerges from it not only as an archetypal American, but as an unlikely existential hero, standing, like a figure in a painting by Edward Hopper, in stark relief against an unforgiving world.
Stoner must be the most famous “under appreciated” book around. It seems that everywhere I look, a blogger or a literary critic is entreating us to give this forgotten classic a chance. It was reprinted by the highly regarded NYRB Classics in 2006, and just a few months ago was endorsed by Ian MacEwan. But, it’s not on any of those top 100 or 1001 lists, and its Wikipedia page is just a tragedy. And it did, predictably, make an appearance on BookRiot’s Most Underrated Books list.
Stoner was my Classics Club Spin pick, and it was from my “dreading it” list. I was intimidated, as the bloggers talking it up were all really smart and I was afraid I would be in over my head; and I was managing expectations, because the last time I got all excited because of a bookish-internet frenzy I was let down.
Oh, and I could tell from the blurb that this was going to be one of those “poor little privileged white dude is bored, cheats on his wife but feels really bad and conflicted about it, wah wah, epiphany of some sort, the end” stories. So there was that. And it absolutely is one of those stories. But, once I got over myself and started reading, I quickly realized that, like most people’s real lives, you can present William Stoner’s life as a happy story or a sad story, depending how you look at it:
- The “Quit Whining, Privileged White Dude” version: Stoner doesn’t have to fight in either world war. He loves literature, and is able to study it then teach it. He attains tenure, and so isn’t really at risk of losing his livelihood during the depression. He marries the first girl he ever asks out. They have a daughter without having to try too hard (more on THAT later.) He has a torrid mid-life love affair, but his marriage survives. He lives a quiet life and dies surrounded by his family.
- The “I Feel Really Bad Now” version: Stoner grows up in abject poverty. He alienates his parents when he goes to University, and alienates his friends when he chooses not to enlist in WWI. He discovers a love of literature but his career is mired in petty politics and he never achieves any real recognition. He marries a deeply damaged woman who seems wholly incapable of love. He enjoys a close relationship with his daughter until his wife cruelly turns her against him. He finally finds a woman he can love and is forced to give her up. His never reconciles with his wife, and his daughter descends into alcoholism. He dies a protracted, painful death, having never resolved any of these issues. Continue reading
It’s Classics Club Spin time again! The timing is impeccable, as I’m suffering a severe reading hangover after cruising through two thirds of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Maddaddam series, and feel like I need a real classic to cleanse the palate. Plus, I’ve only read five Classics Club books so far, and I need to read ten per year to stay on track.
What the heck is the Classics Club, you ask? Check out my list and the general idea here.
Want to join me? Here’s the deal:
- Pick twenty books that you have left to read from your Classics Club List (or, you know, your TBR list, if you’re not a Classics Clubber.) Try to challenge yourself: list five you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.)
- Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog by next Monday (Agust 19).
- Monday morning, The Classics Club will announce a number from 1-20. The challenge is to read the corresponding book by October 1, even if it’s an icky one you dread reading!
Here we go! Crossing my fingers that I don’t get Tristram. I’m not ready yet! In the immortal words of Jessie Spano, I’m so excited… I’m so… scared.
- American Pastoral by Philip Roth. I didn’t know that much about Roth when I added this to my list. Now I hear he’s kind of a gross old man who talks about his penis a lot. SOUNDS FASCINATING.
- Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne – Long. Abandoned years ago. Too dense. Scary. But also awesome.
- Clarissa by Samuel Richardson – Long. Sounds dense. But one of those “have to read it” books.
- Stoner by John Williams – Not my sort of book at all, but added based on a rave review.
- Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf – I’ve been poisoned against Mrs. D by 101 Books! Continue reading