I have finally gotten around to reading Stoner, the famously forgotten novel by John Williams, and find myself grateful for the set of circumstances which led to its rediscovery.Beginning in 1910 it tells the story of William Stoner a 19 year old farmer’s son.
Little does Stoner suspect the experiences which await him as a result of his father uttering, “County agent come by last week… says they have a new school at the university in Colombia. They call it a College of Agriculture. Says he thinks you ought to go”. From such a seemingly meagre premise our story is spun.
Stoner is the story of a modest man and his modest acheivements. As readers we are accustomed to our protagonists being notable and extraordinary, we watch and cheer as their epic and dramatic destinies unfold.
In fact the vast majority of contemporary fictional protagonists vary only in most superficial aesthetic detail from the heroes of myth. This emphasis is not confined to fiction. If we look at how history has been written we can note its similarity to myth, with its focus on kings, presidents and other exceptional individuals at the expense of the masses.
This focus on extraordinary characters is understandable from a technical narrative point of view, the extraordinary are compelling to read about. But it does beg the question, are the exceptional the only people worth writing about?
The hero figure and the remarkable individual are somewhat problematic in the sense that they are ultimately elitist. Chosen ones are just that, ones, singular. Some writers such as Joyce in Ulysses or Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus decide to approach this problem by accentuating the heroic in the everyday and elevating it to the level of epic.
Williams follow a different route with Stoner. His story contains no echoes of epics. He is neither hero nor anti-hero. In fact he is utterly aheroic; his circumstances are specific to him, but not extraordinary.
The novel tells us as much on the first page: “William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910…eight years later… he received his Doctorate of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his course.”
This is a very unusual opening for a novel. How many authors begins by indicating how forgettable their protagonist is? Yet if we continue with the novel we discover that this in no way makes William Stoner unworthy of our attention. Stoner’s concerns are trivial in comparison to the trials of Hercules or indeed Bilbo Baggins, but they do matter.
Upon attending an obligatory Arts class in University Stoner has an experience with poetry which sparks an interest in literature. This diverts him from his previously preordained role as a man of agriculture and propels him towards a career in university teaching.
While two world wars rage in the background Stoner experiences an unhappy marriage, the birth of a daughter, the intrigues of faculty life and the death of his parents. The chronicle of his life catalogues his small victories, defeats and all the things which fall in between.
The character brought to mind a certain Mr Prufock, who memorably states:”No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; Am an attendant lord, one that will do, To swell a progress, start a scene or two”.
The difference being that Stoner is presented to us by Williams without the wry air of mockery in which Eliot cloaks his character, and one doubts that he would desire to “swell a progress” or even “start a scene or two”.
Stoner is no master of his own destiny. He largely responds to what life gives him and tries to make the best of it with varying results. This seems an accurate description of most people’s lives. We are for the most part not Nietzschean supermen.
By the end of the novel I was fully invested in William Stoner’s seemingly unremarkable life and marvelled at the skill with which brought this fictional wallflower was brought to life. William’s novel is achingly beautiful and bittersweet, resigned yet not cynical, reserved yet not stuffy. If you like your fiction to be reflective, meditative, and heart-felt then Stoner is for you.