Stoner by John Williams – review

John Williams's Stoner might have unremarkable subject matter, but it is so beautifully rendered that it's no surprise to see it getting a second chance almost half a century after publication

In 1965 a brief, favourable review of Stoner, a novel by an English professor called John Williams, ran in the New Yorker. The book was described as "a masterly portrait … of the life of an ordinary, almost an invisible, man". Before long, Williams himself was invisible; Stoner received no further coverage and was out of print within a year, and despite wider critical approval his later novel Augustus failed to find much of an audience. But rather than disappearing altogether, Stoner is now being heralded by some as a lost classic, and since its initial republication a few years ago has been enjoying an unlikely second act, even becoming a breakout hit in the Netherlands.

Perhaps the novel's unremarkable subject matter was out of step with the upheavals of its time; certainly its restrained, delicate brand of realism was out of fashion. But then it is a strange novel to provoke raucous applause in any age. It tells the life story of an unassuming literary scholar called William Stoner. Williams makes a point of his very ordinariness on the first page – Stoner was "held in no particular esteem when he was alive", and "few students remembered him with any sharpness". But his ordinary life is treated with bracing sincerity, and an enraptured state of attention.

The hushed dysfunction of Stoner's marriage, the furtive joys of an affair, the struggles of his fragile, wayward child – rarely has the intimate detail of a life been drawn with such emotional clarity. Most affecting is the portrayal of the disintegration of Stoner's mind in his final days, but even passing details are freighted with melancholy: the trees that "trembled like soft clouds, translucent and tenuous", "the sweet scent of dying lilac blossoms", the leaves that "rustled and turned, ghost-like in the darkness". Williams renders an invisible life lustrous in all its quotidian triumphs and tragedies; his novel deserves similar illumination.


Simon Hammond

The GuardianTramp

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