Book Review: Stoner by John Williams

A Study in Stoicism

Stoner by John Williams nyrb cover picture book review
NYRB COVER FOR STONER BY JOHN WILLIAMS

Reflections and Thoughts

To read John William’s “Stoner” is to regard a decrepit building by the sidewalk, falling into disrepair. It is a study of slow decay, sometimes propelled by external forces in its neighborhood until it collapses under its weight. We are, with our hands tied, forced to witness an act of destruction upon a man who remains undeterred until the very end, characterized by his endurance, faith, and extraordinary grace. 

The story requires to be heard, to be examined, and to be recollected in solitude, despite its ordinariness and lacking explosive episodes. The lives of the characters in these stories are straightforward; without kinks. Such is the story of William Stoner, who enters the University of Missouri as a student and teaches there until his death. What is then so overwhelming about this book is a life lived in quiet desperation? Marred with hardships from the early years of life that are imbibed in his bones to being estranged from the people he carries a love for, turning, over the years, a stranger to himself, Stoner learns and masters the art of resilience. Love is fleeting, always like a source-less hum in the distance. The unfeigned love for his wife is short-lived owing to her refusal to partake in the pleasures of marriage, and with time turns from obligation to indifference. His unbounded affection and attachment towards his daughter are blemished with sporadic acts of sabotage by his wife. His only redemption is ephemeral, and it is in this brief episode of intimacy and love, albeit being “uncommon” and “taboo” with a fellow student that he is bestowed with kindness, warmth, and closeness that he yearned for and was denied. 

Amidst the violence that unfolds in the form of two world wars, the long-standing feud with a fellow (pompous) professor, misadventures, trifling convocations and gatherings, his steadfastness makes him our hero. His unequivocal devotion to literature and academics is paramount. The joy in the simple pleasures of reading and writing transcends the darkness that looms over him. His competence and passion for teaching create ripples in lives that will outlive him. His seclusion from the trivialities and mediocrities of life is a quality that most lack. To characterize Stoner is to cram qualities in a man who remains modest throughout, never giving himself airs.

Yet, we watch his deterioration with the gradual decline in his health – his frail body unable to perform the simplest tasks. While we whimper at his state, he maintains the stature of a stoic. Though his body turns hostile, his mind for the most remains composed. There is a momentary satisfaction in learning that he died surrounded by books- the sole thing that gave his life a purpose. How much can a man endure before giving in? Is there any meaning to human suffering? If there is dignity in preserving one’s principle then at what cost? The novel is an allegory of stoicism. It remains as an account for a man who, until the end, remained incorruptible. 

The building has collapsed and what remains is the debris of what stood sturdy. Perhaps, it will remain in plain sight. One day, someone will stumble upon the remains: a diary, a long-forgotten work, a piece of art, and bring it to light. The writer of this novel John Williams saw a similar fate. In many ways, the story is a retelling of the author’s life. But, as they say, some works stand the test of time, this book has. It will continue to be a message-in-a-bottle for those who find themselves stranded in the ocean as it did for me. William Stoner is now my hero.

About the Author

John Edward Williams (August 29, 1922 – March 3, 1994) was an American author, editor and professor. His famous works include Butcher’s Crossing (1960), Stoner (1965), and Augustus (1972).

He devoted his life to the study of literature, writing, and teaching. Upon completing his MA, Williams enrolled at the University of Missouri, where he taught and worked on his Ph.D. in English Literature, which he obtained in 1954. In the fall of 1955, Williams returned to the University of Denver as an Assistant Professor, becoming director of the creative-writing program. In a 1986 interview, he was asked, “And literature is written to be entertaining?” to which he replied,

“Absolutely. My God, to read without joy is stupid.”


JOHN WILLIAMS

“Stoner” was his third book that ran out of print in 1965. This masterfully crafted book stood the test of time and finally found the right audience when it was re-issued by New York Review Books in the year 2005. It has then gone on to receive widespread critical acclaim and praise. In 2011, “Stoner” became a best seller in France, the Netherlands, Israel, Italy, and the UK.

Notable Quotes from john william’s Stoner

In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it 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.

You must remember what you are and what you have chosen to become, and the significance of what you are doing. There are wars and defeats and victories of the human race that are not military and that are not recorded in the annals of history. Remember that while you’re trying to decide what to do.

Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.

These quotes helped me contemplate the beauty of knowledge, the dignity of one’s art, and the honesty with which one lives his/her life. It has made me more curious about the surrounding that I live in and in a way appreciate what I once overlooked owing to frivolous pursuits.

Further Reads

My next read would be “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams” by Peter Handke. I will be adding the link to my book review once I’ve finished it. Please do let me know in the comment section what you’re reading currently and how it is helping you grow.

2 Thoughts

  1. Writing a review for a book of such standard requires enormous courage and the blogger has a thoroughly read, understand and enjoyed reading the book as amplified by his vivid description. He slowly unfolded the story and kept the reader spell bound. This is a fantastic style of reviewing a book. I truly enjoyed it and looking forward to read much more in coming days.

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