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Stoner by John Williams

... Helen and bright Paris, their faces
bitter with consequences.
I presume upon my readers that you might be of a similarly perverse frame of mind; a frame that nearly always shudders at the cynically mercenary and often seemingly arbitrary branding of novels as the greatest this or the most astounding that. Take, for example, Stoner. Writ large and highlighted with a bold red circle (calling to mind the eye and therefore certain to draw the focus of such) it declaims that this is, definitively, "THE GREATEST NOVEL YOU'VE NEVER READ" (the caps lock is theirs, (The Sunday Times, or Vintage? It's not clear (ooh, double and then TRIPLE parentheses! I am in heaven!) whose) not mine). Well, it put me right off for far longer than I care to think.

Now that I have read it, it is a lie (if it were not before), for I have read it. And I feel a bit of a shit because it is pretty great.

Pretty great.

We follow William Stoner from fictional birth to fictional grave in the fictional retelling of a fictional life, one strewn with small defeats and even smaller victories. Did I mention it's fiction? His life is not all that remarkable, given the conditions of similar protagonists in similar novels, in that he is embroiled in no major scandals (just a few minor ones), he works towards no great (sorry, enough of the greatness) or lofty ideals, and he makes no mark on the page of history. His upbringing is quiet, staid, closed, and his opening up to the world at large uneventful. He doesn't go off to war when it arrives in mainland Europe, and seeks no advancement in his position at the University where the parochial agricultural ambitions of his parents are frustrated by his burgeoning love of English Literature and where he slowly advances from pupil to professor.

Throughout, we are treated to a Hardy-esque omniscience from the narrator, who sees and describes with clarity and no little poetry the measure of Stoner's character: his acquiescence to the wills of others where his own will has no clear path; his wordless love and crushing sadness for his daughter and her eventual descent into alcoholism; his stubbornness when defeat follows defeat too closely; his dry, tearless sorrow for the death of his parents and his friend Dave Masters. It chronicles his long-suffering with compassion and dignity, and the ringing truth of the words make it almost beautiful, despite the suffering of its main character. In fact, if you consider Larkin's judgements of Hardy's prose work to be chiefly on the nature of suffering, then this is doubly Hardy-esque, given that Stoner experiences so little joy throughout the book–notable exceptions include watching his daughter watch him work, building his own bookcase, and in his forbidden but consummated love for a grad student, Katherine Driscoll, which he jettisons under duress. It also breaks a few of Elmore Leonard's rules, particularly about the writing of the weather, but those did serve to highlight Stoner's connections with nature and disconnect from his fellow man, woman, wife and child.

I, for one, can't chuffing stand Thomas Hardy's novels, no matter how many luminaries wax lyrical over his prose. I recall a seminar on Hardy in my own first year at University where a friend explained how absurd it would be for an all-knowing God (or Hardy in his role as narrator) to obsess over the lips of a milkmaid, and it stuck. I recall reading Tess of the D'Urbervilles with rancour in my heart and bile in my throat. Thankfully, this didn't occur to me until after I'd finished, but it does corrupt the novel's gloss a little, as did the raw red pimple on its skin before I began. But, you'll have heard you can't judge a book by its cover*,   just as you can't judge a book by the peccadillos of its reviewer, and in truth, I'm glad I finally got over my own prejudice. It is a fine novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed being made miserable by it.


*Likely also you'll have heard you don't start sentences with conjunctions. But screw that.

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