Skip to main content

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.

Comments

How's about that then?

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Argh, Neil Gaiman blah blah, waffle waffle, and so on.
There, that’s out of the way.
I can’t help but equate the resurgence in popularity of the Norse mythos, Icelandic sagas, and Skaldic and Eddic poetry in all their new televisual, literal and figurative forms, to the similarly resurgent popularity of comic-book- and super-heroes. In fact, they’re two sides of the same interrogative coin: one asks, “How did we get here?” whereas the other asks, “Who can save us?” for the world needs heroes, and people to blame.
I will leave it up to you to project your own personal Them into the nice Them-shaped gap that leaves behind.
You may think it very necessary and timely to have brought out such a book. Alternatively, you may be suffering from hero-fatigue and see it as all a bit unnecessary. Or you may have been seduced by the big hammer on the cover and the lovely tactile matt-finish cover. In any case and in my own humble opinion, other than talk William Warder Norton into springing for a lov…

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

I can hold nothing against or up to either Neil Gaiman or the late Terry Pratchett. In respect of their fans and their work, my problems are mine and mine alone. In general, both are of the highest standard. In context however, I can only judge Pratchett’s early work, such as TruckersThe Carpet People (currently reading to my four-and-nine-tenths year old who is loving it) and The Light Fantastic etc. (all of which I enjoyed as a very young teenager). Post-Carpe Jugulum I have read exactly diddly squat, and the stage plays and TV adaptations have passed me by without so much as a flicker of interest. Whereas Gaiman continues to intrigue, chipping away at my natural scepticism with his charm and wit and style and great children’s books, and I did enjoy Stardust the movie, for the most part because of Robert De Niro, and also in spite of Ricky Gervais. Of course, were they to collaborate on a novel (not De Niro and Gervais; that would be one to avoid), then I would expect the world to…

Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino

Now is as good a time as any I suppose to admit that I regularly confuse Italo Calvino with Umberto Eco and when struggling for the name of one of them, invariably come up with the name of the other. What value does this add to a review of either’s work? None whatsoever. I just thought it would pay to be honest up front, so that if I start talking about semiotics, the discourse of literary criticism, or beards, then you’ll know my train of thoughts has switched tracks and is heading for a bridge under construction.
Of course, reading the Wiki pages on the two of them (to make sure I was talking about the right fellow) I noticed with some dread that Our Ancestors is one of the best known works of the most translated contemporary Italian writer (at the time of his death) and here I am, trying to make sense of it in my own personal context. Well, I’m always going to be treading down some fool’s heels so why should I care if it’s actually most people? Indeed, Calvino mentions in his own i…

Fairyland by Paul McAuley

Twenty-three years ago, as of the writing of this, Paul McAuley hadn't yet seen the birth of online monstrosity Google and was ten years ahead of Facebook. Only one year ago, Jeff VanderMeer was tinkering disturbingly with biotech in his [*FABULOUS] post-apocalyptic horror/sci-fi novel Borne. And yet McAuley seems to have predicted the moral and legal morass of genetic engineering (not the first, I might repeat, referencing John von Neumann etc...) misappropriated for fun, profit and warfare. He also predicted the smoking ban. And that's just in the first few pages. Whereas a lot of speculative fiction is vulnerable to senescence, Fairyland has remained surprisingly spry, aging gracefully whilst maintaining it's whip-smart wits and energy.

Perhaps building on William Gibson's classic (was it a classic in 1994?) Neuromancer, McAuley plunged into the proto-pools of his biologist and botanist background and pulled out the dolls and fairies that populate his future European…