This book was an unexpected delight.

‘Delight’ may not be the best descriptor, as John William’s Stoner is a profoundly sad, at times even bleak read. Yet I felt enriched by the experience. It is truly one of those must-reads.

The title refers to the main protagonist, William Stoner, and the book chronicles his life. We are introduced to Stoner after his death, and from the outset we begin to have a sense of the man and of his life:

‘An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question…his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.’

An only child, Stoner’s parents were farmers. A solitary and mostly silent childhood was spent toiling the physical world of soil and land. Later, he left to study agriculture at university. A required element of the curriculum was English literature, which opened up a previously unknown world to him, one that filled him with wonder and awe. While studying, he dutifully returned home during the holidays to work on the farm. His relationship with his parents remained a largely unspoken one, and Stoner never shared his ‘other world’ with them.

‘He thought of his parents, and they were nearly as strange as the child they had borne; he felt a mixed pity for them and a distant love.’

Discovering a love for teaching, he remained at the university for the remainder of his life, although he struggled to successfully communicate the wonder he himself experienced within, with his students.

The solitary condition of his childhood persisted during his university years:

‘He had no friends, and for the first time in his life he became aware of loneliness.’

However, for a time he did have two friends, one of who commented:

‘You have the lean and hungry look, sure enough. You’re doomed.’

It was a prescient observation, as Stoner’s life proceeded to a succession of tragic episodes, and to a life defined by sadness, an inescapable sadness that he was born into. When his parents died, Stoner reflected:

‘He thought of the cost exacted, year after year, by the soil; and it remained as it had been—a little more barren, perhaps, a little more frugal of increase. Nothing had changed. Their lives had been expended in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligences numbed.’

Any relief that Stoner did occasionally experience from the relentless doom that enveloped his life was short-lived. He married, but it was a failure on every level. They had one daughter, Grace, with whom he was initially very close, but this later evaporated. Having briefly found friendship, his closest friend was killed in the war. He had a lover with whom he had many moments of happiness, but this was poignantly relinquished.

As a result of his life experiences, Stoner mostly lived on the periphery, becoming increasingly detached, dislocated, and numb:

‘…at will, he seemed able to remove his consciousness from the body that contained it, and he observed himself as if he were an oddly familiar stranger…’

‘He felt at times that he was a kind of vegetable, and he longed for something—even pain—to pierce him, to bring him alive.’

The final section of the book, when Stoner is dying, is the most introspective and self-reflective:

‘Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be.’

Intensely self-critical, and by then utterly defeated by life, he answered his own question on why his life became what it ended up being:

‘What did you expect? he asked himself.’

He is as detached from the fact of his own dying as he has learnt to be about most things in his life:

‘He had no wish to die; but there were moments, after Grace left, when he looked forward impatiently, as one might look to the moment of a journey that one does not particularly want to take.’

The sadness that clings to Stoner’s life is almost palpable. Although unremitting – the reader is never left off the sadness hook – it is impossible to resist reading Stoner. Seduced by the prose and by William’s way of telling, the reader is willingly drawn into a life story that speaks to a universal sadness within all of us.

CQ

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