How do you write about a book which is about … the ordinary?
Stoner is Waterstones’ 2013 Book of the Year. You’ve probably heard the story: published in 1965, it was little noticed and was out of print within a year. Recently, it was republished to great acclaim and success – sadly many years after the death of the author.
It is the story of the life of William Stoner, a farmboy turned English professor, his life transformed through the love of literature. He’s a figure rarely focussed upon by culture at large – an uninspiring but well-intentioned teacher, an unhappy but long-suffering spouse, the unbending victim of decades of workplace bullying. In this measured life, the brief episodes of happiness, rebellion or success burn like flashes of magnesium. Set in this gentle context, the image of Stoner’s young daughter working alongside him in his study becomes deeply poignant and memorable. The brief affair he manages becomes a thing of beauty, love and tolerance. The delayed outfoxing of his boss adversary – in another book a mere academic scramble – becomes a triumphant blast.
Reading, I found the work of Edward Hopper brought to mind – the isolation, the momentary suspension of reality, the heightened awareness, the ordinary beauty, the melancholy which could also be interpreted as contentment. Here are a couple which I thought fitted particularly well:
In the words of Simon Hammond’s excellent Guardian review, “Williams renders an invisible life lustrous in all its quotidian triumphs and tragedies … his ordinary life is treated with bracing sincerity, and an enraptured state of attention.” There is great craft and delicacy in the writing. True, it’s not the only book to mix these qualities. Crossing to Safety had a comparable approach, particularly in the skill with which ageing is portrayed across both works, and I found it richer and warmer. Yet it’s the very coolness and lucidity of the prose – the “restrained, delicate brand of realism” (thanks again Guardian) – that sets Stoner apart. But I’ll say this – the tone is stately (by which I mean slow) and if you’re all about a dramatic story, you won’t find one in the classic sense here. Ultimately it’s a book by a book lover, about a book lover, for book lovers. Over to you.