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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Stoner by John Williams, 1965, * * * * *

Stoner is written in the most plainspoken of styles...its hero being an obscure academic who endures a series of personal and professional agonies.  Yet the novel is utterly riveting because the author, John Williams, treats his characters with such tender and ruthless honesty.  You care about the characters whether you want to or not.  It is a novel of academia, unfulfilled hope, and a life not completely led.  It is basically a simple novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher but,  for some reason,  is fascinating. Its hero, William Stoner, is the son of hard-wroking, dirt-poor farmers from whom he inherits a taciturn stoicism born of sheer adversity.  Stoner enters the university in 1910 to study agriculture but his life change irrevocably when he comes upon literature in a sophomore survey course.  His future mentor humiliates him by asking him to explain Shakespare's Sonnet 73, a poem about love and loss that foreshadows his own future. Only two passions matter in Stoner's life, love and learning, and in a sense he fails at both. Stoner's deeply ingrained reticence is a keystone of the novel.  This is the story of an ordinary man, seemingly thwarted at every turn, but also of the knotty integrity he preserves and the deep inner life behind the impassive facade. Caught in an empty shell of a marriage, though too stoical to end it, he bonds deeply with his young daughter until his resentful wife evicts him from his daughter's life.  Stoner responds with a helpless sense of resignation but in his 40s begins an affair with a talented scholar half his age, which leads to an interlude of unlooked-for happiness.  Though the affair is broken up by Stoner's academic nemesis, who threatens scandal, it offers a hint of paradise that hovers dreamily over the rest of the novel.  Few stories this sad could be so secretly triumphant, or exhilarating.  Williams brings to Stoner's fate a quality of attention, a rare empathy, that shows us why this unassuming life was worth living.

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