Here we are, it’s time for my first review, and I am proud to do it on a novel that most of you would not have read nor heard about, I presume: Stoner by John Williams.
This novel was originally published by Viking Press in 1965. Its author, John Williams, taught literature and creative writing at the University of Denver for thirty years (which may explain why this novel focuses so much on academic life at the university…) and has written two poetry collections and four novels. This novel was reissued in 2003 by New York Review Books Classics and, in 2011, it was translated into French by Anna Gavalda and published by the publishing house Le Dilettante. This is the version that I read.
I must admit that I was quite reluctant to read this book in French, and especially because it was translated by Anna Gavalda, who is an author that I absolutely love, but I was quite afraid to end up reading Anna Gavalda when I wanted to read John Williams. It just happened that during my internship at Le Dilettante, I was allowed to take all the books that I wanted from the publishing house and I had also picked up this novel. In the end, I really don’t believe that reading Stoner in its French translation diminished my reading pleasure, on the contrary. I think that Anna Gavalda is an excellent translator who knows how to serve a text and fade behind the original author’s words.
What is this book about? It’s simple, really: this novel tells the life of William Stoner from his years as a student until his death. I don’t believe that you can have a more minimalist plot in a novel. In addition, William Stoner’s life is far from being very exciting: son of a farmer, he goes to the University of Missouri when he is 19 to study agronomy, falls in love with literature and never leaves the university. During his fresher’s year and while he only follows a little course about literature, he realizes, thanks to Archer Sloane’s course, that literature is what stirs him. He gives up his agronomy studies to study English literature until he finally becomes a literature doctor at the same university, as Archer Sloane had predicted. He then meets the woman who will become his wife, the psychologically disturbed and frigid Edith, has a daughter with her and life goes on, years after years, dotted with domestic quarrels and internal wars in the Literature Department of the University of Missouri.
How can a book with such an uncluttered plot be so interesting? Well, it takes some time to really emerge into the novel and its story, that is a fact. The author’s prose, very detached and minimalist, does not help. But, little by little, you start to care about the main protagonist, a man with dreams and weaknesses who is terribly human and totally worth of pity. What is also quite interesting is that this man, who starts his career in the beginning of the twentieth century, is a witness of his time. This is through his experience that we have a glimpse of the cornerstones of the century, and especially the two World Wars. Historical events are not predominant, but they are subtly outlined as a background for Stoner’s story, and they appear even more striking. Another key point of this novel is the accuracy with which it describes human relationships: between husband and wife, father and daughter, colleagues, friends, human beings. Rivalry is at the core of most of Stoner’s relationships, be it with his wife or with his colleague-immediate superior-life-long enemy Lomax. This entails heart-breaking scenes as well as hilarious ones. This novel may seems dull in the first pages but it is the contrary: I have rarely read a novel describing so accurately, vividly and movingly what being a human in 20th century America means.
To conclude, I would highly recommend this reading. It will truly enrich you. And I am not the only one to think that. In case my article did not convince you, here are a few quotations from people who also liked the book (and what people!): For Morris Dickstein, Stoner is “a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving that it takes your breath away” and, for Tom Hanks, it is “one of the most fascinating things that you’ve ever come across”, and I particularly agree with this last quotation. There is definitely something a little bit magic about this book.
Stoner by John Williams. Republished by Vintage Classics (2012 for this edition)