I may already have read my best novel of 2014.
The 12 days of Christmas always offer welcome reading time. After finishing Rosemary Sutcliff’s beautiful trilogy on Roman Britain, I read Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room. Meanwhile, my son and son-in-law were both absorbed in another book which seemed quietly compelling judging by the attention they were giving it, John Williams’ Stoner. I asked one of them whether I should read it. ‘Yes, you must,’ was the reply, ‘you really must’.
I had never heard of John Williams, but had picked up some of the excited literary gossip in last year’s papers about Stoner. First published in 1965, it seems not to have attracted much attention until it appeared as a Vintage paperback in 2012. But when writers of the stature of Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan say of it, ‘a terrific novel of echoing sadness’ and ‘a beautiful novel…a marvellous discovery for everyone who loves literature’ you know you are on to something special.
Coming to it after Toby’s Room, I realised that I had gone from a good novel, even a very good novel, to a great novel. The first thing to strike me was the quality of the prose: clear, spare, unadorned, each word and sentence exactly right for the task it had to do. Like the author, his central character Will Stoner is an English lecturer at a Midwestern university whose love is language. Williams’ writing has the craftsman’s mastery of shape and form that comes, I imagine, from a lifetime’s immersion in the world’s greatest literature. When you read prose that has luminous clarity, you realise how opaque so much writing is by comparison.
But I doubt that love of literature is enough to achieve this by itself. It’s the novel’s intelligence that elevates it above the ordinary, even the very good. Its sharply observed take on education, literature and the politics of the academy can perhaps be put down to the author’s experience as a practitioner. Memorable depictions of landscapes or of natural phenomena such as the cycle of the seasons can perhaps be learned from the great poets, though that would not guarantee that they were fresh and vivid.
This book is intelligent in a more profound way that I want to describe as a kind of wisdom. I am thinking of the insights the author brings to human character, how public persona and private life play off each other in the formation of identity, how he notices and finds words for the complexities of love, passion and estrangement, or the gentle decline of a human being in his or her last years of ageing and suffering by which we come to terms with mortality. Stoner’s marriage to a woman of elusive emotional make-up is a masterpiece of psycho-sexual observation. It is all done in a register of plain, straightforward prose that puts you in awe of the capacity of simple words to convey the vicissitudes of the human heart. You feel it's wonderfully accurate writing.
This is one of those books where nothing much happens, yet everything happens. The career of an agricultural labourer who discovers literature at college and becomes a university lecturer could be told in a few paragraphs. The brilliance of the novel is in uncovering the rhizome under the soil, prising open the interstices of everyday existence that make this ordinary story extraordinary. It lays bare the hidden, unsuspected elegiac character of human life for all to see, maybe even its tragedy. I found myself asking: does Williams mean this of any human life like yours and mine? What if he had written his story about me?
Take the key moment when a literature lecturer reads Shakespeare’s 73rd Sonnet and asks Stoner to explain it:
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Stoner can’t get beyond the words ‘it means…’. Desperately trying to capture what is hovering on the margins of his experience for which as yet he has no vocabulary, he simply repeats them. But Williams’ laconic description of this disclosure that is happening to the student as he struggles to understand makes you realise that it’s a life-changing epiphany, a transfiguration. You know that this will be the text for the rest of the book. A lesser writer would have piled on the prose, indulged the emotions, attempted to dissect that moment of recognition, padded out the detail, and referred back to it later in the book. Williams is content simply to drop the pebble into a pool, allow the waves to travel outwards and trust to the intelligence of the reader to make the connections. This is literary restraint at its best.
Stoner is a minor miracle of writing. It reminded me of Flaubert's saying about language, that it's ‘a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars’. Or, as someone said of Chekhov’s short stories, you could think you were holding life itself, like a fluttering bird, in your cupped hands.
This may be the one book I read in 2014 of which I'll confidently say, if you ask me: yes, you must read it. You really must. Trust me. It's marvellous.