Monday, October 07, 2013

Stoner - John Williams

A novel written in 1965, almost went into obscurity, seems to have resurfaced back into fame almost 50 years since it was written. John Williams, an academic, written only 4 novels of repute, was in my radar for a while after few enthusiastic recommendations from few fellow readers. The new found rage for the book (after the NYRB republication), definitely helped me to buy this one and start reading almost immediately. At the outset a story of an ordinary professor, a common man, whom leave alone his colleagues and students, even his wife considers as a no go. What makes the story of such a man so interesting is the way the book is written.

In the real sense,  this is a simple story of an academic. Someone whom no one remembers, who walked on this earth with no impact whatsoever, to be the leading character of a story. There is nothing interesting in him that makes one want to talk about, in the typical sense of story telling. He is not remembered by his colleagues, nor his students. At best, he was a good teacher, a bit eccentric as we expect the academics to be, nothing more. Amidst these ordinary settings, John Williams tells a story which under the simple narrative, leaves you with profound impact.  The great literary achievement is not in the style or the structure. Williams is not a stylist per se, and has no special narrative techniques that leave you astonished. However, this book slowly grow on you, and leave you with such a lasting impression, refused to go even after the weeks that passed.

Stoner, comes from the family of small time farmers from Mussorie and as the relatives advised, his father put him in college to study agriculture and obtain the degree. The destiny had something else on hand, as he shifted from agricultural degree to literature and completed his education and been selected at the same college to teach the intermediate students. A life of academic that lasted 40 years. Over the years he marry a beautiful young lady, fathered a girl child, continue to teach and managed only to reach the post of an Assistant Professor, due to the internal politics within the department, and silently bade farewell to the University and to his life. Life in general hadn't treated him well. His married life wasn't one that one hoped for, nor was his academic life. He confronted issues both at home and at the workplace, as people always wanted to have an upper hand on him. His reaction to them was of indifference, he did not surrender to the outcome, but behaved as if they had no impact on them. Seldom did he react. He endured them silently with humility spending more and more time with books. A short stint of love-affair, squashed by the intervention of the authorities, was the only aberration in an otherwise, dull life of his. His classes were also similar. As he fumbled a few words , starting discussions awkwardly, slowly getting into the details and immersed himself into the topic, he slowly lived up to the image of an eccentric old professor. The losses were not his. His fight back was not up-front, it is by the consistent resistance that he offered through his indifference. It was only towards the end, did he taken up the fight to the opposite camp, and how cleverly did he manage to keep the rest to his line. Even at the death, he is not been defeated. 

Its deceptively simple, yet it unfolds multiple layers of human conditions, deliberately conceived within the clever narrative. The voice of the narration never deviate from the overall ambience of the character. It is highly melancholic, very depressive. Surprisingly, you are not sad, nor the sympathy that over shadow the other feelings towards Stoner. One witness the triumph of life, despite the pessimistic overture. Stone is not perfect, he has his own limitations, in love, in managing the complex academic network, the prejudices he carry both in the teaching and in life.

When the book was published, in 1965, it did was described as "a masterly portrayal of the life of an ordinary, almost an invisible man". Williams himself is a professor , and his portrayal of a rusty, moronic, non enchanting academic life through his protagonist is deep and realistic. I can still not pin point as to what makes this a brilliant book. I guess the fundamental criteria of literature is to "open the curtain" to the hidden truth of the human life, that wasn't brought out before. It need not be one that 'make its way' to the readers heart with astonishing skills of the writer. It can ease into the minds of the readers and stay there forever, as John Williams has managed to do with this book. 
Stoner ( 1965 )

John Williams

Vintage Classics

278 Pages
Wiki, Telegraph, Guardian, Independent, Express, Shigekuni

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