Fifty years after it was first published to little fanfare, Stoner, the story of an academic whose life is full of disappointments, has become an unexpected bestseller. Julian Barnes on how a novel he’d never heard of became his book of the year.
On 13 June 1963, the American novelist John Williams wrote from the University of Denver, where he was a professor of English, to his agent Marie Rodell. She had just read his third novel, Stoner, and while clearly admiring it, was also warning him not to get his hopes up. Williams replied: “I suspect that I agree with you about the commercial possibilities; but I also suspect that the novel may surprise us in this respect. Oh, I have no illusions that it will be a ‘bestseller’ or anything like that; but if it is handled right (there’s always that out) – that is, if it is not treated as just another ‘academic novel’ by the publisher, as Butcher’s Crossing [his second novel] was treated as a “western”, it might have a respectable sale. The only thing I’m sure of is that it’s a good novel; in time it may even be thought of as a substantially good one.”
- Stoner: A Novel (Vintage Classics)
- by John Williams
How familiar the thought, and the tone, of this will be to almost every practising novelist. The expression of confidence in your own work, without which you would never have started; the wariness in the face of the bitch goddess Success; the caution in raising expectation, but the further caution in not raising it too high; and, finally, the writer’s everlasting “out” – that if it all goes wrong, it’s probably someone else’s fault.
Stoner was published in 1965, and – as is usually the case – it steered a mid‑course between the novelist’s fears and his hopes. It was respectably reviewed; it had a reasonable sale; it did not become a bestseller; it went out of print. In 1972, Augustus, Williams’s “Roman” novel, won half the National Book Award for fiction (the other half going to John Barth’s Chimera). It was his largest moment of public success, yet he did not even attend the ceremony; perhaps he was rightly suspicious, as the laudatum pronounced in his absence was strangely disparaging. When he died, two decades later, without publishing any more fiction, the New York Times obituarist treated him as much as a poet and “educator” as a novelist. But still to come was that factor – identified by Williams in his letter – that novelists often write about, that they fear, but also place their trust in: time. And time has vindicated him way beyond his own modest hope. Fifty years after Williams wrote to his agent, Stoner became a bestseller. A quite unexpected bestseller. A bestseller across Europe. A bestseller publishers themselves could not quite understand. A bestseller of the purest kind – one caused almost entirely by word-of-mouth among readers.
I remember unwrapping my copy of the novel back in March. Like many writers, I get sent far more books than I can possibly read, and the process of triage can be brutal. So: a new paperback (from my own publishers) with a large front-cover strap reading “VINTAGE WILLIAMS”. No Christian name. Raymond Williams? William Carlos Williams? Rowan Williams? Check the spine: John Williams. The classical guitarist? The composer of film music? Neither. Rather, a novel published in the 60s by a dead American I’d never heard of. And then the title: Stoner. Hmmm: were we in for some tranced and tedious discussion of the merits of Moroccan versus Colombian gold? But there was an introduction (and therefore a recommendation) by John McGahern, so it got the first-page test. And Stoner turned out to be the name of the main character, which was a relief. And the prose was clean and quiet; and the tone a little wry. And the first page led to the second, and then what happened was that joyful internal word-of-mouth that sends a reader hurrying from one page to the next; which in turn leads to external word-of-mouth, the pressing of the book on friends, the ordering and sending of copies.
William Stoner, we learn in the book’s first paragraph, was a lifelong academic, who entered the University of Missouri as a student in 1910, and went on to teach there until his death in 1956. The value and purpose of academe is a key concern of the novel, while one of its main sequences describes a long and savage piece of departmental infighting. So Williams was perhaps a little naive, or at least over-hopeful, in thinking his novel wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, be labelled “academic”. In the same way, Butcher’s Crossing (to be reissued by Vintage in January) is indeed a “western”, being set in a Kansas frontier town in the 1870s, with its main action a buffalo hunt in a lost mountain valley as winter approaches. It is so historically and anatomically precise, I am confident that, if you gave me a sharp knife, a horse and a rope, I could now skin a buffalo (though someone else would have to kill it first). Butcher’s Crossing is a very good “western”, as Stoner is a very good “academic novel” – and, in each case, being “very good” means that the novels slip their identifying tag.
John Williams Photograph: The University of Denve Stoner is a farm boy, initially studying agriculture and a requirement of his course is to take a class in English literature. The students are set two Shakespeare plays, and then some sonnets, including the 73rd. Asked to elucidate the poem by an impatient and sardonic professor, Stoner finds himself tongue-tied and embarrassed, unable to say more than “It means … it means …” And yet, something has happened within him: an epiphany rooted less in a moment of understanding than of not understanding. He has realised that there is something out there which, if he can seize it, will unlock not just literature but life itself; and in advance of such future understanding, he already feels his humanity awakened, and a new kinship with those around him. His life will change utterly from this moment: he will discover “a sense of wonder” at grammar, and grasp how literature changes the world even as it describes it. He becomes a teacher,”which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man”. Towards the end of his life, when he has endured many disappointments, he thinks of academe as “the only life that had not betrayed him”. And he understands also that there is a continual battle between the academy and the world: the academy must keep the world, and its values, out for as long as possible.
Stoner is a son of the soil – patient, earnest and enduring – who moves unprepared into the city and the world. Williams is wonderful at human awkwardness, at physical and emotional shyness, at not speaking your mind or your heart, either because you cannot articulate them, or because you simply cannot follow what has happened, or both:
And so, like many others, their
honeymoon was a failure; yet
they would not admit this to
themselves, and they did not
realise the significance of the
failure until long afterward.
Good things do happen in Stoner’s life, but they all end badly. He relishes teaching students, but his career is stymied by a malevolent head of department; he falls in love and marries, but knows within a month that the relationship is a failure; he adores his daughter, but she is turned against him; he is given sudden new life by an affair, but finds love vulnerable to outside interference, just as the academy is vulnerable to the world. Aged 42, he reflects that “he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember”.
Though he is allowed small victories towards the end of the novel, they are pyrrhic ones. The pains of lost and thwarted love have tested Stoner’s reserves of stoicism to the full; and you might well conclude that his life must be accounted pretty much a failure. But, if so, you would not have Williams on your side. In one of his rare interviews, he commented of his protagonist: “I think he’s a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing … The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner’s sense of a job … a job in the good and honourable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was.”
Writers often disagree with readers about the emphasis of their work. Even so, it’s a surprise that Williams seems surprised that others might find Stoner’s life “sad”. He himself was more than aware of its likely effect. In that letter to Rodell, he writes: “One afternoon a few weeks ago, I walked in on my typist (a junior history major, and pretty average, I’m afraid) while she was finishing typing chapter 15, and discovered great huge tears coursing down her cheeks. I shall love her for ever.”
Illustration by Yann Kebbi The sadness of Stoner is of its own particular kind. It is not, say, the operatic sadness of The Good Soldier, or the grindingly sociological sadness of New Grub Street. It feels a purer, less literary kind, closer to life’s true sadness. As a reader, you can see it coming in the way you can often see life’s sadness coming, knowing there is little you can do about it. Except – since you are a reader – you can at least defer it. I found that when reading Stoner for the first time, I would limit myself most days to 30 or 40 pages, preferring to put off until the morrow knowledge of what Stoner might next have to bear.
The title – suggested by his American publishers – remains unexciting (though better, probably, than Williams’s first attempts: A Flaw of Light and The Matter of Love). Still, a book makes its title, rather than the other way round. And what the book has turned into is more than one more forgotten work gratifyingly exhumed. When a novel by, say, Henry Green or Patrick Hamilton is “rediscovered”, the graph of sales usually forms a brief, respectable hump before returning again to the horizontal. Stoner first went into Vintage in 2003, after McGahern had recommended it to the publisher Robin Robertson. In the decade up to 2012, it sold 4,863 copies, and by the end of last year was trundling along in print-on-demand. This year, up to the end of November, it has sold 164,000 copies, with the vast majority – 144,000 of them – coming since June.
It was the novel’s sudden success in France in 2011 that alerted other publishers to its possibilities; since then it has sold 200,000 copies in Holland and 80,000 in Italy. It has been a bestseller in Israel, and is just beginning to take off in Germany. Though Williams died in 1994, his widow is, happily, still alive to enjoy the worldwide royalties. Rights have now been sold in 21 countries, and Stoner is soon to be launched on China.
There is a further oddity about the revival of Stoner: it seems to be a purely European (and Israeli) phenomenon so far. Bret Easton Ellis has tweeted its praise, and Tom Hanks has applauded it, but these have been rare American voices in its favour. When I asked around among my American literary friends, some had simply never heard of the novel, nor of Williams, and others were lukewarm in their response. Lorrie Moore‘s praise was carefully qualified: “Stoner is such an interesting phenomenon. It is a terrific and terrifically sad little book, but the way it has taken off in the UK is a bit of a head-scratcher for most American writers, who find it lovely, flawed, engagingly written, and minor rather than great.”
This disparity needs some explanation, and I’m not sure I can supply it. Perhaps Europeans are more open to the quietness of the novel than Americans. Perhaps Americans have read more novels that resemble Stoner than we have (though what they might be I can’t think). Perhaps American readers don’t like its lack of ”optimism” (there is no shortage of pessimism in American literature, but the national character is one of striving, of altering circumstances, rather than accepting them). Or perhaps they are merely lagging behind us, and will soon catch up. When I put these points to the novelist Sylvia Brownrigg, she responded: “The reticence seems very not American to me. In spite of the American setting, the character himself feels more English, or European – opaque, fundamentally decent,and passive … Perhaps the lack of the novel’s taking hold in the US is because it doesn’t feel like One of Ours? We’re such a country of maximalists, noisy ones, and though obviously there are exceptions, even our minimalists are not spare and sad in this particular way … Another thought crossed my mind: that there is little drinking in Stoner. I wonder if American characters who are self-contained and stoical (I am thinking of Carver, or Richard Yates) more often have to be alcoholics to rein themselves in, and accept their disappointments.”
Whatever the reasons for its cooler reception in the US, I don’t agree that the novel is “minor”; nor do I think it is ”great” in the way that, say, Gatsby or Updike’s Rabbit quartet are great. I think Williams himself got it right: it is “substantially good”. It is good, and it has considerable substance, and gravity, and continuation in the mind afterwards. And it is a true “reader’s novel”, in the sense that its narrative reinforces the very value of reading and study. Many will be reminded of their own lectoral epiphanies, of those moments when the magic of literature first made some kind of distant sense, first suggested that this might be the best way of understanding life. And readers are also aware that this sacred inner space, in which reading and ruminating and being oneself happen, is increasingly threatened by what Stoner refers to as “the world” – which is nowadays full of hectic interference with, and constant surveillance of, the individual. Perhaps something of this anxiety lies behind the renaissance of the novel. But you should – indeed must – find out for yourself.
|That time of year thou mayst in me behold
||In me you can see that time of year
|When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
||When a few yellow leaves or none at all hang
|Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
||On the branches, shaking against the cold,
|Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
||Bare ruins of church choirs where lately the sweet birds sang.
|In me thou seest the twilight of such day
||In me you can see only the dim light that remains
|As after sunset fadeth in the west,
||After the sun sets in the west,
|Which by and by black night doth take away,
||Which is soon extinguished by black night,
|Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
||The image of death that envelops all in rest.
|In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
||I am like a glowing ember
|That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
||Lying on the dying flame of my youth,
|As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
||As on the death bed where it must finally expire,
|Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
||Consumed by that which once fed it.
|This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
||This you sense, and it makes your love more determined
|To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
||Causing you to love that which you must give up before long.
that time of year (1): i.e., being late autumn or early winter.
When yellow leaves… (2): compare Macbeth (5.3.23) “my way of life/is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf.”
Bare ruin’d choirs (4): a reference to the remains of a church or, more specifically, a chancel, stripped of its roof and exposed to the elements. The choirs formerly rang with the sounds of ‘sweet birds’. Some argue that lines 3 and 4 should be read without pause — the ‘yellow leaves’ shake against the ‘cold/Bare ruin’d choirs.’ If we assume the adjective ‘cold’ modifies ‘Bare ruin’d choirs’, then the image becomes more concrete — those boughs are sweeping against the ruins of the church. Some editors, however, choose to insert ‘like’ into the opening of line 4, thus changing the passage to mean ‘the boughs of the yellow leaves shake against the cold like the jagged arches of the choir stand exposed to the cold.’ Noted 18th-century scholar George Steevens commented that this image “was probably suggested to Shakespeare by our desolated monasteries. The resemblance between the vaulting of a Gothic isle [sic] and an avenue of trees whose upper branches meet and form an arch overhead, is too striking not to be acknowledged. When the roof of the one is shattered, and the boughs of the other leafless, the comparison becomes more solemn and picturesque” (Quoted in Smith, p. 148).
black night (7): a metaphor for death itself. As ‘black night’ closes in around the remaining light of the day, so too does death close in around the poet.
Death’s second self (8): i.e. ‘black night’ or ‘sleep.’ Macbeth refers to sleep as “The death of each day’s life” (2.2.49).
In me thou see’st…was nourish’d by (9-12): The following is a brilliant paraphrase by early 20th-century scholar Kellner: “As the fire goes out when the wood which has been feeding it is consumed, so is life extinguished when the strength of youth is past.” (Quoted in Rollins, p. 191)
that (12): i.e., the poet’s desires.
This (14): i.e., the demise of the poet’s youth and passion.
To love that well (12): The meaning of this phrase and of the concluding couplet has caused much debate. Is the poet saying that the young man now understands that he will lose his own youth and passion, after listening to the lamentations in the three preceding quatrains? Or is the poet saying that the young man now is aware of the poet’s imminent demise, and this knowledge makes the young man’s love for the poet stronger because he might soon lose him? What must the young man give up before long — his youth or his friend? For more on this dilemma please see the commentary below.
Sonnets 71-74 are typically analyzed as a group, linked by the poet’s thoughts of his own mortality. However, Sonnet 73 contains many of the themes common throughout the entire body of sonnets, including the ravages of time on one’s physical well-being and the mental anguish associated with moving further from youth and closer to death. Time’s destruction of great monuments juxtaposed with the effects of age on human beings is a convention seen before, most notably in Sonnet 55.
The poet is preparing his young friend, not for the approaching literal death of his body, but the metaphorical death of his youth and passion. The poet’s deep insecurities swell irrepressibly as he concludes that the young man is now focused only on the signs of his aging — as the poet surely is himself. This is illustrated by the linear development of the three quatrains. The first two quatrains establish what the poet perceives the young man now sees as he looks at the poet: those yellow leaves and bare boughs, and the faint afterglow of the fading sun. The third quatrain reveals that the poet is speaking not of his impending physical death, but the death of his youth and subsequently his youthful desires — those very things which sustained his relationship with the young man.
Throughout the 126 sonnets addressed to the young man the poet tries repeatedly to impart his wisdom of Time’s wrath, and more specifically, the sad truth that time will have the same effects on the young man as it has upon the poet. And as we see in the concluding couplet of Sonnet 73, the poet has this time succeeded. The young man now understands the importance of his own youth, which he will be forced to ‘leave ere long’ (14).
It must be reiterated that some critics assume the young man ‘perceives’ not the future loss of his own youth, but the approaching loss of the poet, his dear friend. This would then mean that the poet is speaking of his death in the literal sense. Feuillerat argues that
Even if we make allowance for the exaggeration which is every poet’s right, Shakespeare was not young when he wrote this sonnet. It is overcast by the shadow of death and belongs to a date perhaps not far from 1609. (The Composition of Shakespeare’s Plays, p. 72)
This interpretation is less popular because it is now generally accepted that all 154 sonnets were composed before 1600, so Shakespeare would have been no older than thirty-six. However, the sonnets were not initially printed in the order we now accept them, and an error in sequence is very possible.
Sonnet 73 is one of Shakespeare’s most famous works, but it has prompted both tremendous praise and sharp criticism. Included here are excerpts from commentaries by two noted Shakespearean scholars, John Barryman and John Crowe Ransom:
The fundamental emotion [in Sonnet 73] is self-pity. Not an attractive emotion. What renders it pathetic, in the good instead of the bad sense, is the sinister diminution of the time concept, quatrain by quatrain. We have first a year, and the final season of it; then only a day, and the stretch of it; then just a fire, built for part of the day, and the final minutes of it; then — entirely deprived of life, in prospect, and even now a merely objective “that,” like a third-person corpse! — the poet. The imagery begins and continues as visual — yellow, sunset, glowing — and one by one these are destroyed; but also in the first quatrain one heard sound, which disappears there; and from the couplet imagery of every kind is excluded, as if the sense were indeed dead, and only abstract, posthumous statement is possible. A year seems short enough; yet ironically the day, and then the fire, makes it in retrospect seem long, and the final immediate triumph of the poem’s imagination is that in the last line about the year, line 4, an immense vista is indeed invoked — that the desolate monasteries strewn over England, sacked in Henry’s reign, where ‘late’ — not so long ago! a terrible foreglance into the tiny coming times of the poem — the choirs of monks lifted their little and brief voices, in ignorance of what was coming — as the poet would be doing now, except that this poem knows. Instinct is here, after all, a kind of thought. This is one of the best poems in English.
(John Berryman, The Sonnets)
The structure is good, the three quatrains offering distinct yet equivalent figures for the time of life of the unsuccessful and to-be-pitied lover. But the first quatrain is the boldest, and the effect of the whole is slightly anti-climactic. Within this quatrain I think I detect a thing which often characterizes Shakespeare’s work within the metaphysical style: he is unwilling to renounce the benefit of his earlier style, which consisted in the breadth of the associations; that is, he will not quite risk the power of a single figure but compounds the figures. I refer to the two images about the boughs. It is one thing to have the boughs shaking against the cold, and in that capacity they carry very well the fact of the old rejected lover; it is another thing to represent them as ruined choirs where the birds no longer sing. The latter is a just representation of the lover too, and indeed a subtler and richer one, but the two images cannot, in logical rigor, co-exist. Therefore I deprecate shake against the cold. And I believe everybody will deprecate sweet. This term is not an objective image at all, but a term to be located at the subjective pole of the experience; it expects to satisfy a feeling by naming it (this is, by just having it) and is a pure sentimentalism.
(John Crowe Ransom, Shakespeare at Sonnets).
For more on how the sonnets are grouped, please see the general introduction to Shakespeare’s sonnets.