Republished by:- Vintage Digital, 2012
“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” - Henry David Thoreau
The triumph of this work lies in its self-effacing world-weariness, its tone of presupposed indifference even to the prospective reader's concerns. Like the inexorable stoicism of its protagonist in the face of misfortune and persecution, the narrative revels in its own lacklusterness, its state of diffused melancholy.
William Stoner, first student and eventually English professor at (fictionalized) University of Missouri lives a life of flawed choices, unrealized potential and innumerable regrets, witnessing the world go through a period of tremendous sociopolitical ferment in the 20th century, and remaining invisible in the eyes of history. He breathes his last, just as silently, alone in a hospital ward, feebly flipping through the pages of a scholarly work. But do not for a moment think this deceptively drab synopsis encapsulates the essence of 'Stoner'. John Williams, through his luminous prose and by the aid of a vision which is as solemn as it is lucid, reminds us of the quotidian battles fought every moment anywhere by faceless individuals against the forces of oppression and moral laxity - that the fate of civilization is dependent on the capable or incapable shoulders of an individual.
He found himself wondering if his life were worth the living; if it had ever been. It was a question, he suspected, that came to all men at one time or another; he wondered if it came to them with such impersonal force as it came to him. The question brought with it a sadness, but it was a general sadness which (he thought) had little to do with himself or with his particular fate; he was not even sure that the question sprang from the most immediate and obvious causes, from what his own life had become.
An ode to literature? Yes. A story recounted with conviction and a quiet dignity? Undoubtedly. A sincere attempt at proffering acknowledgment on a seemingly inconsequential existence? That too. But more than anything else this is a literary toast raised in honour of those small, often unnoticed, acts of courage and compassion which somehow realign the moral order of the universe but are blotted out from memory and consciousness easily.
There is sadness here - boundless in depth and overwhelming in intensity - but hope glimmers occasionally too. Hope that the world may go to pieces and things may fall apart irrevocably yet a man may summon the strength to endure the tragedy of existence by discovering a true and unbreakable love. The currents of time weather away all past disappointments, longing, old grudges and anger. Only the love of the written word casts a glow in the eternal darkness.
A kind of joy came upon him, as if borne in on a summer breeze. He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure--as if it mattered. It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what his life had been. Dim presences gathered at the edge of his consciousness; he could not see them, but he knew that they were there, gathering their forces toward a kind of palpability he could not see or hear. He was approaching them, he knew; but there was no need to hurry. He could ignore them if he wished; he had all the time there was.
**much gratitude to Netgalley and Vintage Digital for providing a free e-copy as ARC**
Review also posted on Goodreads & Amazon.