Stoner: A Novel by John Williams

Stoner’s recent appearance on bestseller lists the world over has to be one of the stranger stories in publishing. First published in 1965, the work was a modest critical and commercial success, selling around 2,000 copies. It then followed the same path of many novels: it went out of print. Many years later, in 2006, the New York Review of Books bought the rights and reprinted Stoner as a classic. Since then, authors and critics globally – Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Anna Gavalda, to name only a few – have been singing the praises of this forgotten novel. The rights have been sold in 21 countries, it has achieved bestseller status in Europe and last year it was published here under the Vintage Classics imprint. Now, Random House has taken the unusual step of re-releasing Stoner in this trade paperback edition.

It’s a remarkable story – the lost classic rediscovered! – played out by an international cast of who’s who in the literary world. And, as is often the case in these instances, it is the hype surrounding John Williams’ novel that is attracting readers. The book quietens all that noise in its first few pages.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, William Stoner, born into grim existence on a farm in Missouri, is sent by his father to the University of Columbia to study agriculture. His course requires him to take an introductory survey in English. This sparks in Stoner something he has difficulty recognising at first, something wholly new to him. It is a feeling that goes undefined, until four years and an undergraduate degree in literature later, his professor spells it out: ‘You are in love. It’s as simple as that.’ Stoner’s unlikely love of literature is the catalyst for this story, which charts a life devoted to letters.

In this 300-page portrait, Williams manages to cover one man’s life without ever making the story feel rushed – scene and summary are balanced with precision and beauty. The major events of Stoner’s life – his triumphs, loves and losses – are subsumed by the passing of time, making the novel feel weighty and whole in a way that many others just don’t.

Stoner is an understated novel; it certainly doesn’t have a plot outline that screams ‘international bestseller’. But, like any good book, its delights are found on the page, not in the sales pitch. We should be thankful that it wasn’t lost forever.

Joseph Rubbo is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.