You know a book must have broken out of the literary ghetto and penetrated the wider consciousness when it’s getting a bit of a kicking in Private Eye.
This week, the Eye’s “Bookworm” turns his, or her, often unwelcome attention to a novel that was first published in 1965 by an author who died in 1994. A novel that has been, until recently, almost entirely ignored for close to half a century. It’s called Stoner, it’s by John Williams, and it is a quiet, measured and greatly affecting portrait of the triumphs and disappointments of an apparently unremarkable Midwestern American college professor, from birth to death, through early poverty, wars avoided, a marriage badly made, the sublime agonies of parenting, professional success and disappointment, love found and lost, friends and enemies accumulated.
Why is “Bookworm” so exercised about it? Because, thanks to enthusiastic championing by, among other luminaries, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Geoff Dyer and Nick Hornby, this previously “lost” classic has become the only book to be seen reading on holiday this summer – at least in the better heeled destinations. Or, to use McEwan’s pithier blurb, Stoner is “the beach read for 2013.”
This is, of course, by no means the first time an author has achieved posthumous recognition for a work long overlooked; a few years back it was Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, another until-then long-forgotten midcentury American masterpiece, that was receiving overdue acclaim.
Whether Sam Mendes could make a film of Stoner starring Leo DiCaprio, as he did with Yates’s novel of suburban anomie, is debatable: good as it is, and despite the above breathless description, it’s hardly packed with dramatic incident. But boy, is it good: the writing is supple and controlled, the milieu is richly evoked, and the character of Stoner is beautifully, almost spookily realised: he is as real to me, having read the book, as many of the people I know. (Far more real, in some cases; you won’t know who you are).
You don’t have to be an Eng lit professor yourself to figure out why all the novel-writing grandees love Stoner so. At its core the novel offers the primacy of books, the joys of reading, not only as consolation but salvation. Stoner, the character, is saved by his love of books, and he is not alone in this. He recognises that another character has, like him, had “an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words”, that, again like him, this other man has found “a freedom” through reading, a transcendence of his circumstances.
I can’t recommend Stoner highly enough. It’s the kind of book you’ll devour easily in a couple of days, but it’ll stay with you for a long while afterwards.
In fact, it’s so good that even “Bookworm” couldn’t quite manage to monster it. Stoner, Private Eye can reveal, “isn’t at all bad”. High praise, indeed!
Stoner by John Williams is out now (Vintage Classics, £8.99)