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My find of the year from the bookshelf

An unassuming cover, but a marvellous read. This book should get its due

At the Delhi Book Fair last year, there was one book that could be spotted at every stall selling books at hundred rupees apiece. Titled Stoner, it had an unassuming cover featuring three worn-out books placed one over the other, and it had an matter-of-fact blurb on the back cover. But that is where the ordinariness ended.

Stoner follows the life of William Stoner, a seemingly average teacher at the University of Missouri — a quintessential aam aadmi, if you will. The author, John Williams, makes it clear as early as on the first page of the novel that Stoner’s life was unremarkable and that he was barely remembered after his death. In less than 300 pages, the work covers the entirety of his life, from his falling head over heels for literature, the revelation that he was meant to be a teacher, to his utter failure of a marriage, and his quiet battles at the university where he taught.

The back cover simply tells us, “He marries the wrong woman.” A few pages into the book, the reader realises how much of an understatement of the contents that really is. His career does not seem to offer much respite as a petty battle with another professor initiates a life-long war between the two. Consequently, Stoner never really gets his due, never rises beyond assistant professor, and has to teach freshmen classes despite being a senior teacher. His travails with love — both his genuine love for his daughter and his quiet, somehow wildly passionate romance with another professor — are heartbreaking and engaging.

And yet, there is no singular dramatic question begging for resolution in Stoner, nor is there an eventual intense victory for our hero: neither seems necessary. But there are wins and losses nonetheless. His are the quiet battles of an everyman, albeit an everyman most unfortunate in the Fate Department. Remarkably, the tone of the novel, like the protagonist, never dwells on his miseries. As he faces a relentless flow of adversity and adversaries, Stoner maintains a sense of detachment from his misfortunes, even when the reader may not be able to do so.

Ironically, John Williams, the author, never seems to have got his due either for this masterpiece, at least not during his lifetime. Stoner was released in 1965 and is reported to have sold only around 2,000 copies at the time. In 2013, after decades of its release (and 19 years after Williams’s death), the book received attention in parts of Europe and came into the bestseller charts. Ever since, it has received rave reviews and has found mention in innumerable must-read lists.

Stoner a marvellous read. The crisp, almost restrained prose perfectly captures the protagonist’s tragedies, yet making the reader believe this was a life somehow triumphant and well-lived. After all, Stoner manages to do something not many can boast of — making a job out of his passion. An outsider may view Stoner’s life as unremarkable, devoid of cathartic wars and defeats and victories, but as Archer Sloane (Stoner’s mentor figure in the novel) puts it, “You must remember what you are and what you have chosen to become, and the significance of what you are doing. There are wars and defeats and victories of the human race that are not military and that are not recorded in the annals of history.”

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Printable version | Mar 29, 2020 12:00:48 AM |

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