John Williams's novel Stoner was first published in 1965 and is currently enjoying a remarkable rebirth. It is as much distinguished by the bleakness of Stoner's life story as the muted, restrained clarity of its author's prose.
To an outsider, Stoner's life could be summed up by the novel's opening paragraph: a life dedicated to teaching literature at the University of Missouri but quickly forgotten by colleagues and students alike after his death.
However, as the novel progresses, we inevitably see that there was more to Stoner's life than his work and what little there was can make for painful reading.
His wife Edith was disappointed by life long before she was disappointed by marriage. Stoner bears the brunt of her unhappiness as she at best undermines, at worst sabotages, his life; from his attempts to write a book to his relationship with Grace.
His other great tragedy is victimisation by his department head when he stands up for his principles, a noble decision that backfires with catastrophic consequences for both his work and personal life.
When life is treating Stoner well, Williams makes it clear his happiness will be grimly short lived. Where Stoner's forebears suffered physical hardship in an arid land, Stoner's suffering is emotional. However, he is in some ways his own worst enemy.
He is held back by a lack of confidence; a passivity; a tendency to blame himself for mishaps and difficulties. On the one occasion when he stands up to Lomax's bullying, it is because he is past caring about the outcome.
What rescues the novel from being unbearably sad is Williams's gift for emotional precision. It elevates one man's story, the "wars and defeats and victories of the human race that are not military and that are not recorded in the annals of history", into something universal.
He defines the alienation of depression ("he longed for something - even pain - to pierce him, to bring him alive") and later, during an especially devastating period, he experiences a numbness "compounded of emotions so deep and intense that they could not be acknowledged because they could not be lived with".
He is also brilliant on the all-consuming nature of love: the pain when it is unrequited; the euphoria when it is returned, love being "a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart".
Almost 50 years after its first, largely ignored publication, a routine rejacketing by Vintage has unleashed a word-of-mouth literary phenomenon that is spreading across Europe and the USA. It's a relief that the story of Stoner the novel is more uplifting than the story of Stoner himself.
Classicists are a surprisingly unclassical lot when it comes to English literature. You would expect them to read nothing but Sophocles and Anne Carson out of the classroom. Instead, they recommended historical novels like Susan Howatch’s The Rich Are Different, the story of a banking family, and all the characters based on Caesar and the First Triumvirate, if I remember correctly? which complemented our studies.
A better bet was John Williams’ Augustus, the National Book Award–winning historical novel by the writer now best known for Stoner, reissued by NYRB a few years ago. But Augustus is just as brilliant, the story of Augustus’ bid for power after Julius Caesar’s murder and his dealings with the likes of Cicero and Mark Antony, some of our favorite historical characters.