Rescued from out-of-print status fifty years after it’s original publication saw just 2,000 copies sold, Stoner has been a much talked about novel in the past twelve months. It was reissued by the New York Review of Books Classics imprint in 2006 and has since gone on to become a sudden success in France in 2011 which then spurred on other publishers around Europe to bring it to readers’ attention (more from this great discussion of the novel by Julian Barnes for the Guardian). According to the Sydney Morning Herald, at the end of 2013 Vintage Classics had reprinted the book twelve times to keep up with demand. And indeed it’s a curious little gem, akin to finding a dusty classic in an antique store that sweeps you away to another time and place.
Stoner begins by announcing the death of William Stoner - the central character and namesake of the book. There is little suspense as a result, but as the story carried on I became more and more sympathetic to Stoner and therefore soldiered through the bleakness of his life: a bad marriage, a complicated relationship with his child, a middling career and an overall ache of sadness.
But what joy does come is most often through words, and this is what will win over any romantic reader like myself. Stoner is saved by words: it’s a beautiful ode not only to the written word, but to a love of learning and teaching. University not saves him from the farm he is brought up on and without an opportunity to study would be destined to never leave, but gives him what turns out to be a life-long purpose. His study is a sanctuary in a house of tension and coldness between its inhabitants. It seems fitting that his speciality is in mediaeval literature; words take him to places he will never go, they transport him away from the present.
There is plenty of tension, in fact the passive aggression between Stoner and his wife Edith is almost overwhelming at times. Take these two passages, first from William and then from Edith’s return to the house having stayed with her parents in St Louis:
‘I’ve never wanted to admit it to myself,’ he said with something like tranquility, ‘but you really do hate me, don’t you, Edith?’
Since she would be home more now, she had (she told him) decided to take up her painting and her sculpting again; and his study, with its north light, would give her the only really decent illumination the house had.
But this is constantly balanced against the love and tenderness he shows towards his daughter, his lover and his work, such as this beautiful passage telling of a new and awkward love story:
He found himself trembling; as awkwardly as a boy he went around the coffee table and sat beside her. Tentatively, clumsily, their hands went out to each other; they clasped each other in an awkward, strained embrace; and for a long time they sat together without moving, as if any movement might let escape from them the strange and terrible thing that they held between them in a single grasp.
Stoner is about the little moments in life - personal and professional, hopes and fears, successes and failures - like a snapshot of the little fragments of our lives that happen every day, just as much as the difficulties that set us back, and our ability to eat away joy, to destroy the will of others and have the same done to ourselves. I love this description in The New Yorker of Stoner as “an anti-Gatsby.” As much as Stoner is a story about the American dream (like The Great Gatsby, Revolutionary Road or more recently The Interestings), it places full responsibility with the individual: not just for the amount of work it takes to succeed in the world, but for a person’s misgivings, too.
Stoner is a slow and steady tale of a man’s life. It is neither extraordinary nor dull - there is enough to keep you interested, but not enough to seem unbelievable - and this is where the novel finds it’s rhythm. Poetic in both tone and pace, there is a quiet beauty to both Williams’ prose and the celebration of the every day. The tests Stoner overcomes, the trials he fails to conquer. It is a somber book, in many ways reticent of Richard Yates’ novels, but somehow quieter, such as this beautiful phrase:
He suspected that he was beginning, ten years late, to discover who he was.
The copy of the novel I read comes with a quote on the cover from the Sunday Times: “The greatest novel you’ve never read.” The renewed interest in this book will hopefully see it grace more and more shelves, as this poetic tale deserves to be shared, even if it is fifty years too late.
This meal comes from the current Donna Hay Magazine, which I picked up for a little Christmas cooking inspiration but was taken by the collection of ‘speedy dinners’ (which is really more my kind of cooking anyway). My version is a slight adaptation of her Grilled Salmon Rice Bowl with Pickled Vegetables. The dressings are taken from the recipe, but I used chicken Marylands, rather than salmon (you could also use chicken thighs). For the pickled vegetables, combine 2 teaspoons each of sesame oil and honey with one-quarter of a cup of rice wine vinegar. Divide this mix in half and mix then soak one julienned carrot in one bowl, and one julienned zucchini (courgette) in another. Then mix three teaspoons each of sesame oil and honey with one-quarter of a cup of soy sauce and chilli flakes to taste. Coat the chicken pieces in half the marinate, then sear in a fry pan before finishing in the oven. Serve the sliced chicken on plain rice with plenty of the vegetables, sliced spring (green) onions and a sprinkle of sesame seeds, with the rest of the marinate on the side. It is a perfect weeknight meal: quickly prepared, fresh and satisfying without any fuss.
Recently one of my favourite bookstores Readings published a list of ‘The books by women we read in 2014.’ There were some brilliant choices on the lists contributed, and I wholeheartedly supported the promotion of the #readwomen2014 campaign by a major force in Melbourne’s thriving literary scene. However, all the lists were given by women. And that’s what I took issue with. It’s one thing for women to promote female voices, but part of the equality of the debate means it also needs to be promoted by men. I also didn’t feel like it was the spirit of the #readwomen2014 campaign to have women talking about the fact that they regularly read plenty of female authors. For me, #readwomen2014 is about holding both women and men accountable to what they’re reading, and ensuring there’s a balance to the voices coming from their bookshelves. To Readings credit, and my gratitude, a week later they published ‘The books by women we read in 2014: Part II’, featuring more great choices, this time entirely by male employees, including the Managing Director, Mark Rubbo. If you need further inspiration, they have also published a comprehensive list of local favourites: ’50 great reads by Australian women in 2014’ which includes Sophie Cunningham’s Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy (which I talked about in this post); Lorelei Vashti’s Dress, Memory and Angela Meyer’s Captives (which I talked about here). There are also several that are on my list for holiday reading: Emily Bitto’s The Strays; Sian Prior’s Shy; and Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes. My conscious effort to read more women won’t finish in 2014, but I’ve learnt so much from the campaign that it does feel like a great way to celebrate a year of great books.