‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both’
Stoner is a novel written in 1955 by American John Edward Williams. It was fifty years after publication that this novel, often categorised as an academic novel, became a bestseller. John McGahern (renowned Irish writer- shortlisted for the Man Booker for ‘Amongst Women’) recommended the novel to Vintage Press in 2003 and by 2013 The Guardian hailed it as the ‘must-read novel of 2013’.
The critic Morris Dickstein called Stoner ‘something rarer than a great novel- it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, it takes your breath away.’
Williams was born in Texas in 1922, his grandparents were farm people. He served in the Air Force for a few years and then returned to enrol in the University of Denver. He taught for more than 30 years and took over as director of their creative writing program.
Stoner is a book that divides opinion; never on the quality of the writing; never on the subtleties or the complexity of the narrative but on the credibility of Stoner himself. Is he the master of his own fate (like so many of us would like to think we are) or is he this benign apathetic creature, indifferent to his own happiness? A Prince of Denmark of sorts.
Life is a decision-making process, is it not? To proceed we must act. Life looks like it’s all set out for Stoner- his people scrape a living off the land and he’s the only son. There’s no expectations outside of that until a chance opportunity to educate himself appears like a light in the dark for young Stoner. And the light burns through Stoner’s preconceptions about his place in the world; it flickers at times, but it never goes out.
And whilst the novel encompasses friendship, sickness and pride the love Stoner develops for the academic life is unparalleled. It’s certainly not the usual love story but one that I found endearing and moving. His voice, stoic and reassured, is memorable and compelling.
Some readers felt Stoner too willing to martyr himself at the behest of others and possibly that is true. But he did what he did. He made decisions, for right or wrong, and he lived a life.
‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less travelled by
And that has made all the difference.’
John William’s novel deserves your attention undoubtedly. This has been one of my favourite book club reads although it did inspire some ‘healthy discussion’.