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'Stoner' the Literary Rediscovery of the Year

31/07/2013 15:15 BST | Updated 27/09/2013 10:12 BST
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I sometimes think authors are like chefs. Virtuoso willy-wavers like Updike, Bellow and Martin Amis, linguistic pyrotechnicians who pack their descriptions with incongruities and lyricism and look-at-me flights of cleverness, are brothers-in-arms to Heston Blumenthal and elBulli's Ferran Adrià, the brains behind bacon-and-egg ice cream and Rice Krispies paella.

But then you have the understatesmen, writers like Richard Yates, John Cheever and Jonathan Franzen who embrace subtlety, clarity and a sort of Tolstoyian, no-frills wisdom, who do the basics of plot and character so well you wonder why anybody writes any other way. It is the philosophy of The Wolseley or The Ledbury, the elevation of simple dishes to an art form.

John Williams' novel Stoner falls into this second category. It is the literary equivalent of a leg of lamb so tender, easy-to-leave-the-bone and immaculately prepared you could eat it every day for the rest of your life; it is a feast for the soul, next to which snail porridge and garlic sorbet seem almost laughably unsatisfying.

First published in 1965, its rediscovery has become one of the literary sensations of the year. Vaunted by writers as varied as Julian Barnes ("a terrific novel of echoing sadness") and Bret Easton Ellis ("one of the great unheralded 20th century American novels... almost perfect"), Stoner is currently the best-selling classic on Amazon UK, even ahead of The Great Gatsby.

It is the story of William Stoner, a farmer's son who goes to the University of Missouri at nineteen to study agriculture. After an eye-opening lecture on Shakespeare, he switches courses and spends the rest of his life there as a teacher of English Literature. His life is fairly uneventful: he marries the wrong woman; he falls out with a work colleague; he has an affair. But it is told with such compassion and patience, with such a feel for the power of unshowy language and unshowy living, that it drifts into the realms of quiet, Chekhovian greatness.

Stoner is a stoical, hard-working introvert: he is a creature of habit, a pacifist and a non-complainer, unless his academic principles are threatened. A man of many thoughts and few words, Stoner is at his most eloquent at his most prepared, though he is prone to unfinished sentences (Williams has a particularly good ear for the inarticulacy of the shy, and there is a poignant parallel between Stoner's contribution to his first literature lecture and the short speech he gives at his retirement dinner). Such a protagonist has the potential to be deathly dull, but in Williams' hands, it's one of the saddest, most nuanced character studies in the history of American literature.

The novel's secondary characterisation is just as brilliant, with Stoner's wife Edith an especially masterful creation: she's a brittle, vindictive daughter of privilege, both pitiful and quietly horrific, and a knight's move away from the unhappy women of Tennessee Williams or Eugene O'Neill. She actively sets out to make her husband's life a misery, and he semi-heroically resigns himself to putting up with it.

William's colleague Hollis Lomax, with his "grotesquely misshapen" body and the "face of a matinee idol", is introduced with an intangible sense of foreboding and slowly becomes the festering lily in William's professional life. The few kindred spirits William discovers - his feverishly alive university contemporary Dave Masters; his daughter Grace; his star pupil Katherine Driscoll - are corrupted and alienated by conspiring external forces. Rare solace is found in Stoner's friend Gordon Finch, who survives the First World War to head the university's English department and is one of the very few characters who seems grateful to be alive.

I hope I haven't made it sound too depressing: it is very depressing, and yet it shudders with a triumphant, compulsive, "I can't go on, I'll go on" heroism. All life is here: the loneliness and disillusionment of childhood; the gulf between what you want and what your parents want for you; the guilt of the non-soldier; the war of ill-fitted marriage and children as its battlefield; the acceptance that some dreams will never be realised; those crucial moments where sticking to your principles makes your life permanently more difficult; the disintegration (what Anthony Powell called the 'snapping') of close, early friendship; the purpose of life as a fusion of "lust and learning"; the cries and whispers, the disappointments, the grievances, the things left unsaid. And it's all so gloriously low-key. For instance, when Stoner has an affair, there is no scandal or casting-out from the university, as in Coetzee's Disgrace (as fine a novel as that is); Stoner's life merely resumes its tortoise-like pace, though his shell may be irreparably cracked. Even at the end, there is no rage against the dying of the light: instead, there is a static, almost unbearably touching final image that symbolizes the dignity, harmlessness and transience of a life led gently.

Perhaps most movingly of all, the life of William Stoner is chronicled in the purest, most crystalline prose. Stoner is so beautifully written that, when you emerge from it, you get the feeling that no-one else really writes in English. As a little amuse-bouche, here is a gorgeously melancholy moment after Stoner has been ostracised both at work and home:

He had come to the moment in his age when there occurred to him, with increasing intensity, a question of such overwhelming simplicity that he had no means to face it. He found himself wondering if his life were worth the living: if it had ever been. It was a question, he suspected, that came to all men at one time or another; he wondered if it came to them with such impersonal force as it came to him. The question brought with it a sadness, but it was a general sadness which (he thought) had little to do with himself or with his particular fate; he was not even sure that the question sprang from the most immediate causes, from what his own life had become. It came, he believed, from the accretion of his years, from the density of accident and circumstance, and from what he had come to understand from them. He took a grim and ironic pleasure from the possibility that what little learning he had managed to acquire had led him to this knowledge; that in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter.

Stoner is a quite exceptional work of twentieth-century literature and it beggars belief it isn't better known already. However, in a marketplace crammed with the Kentucky Fried Prose of Fifty Shades of Grey and Dan "the famous man looked at the red cup" Brown, it is so reassuring when a novel as wondrous and nourishing as this gets the commercial recognition it deserves. Dostoevsky once said that we all come out from Gogol's Overcoat (perhaps the literary work Stoner's sadness, simplicity and sense of inevitability echo the most). I'd suggest that everyone who reads Stoner will be absolutely astonished because it's basically the world in three hundred pages. Now tuck in.