The blurb on the cover says this is ‘the greatest novel you’ve never read’. High praise indeed, and maybe it carries some credibility coming from the Sunday Times, though does that include in America?
When my brother handed me the novel he said, ‘You ought to try this. It’s interesting.’
‘In what way?’ I probed.
‘It’s different,’ he said. ‘Unusual.’
‘But you liked it?’
‘In a way,’ he said. ‘I kept reading it.’
I could get no further comment from him, so having a few moments to spare the other day, I skipped past John McGahern’s introduction and looked at the first page of story.
William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956.
This was not the usual sort of hook. I could see no hints of a great issue to be solved, no situation that needed to be explored. Where was the characterisation? It read like an obituary notice. What, I wondered, was the book offering? So far there was no hope that William might be an Indiana Jones type, with a secret second occupation. Perhaps I needed to read a little further.
He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library.
What? The central character will be dead by the end of the novel, and has so little charisma that his students can’t remember him? I haven’t met him yet, and I’m wondering why I should want to.
Yet, I read on. Was I, perhaps, influenced by that recommendation on the cover? Not really. I’ll admit to a contrary streak that makes me suspicious of statements like those, particularly when they’re plastered to the front of re-issued novels.
It wasn’t my brother’s recommendation that kept me reading, either. Much as I love him, I value the fact that our tastes in the arts are individual.
It was, in the first place, the writing I fell for. I liked the apparent simplicity.
He was born in 1891 on a small farm in central Missouri near the village of Booneville, some forty miles from Columbia, the home of the University.
There is an elegance in presenting the concrete details without flamboyance. The story, this style seemed to promise, was yet to come. The first nineteen years of William’s life is covered in two pages, because it needs no more. It describes, without detail, the long hours of monotonous labour that are small-farm-life at the beginning of the twentieth century. Only then do we move in closer to the characters.
His father shifted his weight on the chair. He looked at his thick, callused fingers, into the cracks of which soil had penetrated so deeply that it could not be washed away.
This is economy. Here is no high drama, it is a domestic scene. Look at how William takes his father’s suggestion that he should go to the new school at the University in Columbia, the College of Agriculture:
William spread his hands on the tablecloth, which gleamed dully under the lamplight. He had never been further from home than Booneville, fifteen miles away. He swallowed to steady his voice.
I was four pages into the novel, and I believed it. From that point, I stopped counting. I forgot to notice how the pages turned, or the morning passing. It’s not a long novel. I finished it by lunchtime.
To tell you more would be to spoil what is a beautifully paced and presented tale-of-a-life. If you’re looking for a new read, I’m recommending this book, though I offered it to a visitor a couple of days later, and she said, ‘Read it. I hated it.’
When I saw my brother again, I pushed him for an opinion, but he wasn’t to be shifted. ‘Odd,’ he said. ‘Not like anything else I’ve read.’ So I suppose that will have to do.
I hear there’s talk of turning it into a film. I don’t think I’ll want to watch it. Talking through a book is one thing, seeing how someone else envisions and understands it, that’s a wholly different type of spoiler.