This is a reread from a few years ago, so part of my review will be reconsidering or readdressing my previous thoughts on this novel.
This is the third novel by the writer John Williams, whose first two books Nothing but the Night and Butcher’s Crossing, I reviewed the other week. This book begins in 1910, as you can see from the opening line, as a farmer’s son enters into the University of Missouri to begin a course of study in the agriculture school, only to discover that he loves Medieval English literature and the study of ancient and middle ages languages. This sets off the rest of his life as he has to tell his parents he won’t be returning to the farm, as he stays for a MA, as he sits out WWI in order to finish his PhD, as he enters into a(n eventually failed) marriage with a rich banker’s daughter, and as he spends the rest of his life reading, writing, parenting, and teaching at the same university he earned all his degrees.
This constancy of life and life’s ambitions, purposes, and events is the subject of this book. This book is not exactly a celebration of mediocrity, but it’s close, as the events of this life–privileged in some ways, but still quite ordinary and unremarkable in others, and increasingly so as the 20th century plays out–comprise a life that is unremembered when it’s gone. You may recall seeing something that we learn about William Stoner in the opening section of the novel, that the entirety of his life is encapsulated through the dedication of a text to the University of Missouri library, a monument to temporariness on a wholly temporary form, a single book.
This novel is really, truly as good as its reputation sells it. It’s not a modern tragedy, nor is it a celebration (importantly, it’s also not boring). Instead, it’s a familiar, stark, straightforward telling of a story. No one is a hero; no is a villain (well, one, but that’s ok), and it’s honestly one of the subtlest funny books I’ve ever read.