Sunday, 1 September 2013
It started when a couple of people came up to me on the beach last weekend - then somebody else mentioned it as I wandered past the beach-huts with the book in my hand - even the waitress in the cafe said, 'Oh, you're reading that book.' The waiting list for Stoner at the library is as long as your arm and I can't remember when there was such buzz about a book that was worth reading. As opposed to hype about Fifty Shades of JK Rowling.
I'm not sure whether it was Bryan Appleyard or Ian McEwan who got in first but the consensus is that this is the 'greatest novel you have never read.' It is quiet, spare, restrained, the story of one man's life of heartbreaking insignificance and humanity. Stoner is a Missouri farm boy who goes to agricultural college where he discovers the power of literature when he hears his professor reading Shakespeare's sonnet 73.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Stoner becomes a professor. He endures a disappointing marriage, he fails his daughter, he loves deeply and then love slips through his fingers. Nothing happens to him and yet he lives a life of quiet integrity.
Was it the greatest novel I'd never read? It has been echoing in my mind all week, reminding me of Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety, and there was something in its tone that also made me think of The Professor's House by Willa Cather. One of those novels that makes you realise that this is why you read. Trouble is ... when a book is this good, what do you read next?