The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel: John Williams, Stoner, and the Writing Life

Nicholas Delbanco in the New York Journal of Books:

Many writers and an increasingly sizable cadre of readers admire John Williams’s novel, Stoner, without reservation. Stoner itself is not about drugs; rather, it evokes a character both monumental and flinty. A third-person account of a farm boy who becomes, laboriously, a college professor of English, it celebrates in measured prose the integrity of one whose name (as John Keats wrote for his own epitaph) “was writ in water.”

Both the honorable private man and tarnished public figure are vividly conjured throughout, and the low-seeming stakes of the conflict loom large. With its unsparing analysis of academic office politics, of quiet scholarship and failed romance, Stoner seems—as the title of this new biography of Williams asserts—“the perfect novel.”

That the same author should have next produced Augustus—a meticulously researched epistolary study of the Roman Emperor—and, previously, Butcher’s Crossing—a tale of coming-of-age in the untamed American west—argues a major talent, with several strings to the bow. He was a poet also, and a serious student of English Renaissance poetry, Fulke-Greville in particular. As he told an interviewer in 1966. “I try never to repeat myself. . . . Why do it again, if you’ve done it once?”

John Williams spent much of his life in relative obscurity, and his early achievements were few. Like the character of Bill Stoner (in part autobiographical, in part based on the critic and poet, J. V. Cunningham) Williams lived with limitations: penury and failing health and scant recognition.

More here.

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