Stoner, a 1965 novel by John Williams, has been named the 2013 Waterstones Book of the Year.

Pretty cool to see an old book recognized!  I read this a while back; it’s one of those books often mentioned as a “forgotten classic” and I read such books out of a sense of obligation.  But sometimes, like this time, it pays off.  (See also:  Independent People, The Bridge on the Drina.)  Stoner represents a certain strain in the mid-century American novel that I really like, and which I don’t think exists in contemporary fiction.  Anguish, verbal restraint, weirdness.  Among famous authors, maybe some of Salinger, maybe some of O’Connor (but not glowing like O’Connor, more subdued, and not funny like Salinger, more deadpan.)  Besides Stoner I am thinking of James Purdy and Richard Yates — not even so much Revolutionary Road but The Easter Parade, which is grinding and merciless but at the same time strangely mild-mannered, in the same way Stoner is.

What else belongs here?

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5 thoughts on “Stoner

  1. Richard Séguin says:

    This “forgotten” classic that I recently stumbled on is probably from the wrong century for you: Victor Hugo’s Les Travailleurs de la Mer (The Toilers of the Sea). This book followed Les Misérables, and it’s clear from Hugo’s own preface that he saw Notre-Dame de Paris, Les Misérables, and Les Travailleurs de la Mer as a kind of trilogy. It was a huge seller when it first came out. Other’s have also noted this book as a classic.

    Excuse me while I rant.

    Why haven’t I heard of this novel until recently?

    Hugo was a prolific writer of novels, poems, and plays, created over 3000 drawings, became embroiled in the extremely complicated politics of his time, to the extent that he was exiled for 18 years, and in general was a huge figure in the 19th Century, known around the world. Yet, if you walk into a Barnes & Noble, you will probably find only a few books in his name: generally old and often severely abridged bad translations of Les Misérable and Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a title created by the British that Hugo hated). Until recently, The Toilers of the Sea has been mostly out of print in English for a very long time. I read the relatively new, vivid, and completely unabridged translation by James Hogarth in the Modern Library. (The only drawback was the less than crisp typesetting, and it’s only available in paperback.)

    Many current editions of his work are based on old, sometimes anonymous, translations into 19th Century British style English, inserting an additional filter between the reader and the original text. They are often abridged with no warning (or even when they claim to be unabridged), and Hugo’s often vivid and sometimes bizarre imagery is toned down or eliminated: in the words of Graham Robb, one of his biographers, “pruned and disinfected.” You would be hard pressed to find good, vivid English translations of The Man Who Laughs (The Laughing Man) or Ninety-Three. One reviewer of an edition of The Man Who Laughs on Amazon said that he had seen a Russian translation that read very smoothly, but the English translation he read was very choppy.

    Alban Krailsheimer’s new and vivid translation of Notre-Dame de Paris for Oxford World’s Classics is excellent. If all you know about this novel comes from the sanitized Disney animation, you’ll be surprised. Julie Rose’s new and 100% unabridged version of Les Misérables for Modern Library (my hardcover version, which I just started reading, weighs in at around 4 pounds) is also supposedly a vivid translation.

    When he died, he was despised by the royalists and the Catholic Church, distrusted by the far left, and was probably hated by the British aristocracy. I wonder how that all ultimately affected his legacy in the English speaking world.

  2. Richard Séguin says:


    Last night I finished the completely unabridged (hence huge) Julie Rose translation of Les Misérables (Modern Library). It was an impressive work of translation and included about 135 pages of end-notes. I highly recommend it. As with the other two books that I mentioned above, I’m again left feeling somewhat stunned and possessed by imagery and thoughts that will probably never leave me. It was neither an easy nor a fast read, and that’s a reflection on its depth and breadth of vision. He put an enormous amount of work into it, and it demands work and reflection on the reader’s part. (If you want fun, read Dumas.) To my disgust, I just found out today that this magnificent novel was immediately banned by the Vatican and remained in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum until 1959—yet another blot on that institution.

    I’m not sure that I would have appreciated or understood these three novels as well as I do now if I had read them when I was much younger.

    After reading these three novels, Robb’s biography of Hugo, and discovering that he was also a prolific visual artist, having produced thousands of drawings, I’ve concluded that he undoubtedly does fit into the genius class. Since I generally dislike the word genius, I’m not using the word lightly here.

    For those who are fascinated by the relationship between mental illness and genius: one of his brothers was institutionalized with schizophrenia, and one of his daughters also wound up in a mental institution.

    His own preface to The Toilers of the Sea indicates how he sees these three novels as a group:

    “Religion, society, nature: these are the three struggles in which man is engaged. These three struggles are, at the same time, his three needs. He must believe: hence the temple. He must create: hence the city. He must live: hence the plow and the ship. But these three solutions contain within them three wars. The mysterious difficulty of life springs from all three. Man is confronted with obstacles in the form of superstition, in the form of prejudice, and in the form of the elements. A triple ananke [necessity] weighs upon us: the ananke of dogmas, the ananke of laws, and the ananke of things. In Notre-Dame de Paris the author denounced the first of these; in Les Misérables he drew attention to the second; in this book he points to the third.

    With these three fatalities that envelop man is mingled the fatality within him, the supreme ananke, the human heart.

    Hauteville House, March 1866”

  3. Richard Séguin says:

    Oops, I didn’t do that link correctly. Here it is:

  4. Richard Séguin says:


    In an above comment I indicated that there were no good English translations of Victor Hugo’s novels aside from the three that I gave recommendations for. I did not realize that James Hogarth, recommended above for his (award winning) translation of The Toilers of the Sea, also translated The Laughing Man and Ninety-three, and these were published by Kennedy & Boyd in 2008. Both are excellent translations with notes and read fluently in English (I’m reading The Laughing Man right now). Also, there was a good old anonymous translation of The Last Day of a Condemned Man (a novella), and it was been republished by Dover Publications in 2009. Well over 100 years after his death, translators are finally doing justice to his writing in English. He also wrote a non-fiction book about William Shakespeare that would be interesting to read, but it’s never been translated into English as far as I can tell. (One of his sons wrote the first complete translation of Shakespeare’s works into French.)

    Not only were his books banned by the Vatican, they were also banned in czarist Russia, and his books were burned by the Nazis and by Spanish bishops.

  5. […] This post by Jordan Ellenberg (“Stoner represents a certain strain in the mid-century American novel that I really like, and which I don’t think exists in contemporary fiction. Anguish, verbal restraint, weirdness”) reminds me that what I really like is mid-to-late-twentieth-century literary criticism. I read a great book from the 50s, I think it was, by Anthony West (son of Rebecca West and H. G. Wells), who reviewed books for the New Yorker. It was great, and it made me wish that other collections of his reviews had been published (they hadn’t). I’d also love to read collections of Alfred Kazin‘s reviews (there are some collections, but he published many many others that have never been reprinted) and others of that vintage. I’m pretty sure these hypothetical books wouldn’t sell many copies, though. (I feel lucky, though, that at one point a publisher released a pretty fat collection of Anthony Burgess‘s book reviews.) It’s actually scary to think that many many more people want to buy something like Bayesian Data Analysis than would buy the collected book reviews of Anthony West. […]

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