Every now and then you read a novel that you can’t believe isn’t a classic, a book that has been around for generations but somehow missed being seen for what it was - but is now getting the recognition that it deserves. Such is Stoner by John Williams which is now second only to the Da Vinci Code in the bestseller lists in the Netherlands.

It’s an interesting pairing in that there could not be two books that are more dissimilar: one a plot-driven fantasy of conspiracy, written with an ear that gives tin a good name - and the other a simple biographical tale of an internal life of the mind written with perfect pitch that helps you see the world as a place of quiet tragedy levened by pools of happiness.

John Stoner is farm boy from the Mid-West where his parents scratch a hard life from poor soil under wide skies. He leaves them to study Agriculture at a university where he falls in love with English literature, joins the English faculty, marries disastrously, fails professionally but loves his daughter and a colleague with whom he finds both sexual and emotional fulfilment. Neither are there when he dies. The huge events of the 20th century pass him by: through two wars he carries on teaching.

That’s it. But out of this simple life Willams creates a tragedy of an everyman that makes you see that an everyman is contradiction in terms: even the simplest of lives are lived with an emotional complexity that is unique to every human being. A great novel, and this is a great novel, keeps you turning the page because the author reaches behind the simple façade of an observed life and without fuss and with exemplary simple prose turns the mundane into a profound tragedy that sits in your mind long after the last page has been turned.

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