Stoner was published in 1965 and is considered to be an American classic but I have to admit I hadn’t even heard of it until quite recently. It didn'tStoner was published in 1965 and is considered to be an American classic but I have to admit I hadn’t even heard of it until quite recently. It didn't really sound like the sort of book I would usually choose to read, but when I saw a copy in the library I thought I would try it. I liked it much more than I'd expected to; it's a quiet, reflective book about a university professor whose life is marked by disappointments and unfulfilled potential, but it's beautifully written and surprisingly gripping at times.
William Stoner is the son of a poor farmer from Missouri. Sent to the University of Missouri in 1910 to study agriculture, William discovers that his true passion is for literature and changes his degree course without telling his parents. After graduating, Stoner decides not to return to the family farm and stays on at the university to teach English Literature where he remains for the next forty years. During those forty years he marries, but the marriage is not a happy one, has a daughter whose life also turns out to be quite miserable, and faces problems at work with students and colleagues. When he retires in 1956 and dies soon afterwards, most of those who knew him quickly forget he ever existed.
This is certainly not an exciting, action-packed novel, but that was obvious from the very first page which sums up Stoner's whole life in one paragraph (I haven't spoiled anything above by telling you when he dies) and then continues with:
"An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner's colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers."
The story of Stoner's life is a mediocre and uneventful one and yet somehow, despite that, it's fascinating to read. It's proof of the quality of John Williams' writing that he could make me feel so interested in the boring life of a man I didn't even always particularly like. Probably the most dramatic part of the novel, if you can describe any of it as dramatic, is when Stoner tries to fail an incompetent student and finds himself opposed by the student's tutor, who happens to be the head of the English department. I was completely engrossed by this section of the book, where Stoner tries to do what he believes is right despite the attempts of the other professor to make things as difficult as possible for him.
The character I was most intrigued by was Edith, Stoner's wife. Her behaviour is very difficult to understand and I'm not sure what conclusions we are supposed to make about her character. She seems to be suffering from a form of mental illness which is never specified and while it is hinted that she may have been abused by her father, this is never explained in any detail either. She was a mystery to me from beginning to end and I never felt that I (or even Stoner) ever really got to know her at all, which was the one thing that disappointed me about this book.
I know I've probably given the impression that Stoner is a very sad and bleak story, but it's actually not quite as depressing as it sounds and I do recommend reading it, especially if you enjoy novels with an academic setting....more
I think I need to start this review with an apology to George Orwell because like many people, I read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four as a teenagI think I need to start this review with an apology to George Orwell because like many people, I read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four as a teenager and assumed I'd read everything by Orwell that was worth reading. I was obviously wrong because Coming Up for Air is a great book, though very different from his two most famous novels. In a way, though, I'm glad I've waited until now to read it because I'm not sure I would have appreciated it as much when I was younger.
Coming Up for Air was published in 1939 and tells the story of George Bowling, a forty-five-year-old insurance salesman who is bored with his dreary, middle-class existence. Married with two children, George's biggest worries are his mortgage, his weight and the risk of losing his job, but with Europe on the brink of war he knows that the monotony of his life could be about to change. On the day that he receives a new set of false teeth, George takes a trip into London where he sees a poster that triggers memories of his childhood and Lower Binfield, the small, peaceful town where he grew up. George is tempted to return to Lower Binfield for the first time in years, but if he goes back now, what will he find?
Based on the other two books I've read, this is not really the type of book I would have expected from George Orwell. However, there are some similarities with Nineteen Eighty-Four in Orwell's surprisingly accurate predictions of the future. Reading this book gave me an eerie feeling, knowing that it was being written just before the beginning of the Second World War, when the author could have had no real knowledge of what was to come, yet anticipating the changes that would soon be upon the nation.
"I can feel it happening. I can see the war that’s coming and I can see the after-war, the food-queues and the secret police and the loudspeakers telling you what to think. And I’m not even exceptional in this. There are millions of others like me."
My favourite part of the book was the long section in the middle where George looks back on his childhood in Lower Binfield at the turn of the century. This whole section is a lovely nostalgic portrait of an England that is now gone forever...that had already gone by 1939, destroyed by the First World War.
"1913! My God! 1913! The stillness, the green water, the rushing of the weir! It'll never come again. I don't mean that 1913 will never come again. I mean the feeling inside you, the feeling of not being in a hurry and not being frightened, the feeling you've either had and don't need to be told about, or haven't had and won’t ever have the chance to learn."
The novel doesn't have a lot of plot, but that wasn't a problem; I didn't find it slow at all. There's not much dialogue either, as we spend the whole book inside George's head with his thoughts and memories. Despite this, I found the book completely engrossing. The only time I got bored was with George's long and enthusiastic description of fishing, his favourite hobby until the age of fifteen. But even this was steeped in nostalgia:
"The very idea of sitting all day under a willow tree beside a quiet pool — and being able to find a quiet pool to sit beside — belongs to the time before the war, before the radio, before aeroplanes, before Hitler."
George's actions and opinions are not always very admirable and his views on the women in his life leave a lot to be desired, but despite his flaws, I couldn't actually dislike him. He's so ordinary; not a hero, but a real human being with good points and bad points. He has a wryly funny, self-deprecating narrative style which saves the book from becoming too depressing, though overall I found this a sad and poignant story rather than a humorous one. I don't know much about Orwell's own life, but I'm sure this book must have been autobiographical to some extent.
I loved Coming Up for Air and will certainly consider trying another of Orwell's books. ...more
Despite the attempts of her mother to arrange a good marriage for her, Kitty Garstin is in no hurry to find a husband. She’s too busy enjoying herselfDespite the attempts of her mother to arrange a good marriage for her, Kitty Garstin is in no hurry to find a husband. She’s too busy enjoying herself at parties and dances, and it’s only when she’s still unmarried at the age of twenty-five and discovers that her younger sister has become engaged to a baronet that she begins to panic. She agrees to marry Walter Fane, a bacteriologist, and moves to Hong Kong with him. Walter is shy, clever and serious and to the pretty, frivolous Kitty, he seems very cold and aloof. Although he is in love with her, she doesn’t love him in return and soon begins an affair with the charming, charismatic Assistant Colonial Secretary, Charles Townsend.
Eventually Walter learns the truth about Kitty and Charles and confronts Kitty with an ultimatum. She can either accompany him into the interior of China where he has volunteered to deal with a cholera epidemic, or he will allow her to divorce him – but only if Charles agrees to divorce his wife and immediately marry Kitty. When Kitty goes to discuss the situation with Charles, she is cruelly disillusioned by her lover and is left with no other option than to travel to Mei-tan-fu with Walter. Kitty is convinced that Walter is taking her there in the hope that she will die, but it’s here in this remote cholera-ridden city that Kitty finally begins to grow as a person and to make some discoveries about both herself and her husband.
This book was such a surprise. I think I must have formed a preconceived idea that I wouldn’t like Somerset Maugham without ever having tried any of his books or knowing anything about him, because I really didn’t expect to love this as much as I did. I’m so pleased to find that I was wrong! The Painted Veil is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. I found Maugham’s writing much easier to read than I had thought it might be, but also filled with beauty, poignancy and emotion.
This is quite a short novel but both main characters have a lot of depth and complexity. I disliked Kitty at first – she’s selfish, spoiled and immature – but the fact that she is so flawed and makes such terrible mistakes is what makes her so human. Kitty is changed by her experiences in Mei-tan-fu and we see her mature and gain in wisdom and insight. By the end of the book, I still didn’t like her but I had a better understanding of her and I wanted her to be happy. I had more sympathy for Walter, but because we are viewing him through Kitty’s eyes, we don’t really have a chance to see the other side of his personality that we hear about – when the nuns in the convent tell Kitty how much they admire him, for example, and how tender and loving he can be with the orphaned babies there. Kitty barely knows or understands her husband at all and when she finally begins to do so, we are made to wonder whether it’s going to be too late.
There aren’t a lot of long, descriptive passages in this book but 1920s China is still portrayed beautifully and I loved the description of Kitty watching the rooftops emerging from the mist on her first morning in Mei-tan-fu.
If you read this book I would also recommend reading Shelley’s sonnet Lift Not The Painted Veil and Oliver Goldsmith’s An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog....more
I don't know why I had ever been intimidated by the thought of reading Don Quixote. Yes, it's long (over 1,000 pages in most editions) and old (originI don't know why I had ever been intimidated by the thought of reading Don Quixote. Yes, it's long (over 1,000 pages in most editions) and old (originally published in two parts in 1605 and 1615) and a translation, but I didn't find it difficult to read at all. It's fun and imaginative and entertaining – and I loved it.
Don Quixote is the story of a gentleman of La Mancha who has spent so many years reading books of chivalry and romance that he has come to believe the tales they tell are true. Inspired by the heroes of his favourite books, he decides to become a knight errant and go out into the world in search of adventures. Renaming himself Don Quixote and his horse Rocinante, he convinces a neighbouring peasant, Sancho Panza, to join him as his squire. With Sancho at his side, Don Quixote sets out to right wrongs, fight duels and rescue damsels in distress, in the hope that his valiant deeds will win him the love of the beautiful (and largely imaginary) Dulcinea del Toboso.
As Don Quixote and Sancho travel across Spain they have one adventure after another, each one headed with a long and intriguing chapter title such as "Of the strange adventure which befell the valiant Don Quixote with the bold Knight of the Mirrors" or "Which deals with the adventure of the enchanted head, together with other trivial matters which cannot be left untold". As you read on, however, it soon becomes obvious that these 'adventures' are not quite as amazing as they sound and usually have a logical explanation.
Many people, even without reading the book, will have heard of the famous 'tilting at windmills' episode. There are many, many other similar episodes in the novel but this one appears near the beginning which is probably why it's the best known. If you're not familiar with it, on approaching some windmills in a field Don Quixote becomes convinced they are giants and attacks them with his sword:
"What giants?" said Sancho Panza.
"Those thou seest there," answered his master, "with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues long."
"Look, your worship," said Sancho; "what we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails that, turned by the wind, make the millstone go."
"It is easy to see," replied Don Quixote, "that thou art not used to this business of adventures; those are giants; and if thou art afraid, away with thee out of this and betake thyself to prayer while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat."
This is a pattern that is repeated over and over again throughout the novel: Don Quixote mistakes inns for castles and flocks of sheep for armies – and even when Sancho points out the truth he still insists that he is right. The castles and the armies must have been enchanted by great wizards, he says, so that they appear to be inns and sheep. As the story progresses, Don Quixote's fame spreads and he is thought of as insane and Sancho as an idiot. The response of some of the people they meet can be very cruel and it's quite sad to see how Don Quixote and Sancho are ridiculed, scorned and made the target of elaborate practical jokes. I wouldn't describe this as a sad book, though; in fact, it's a very funny one. The humour doesn't always work (being four hundred years old and in translation, maybe that's not surprising) but at times it's hilarious!
As well as the adventures and the humour, there are lots of songs, poems and ballads interspersed with the prose. There are also lots of stories-within-stories – almost everyone they meet on their journey has a long and tragic story of their own to tell – and many of these have no relevance to the rest of the novel. For example, a lot of time is devoted to the tale of a Christian who was held captive by Moors in Algiers and has escaped back to Spain – nothing to do with Don Quixote, but apparently based on Cervantes' own experiences. This is why the novel is so long and why you need to have some patience with it! Reading this book over a period of several months was the perfect strategy for me as the episodic nature of the story meant that I could leave it for a few weeks and still get straight back into it when I picked it up again. Breaking it up into small sections kept it feeling fresh and interesting so that I never felt bored or overwhelmed.
A quick note on the translation now. There have been many English translations of Don Quixote over the years but not really having any idea which to choose, I started reading the 1885 John Ormsby translation (in the public domain so free to download from Project Gutenberg and other websites) and I found it perfectly readable so decided just to stick with it. I wouldn't necessarily recommend that translation to everyone as it does use some archaic terms and feels 'old' but that's what I prefer when I'm reading an old book so it wasn't a problem for me. Whichever may be closest to the literal translation, Ormsby's description of Don Quixote as "Knight of the Rueful Countenance" just sounds better to me than, for example, Edith Grossman's "Knight of the Sorrowful Face". It's a matter of personal taste, though, so it's probably a good idea to look at a few different translations and find one that suits you before you embark on such a long novel!
Much as I enjoyed this book it did sometimes feel as if I was never going to finish it, so I was pleased to reach the end. I'm going to miss Don Quixote and Sancho, though, after spending so much time with them this year! ...more