Book Review : A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway

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Regular readers of this blog will know that to mark the centenary of the start of WW1 I decided to do some ‘themed’ reading.

I have already blogged the memoirs of Robert Graves here and also reviewed two recent novels that deal with the war, Wake and The Lie, here. A Farewell To Arms, which I first read aged about 15 ,was definitely on my list.

This is a fictionalised account of Hemingway’s own First World War experiences as an ambulance driver on the Italian front. It is also a love story ,again based on Hemingway’s experiences when there. The bones of the love story had stayed in my memory , not least because of the wonderful film starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones, but what hadn’t struck me as a 15 year old reader was the sheer beauty of Hemingway’s prose.

‘ At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army.’

Just like Graves, Hemingway is sickened by the senselessness of the mass slaughter caused by the war and the jingoism of its leaders :

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by bill posters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.’

Frederick Henry is an American who has joined the ambulance service as a driver, just like Hemingway himself. The book opens in Udine , northern Italy, where Frederick is posted and where he meets Catherine Barclay a young English, or rather Scottish, voluntary nurse sent to the hospital there.

Frederick initially goes to meet Catherine together with his friend Rinaldi, an Italian army surgeon, who has heard about the arrival of the new nurses and is determined to court them.Catherine and Frederick immediately fall in love and Chapter 4 in which they first meet must truly be some of the most beautiful prose ever written  in the English language. It isn’t really possibly to quote an extract from it, you really do have to read the whole thing.

This is not a long book , only 293 pp in the edition I read, and divided into five short parts. Part 1 gives us Frederick and Catherine’s meeting and Frederick, just like Hemingway himself, is then badly injured whist on duty on the frontline ; in Part 2 he is evacuated and hospitalised in Milan, where Catherine has also been posted. During his time as a patient and after during his convalescence ,their relationship grows ; Part 3 sees Frederick back at the front and subsequently  caught up in a shambolic retreat with the Italian army which leads to a trumped up charge of deserting his post ; Parts 4 and 5 deal with Frederick’s transformation into a fugitive and the resolution of his relationship with Catherine.

This is not , however, romantic fiction. The searing realism of Hemingway’s writing truly captures the pointless horrors of war. Frederick meets a British major in the officers’ club in Milan :

‘He said the offensive in Flanders was going to the bad. If they killed men as they did this fall  the Allies would be cooked in another year. He said we were all cooked but we were all right as long as we did not know it. We were all cooked. The thing was not to recognise it . The last country to realise they were cooked would win the war. We had another drink.’

During the chaos of the Italian retreat many officers become separated from their men. When stopped this leads to a charge of desertion and summary execution. Hemingway describes the process :

‘Two carabinieri took the lieutenant-colonel to the river bank. He walked in the rain, an old man with his hat off, a carabiniere on either side. I did not watch them shoot him but I heard the shots. They were questioning some one else. This officer too was separated from his troops. He was not allowed to make an explanation. He cried when they read the sentence from the pad of paper, and they were questioning another man when they shot him.’

There is a poetic quality to the writing too. Throughout ,the rain appears as a harbinger of tragedy…..as can be seen in the first extract I quoted,which appears at the very beginning of the book, and again in the shooting of the officers. Catherine explains it to Frederick like this :

All right. I’m afraid of the rain because sometimes I see me dead in it.’

‘No.’

‘And sometimes I see you dead in it.’

‘That’s more likely’

‘ No, it’s not, darling. Because I can keep you safe. I know I can. But nobody can help themselves.’

Later in the book, Frederick’s friend and colleague, Aymo, is killed by what we would now call ‘ friendly-fire’ :

‘ Aymo lay in the mud with the angle of the embankment. He was quite small and his arms were by his side, his puttee-wrapped legs and muddy boots together, his cap over his face. He looked very dead. It was raining. I had liked him as well as anyone I ever knew. I had his papers in my pocket and would write to his family.’

At one point the ‘rain’ is transformed to blood, as the wounded Frederick is transported on a stretcher in an ambulance with a man haemorrhaging above him :

‘The drops fell very slowly, as they fall from an icicle after the sun has gone.It was cold in the car in the night as the road climbed. At the post on the top they took the stretcher out and put another in and we went on.’

This is book is truly a masterpiece. Heartbreaking in it’s realism ,it is indeed a testament to lost youth and gives a lie to Michael Gove’s claims that ‘leftie’ comedy writers at the BBC have distorted the history of the first world war.

My next WW1 read will be The Wars by Tim Findlay ,recommended by a reader of this blog and which tells the story of Canadian volunteers . Before August I also hope to write about a book I first encountered in our local public library when I was aged about 14 or 15. This tells the story of a woman’s lost love and struggle to come to terms with her life after WW1. Long out of print, I happily managed to find a second hand copy last year.

Before then, I have some very exciting new releases that have been sent to me to introduce here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review : Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood

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Mrs Hemingway tells the story of Ernest through the eyes of his 4 wives : Hadley (Hash); Pauline (Fife); Martha and lastly Mary.

The action spans from 1925 to 1961 and the aftermath of Ernest’s suicide. We visit pre and post war Paris, Key West ,Cuba and Ketchum, Idaho.The book is split into 4 parts each telling the story through the eyes of the particular wife at the time.

This may sound a little disjointed but each section dovetails neatly into the next due to Naomi Wood’s flowing style of writing and, to an extent, Hemingway himself.Ernest didn’t discard a wife until he had another one lined up…….Pauline was Hadley’s best friend in those early Paris years, Martha stayed with Pauline and Hemingway in Key West,Pauline came to live with Mary and Hemingway for a while …. and so the stories each overlap as the old wife has to give way to the new. Pauline reflects at the end of her marriage:

What a pull he has ! What a magnetism! Women jump off balconies and follow him into wars.Women turn their eyes  from an affair, because a marriage of three is better than a woman alone.

Wood also uses the clever device of  character Harry Cuzzemano , a second -hand book dealer and muck raker, who weaves in and out of each section binding them together. He first surfaces to Hadley on the search for a missing suitcase containing Hemingway’s lost first novel. This references a real episode in Hemingway’s life when Hadley, on her way to Switzerland to meet her then unknown and struggling writer husband, left a suitcase containing the only draft of his first novel on the platform of the Gare de Lyon.

As Hemingway’s fame and reputation grow, the sleazy Cuzzemano seeks first the whereabouts of the suitcase, then any evidence of infidelity with Martha Gelhorn from Pauline, a lost poem from Martha and ending ostensibly seeking return of his own blackmailing letters from Mary ,whilst making off with any scraps of memorabilia he can find.

Of course the story of the break up of Hadley and Ernest has been well documented . Hemingway himself wrote about it in The Sun Also Rises and then, years later and with the benefit of hindsight ,in A Moveable Feast published posthumously. More recently, Pauline McLain imagined the breakdown of the marriage in The Paris Wife.

I thought the most interesting wife in  the story was Pauline.We see her first as the predatory ‘best friend ‘ with designs on the husband. By 1938 in Florida, she is the soon to be discarded wife, still desperately in love with her husband but unable to do anything to divert him from the spell cast by the young and beautiful aspiring journalist Martha Gelhorn. Pauline was the mother of his two younger sons and remained a presence in his life right to the end. She died in 1951 of a hear attack shortly after a bitter telephone argument with Ernest over their troubled son, Gregory.

Through the eyes of Martha and then Mary we see Hemingway’s descent into alcoholism and depression.

Hemingway’s passionate affair with Martha led to a brief marriage. She was the only one of his wives to leave him ….and never speak to him again.Her admiration for Hemingway soon turned to contempt. Searching for him in war-torn  Paris (to tell him she wants a divorce) she is told that her husband has  liberated The Ritz with a troop of soldiers :

Martha hates the way he throws himself around a city with all the swagger of a warlord.She hates, too, that other people can’t see past his phony heroism. So he has liberated The Ritz! Of course he would.

The Pig knew it was the one place that wouldn’t have run dry.

It was with Mary that Hemingway had his longest and most stable marriage. Despite the many happy years in Cuba  spent on the deck of his boat Pilar  and the award of the Nobel Prize in 1954, Mary is powerless to prevent the creep of alcoholism and his illness. He feels his powers as a writer are waning not helped by his bouts of heavy drinking and periods of hospitalisation for electric shock treatment. As Hemingway had written many years before to F Scott Fitzgerald :

That terrible mood of depression of whether it is any good or not is what is known as The Artist’s Curse.

This a wonderfully evocative novel.Wood clearly has a love of the subject matter and has researched it meticulously. She doesn’t allow the research however to get in the way of her vivid imagination.The story and its unhappy ending are well known but Naomi Wood’s prose gave it a freshness that kept me gripped all the way through.

Book Review : Little Failure by Gary Sheyngart

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Life is constantly changing for Gary. Born a Soviet citizen, he becomes a citizen of the USA. Named Igor by his parents, he changes to Gary in his adopted homeland, for reasons which are obvious to any native English speaker. Even his city of birth keeps changing its name….from  the original St Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad….and finally back to St Petersburg again. No wonder he is confused!

Little Failure is the autobiography of US and jewish author Gary Shteyngart. The title comes from his parents’ nickname for him as a child . A constant source of disappointment to them, his nickname eventually becomes Failurchka ,coined by his mother in a melding of Russian and English.

Nothing he does seems right. On a parents evening a teacher gushes to Gary’s father :

‘Gary is very smart. We hear he reads Dostoevsky in the original.’

‘Phh,’ Papa said ‘Only Chekhov’

Born in 1972 ,Gary and his parents emigrate to the USA in 1979 under Jimmy Carter’s exchange programme….the Soviet Union is given grain , after another crop failure, in exchange for exit visas for Soviet jews. They arrive at JFK via East Berlin and a stay in Italy :

Coming to America after a childhood spent in the Soviet Union is equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure Technicolor.

Much of the humour and indeed pathos of the book comes from Gary and his family’s attempts to understand and adapt to American culture. Gary undergoes a circumcision,with a hole cut into the front of his underpants by his mother to prevent post-operative chafing. The family receive a letter telling them that they have won $10,000,000 …their dreams have come true! They dream of what they can now afford to buy, and to send back to the beleaguered family still left behind in the USSR. Gary’s parents then find out the brutal truth…it’s a scam :

In Russia the government was constantly telling us lies – wheat harvest is up, Uzbek baby goats give milk at an all-time high, Soviet crickets learn to sing The Internationale in honour of Brezhnev visit to local hay field – but we cannot imagine they would lie to our faces like that here in America, the Land of This and the Home of That.

Igor had been too sickly to go to school in Leningrad but Gary is soon enrolled in the Solomon Schlechter School of Queens where his lack of English and lack of understanding of American culture make it hard for him to integrate. He reflects on SSSQ, as it is known,after watching the ABC post-apocalyptic TV film The Day After  :

My research indicated that two of the Soviet missiles would target JFK and La Guardia airports in Queens. SSSQ is geographically equidistant from the two airports, and the school’s glass-heavy modernist structure would probably buckle and split into shards  from the initial blasts, burning up the siddur prayer books like so many blue pancakes, and certainly the subsequent radiation would kill everyone with the exception of the rotund, self -insulated Rabbi Sofer.

So far so good.

It is at SSSQ that a sympathetic teacher first discovers Gary’s talent for story-telling and at the end of each lesson he is asked to read from his Asimov-inspired space story The Chalenge [sic] which at last brings him some acceptance amongst his peers.

Gary’s childhood is over-shadowed too by his parents’ bitter arguments often over the relatives, some in the US ,some left in the USSR, and their dramatic threats of divorce. After making it into high achieving Stuyvesant , his parents have hopes of an Ivy League college and law school. He drifts however and we follow his journey through academic underachievement into  a minor liberal arts college via a dabbling with alcohol and drugs and some unsuccessful love affairs

Each chapter of the book charts a different phase in the author’s development and is prefaced with a photograph of him at that time. It is an entertaining look at growing up through the eyes of a classic outsider…..however there is a serious side to all this. A near breakdown propels Gary , at the insistence of a friend, into therapy. He is finally able to make a reacquaintance with the land of his birth and eventually to persuade his parents to come with him on a trip to St Petersburg. There they are each able to confront some of their demons. As Gary’s mum says:

I only really beat you up once……and I was so sad afterward. I guess that from the start I was an American mama.

This is a wonderful book full of humour , humanity and compassion.I haven’t read any of Shteyngarts’s novels but will definitely do so now.

Little Failure is a must read……

Fathers and Sons…….and Nabokov

photo (3)What makes a good father? What makes a great novel? Can we ever be free of our past? These are some of the questions posed by David Gilbert’s New York set novel &Sons.

A.N. Dyer is an elderly Salinger-esque  novelist, haunted by his coming of age novel Ampersand and it’s hero, Edgar Mead. Haunted also by his relationship with his own sons… the elder Richard and Jamie; and the much younger Andy. Haunted too by his lifelong friendship with Charlie Topping ,in part an inspiration for Ampersand,  and whose funeral starts this novel.

Charlie’s death forces Andrew to face his own mortality and he convenes a family meeting to discuss the future for Andy, still a teenager.

The story is intermittently narrated by Phillip Topping, Charlie’s eldest son, a malevolent and very unreliable narrator. Phillip has discovered a store of letters and postcards from Andrew to Charlie when they were young men…..and crucially one from Charlie to Andrew.One of these is reproduced at the start of each of the eight sections……and so the background to Ampersand is revealed.

Meanwhile the relationships between Andrew and each of his sons unfold and we look, too,at the relationship an artist has with his creation.

This all sounds very intellectual but this is a very comic book . Not laugh out loud funny maybe but some very amusing observations , particularly of the world of publishing.

One of the funniest set pieces in the novel is a launch party thrown for the first book of the latest yet-to-be-discovered literary sensation….a spoiled little rich kid with zero self-awareness. Gilbert describes the gathered publicists,agents and novelists as :

....discussing new novels or retreats or conferences, yeah, yeah, Amazon, yeah, yeah, ebooks, sigh, Franzen.

There are also sideswipes at the world of film making and acting, with Richard’s unsuccessful attempt to sell the movie rights of Ampersand.As well as a look at the strange world of on-line success stories when a rather tasteless video of Jamie’s goes viral without him realising.

Other reviews I read of &Sons talked about Gilbert’s admiration for Nabokov and drew comparisons with Pnin,  also intermittently narrated by someone with a grudge so I decided to read it as a companion piece.

Pnin tells the story of Timofey Pnin , a Russian emigre from the Revolution, who is now just about surviving as an academic in a lesser know US university. It was criticised when first published not being a novel at all but a stitching together of comic articles Nabokov had previously written for magazines like The New Yorker. It’s patchwork birth does show a little but it is , at best, a very funny early campus novel.

It has a circular structure and finishes exactly where it started.Much of the humour is derived from Pnin’s always incomplete grasp of the English language and it’s idioms. The now lost world of the Russian emigre is acutely observed. At times the writing is very moving.

A visit to a fellow emigre’s summer house and a discussion of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina provokes a ‘ madeleine moment’ for Timofey. He is transported back to the innocence and beauty of a young love affair, with the horrible knowledge that the object of his affections was killed by the Nazis at Buchenwald. A truly heart rending memory that moved me to tears.

I would describe both these novels as near misses rather than direct hits BUT both are enjoyable and , at times, thought provoking reads. I am not sure I am any closer to answering the question of the author’s relationship to his creation. Any ideas?

My Top Five Books of 2013

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These are my recommended reads from this year…….five , in no particular order , and then 3 more I really enjoyed but Top Eight didn’t seem a catchy enough title!

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1.The Goldfinch  by Donna Tartt

I have already reviewed it here on my blog . We follow the adventures of Theo Decker from childhood to adulthood accompanied by The Goldfinch, a painting recovered from a bomb attack , his talisman and his curse.

2. The Luminaries   by Eleanor Catton

Another slab of a book that I have already reviewed here.

Deserved winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize,  this is a murder mystery with a Victorian feel and an astrological structure.

3. Americanah  by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

A searingly honest account of the search for identity of two young people. Told in narrative style but also through blog posts, Ifem and Obinze journey from Nigeria to the US and London . Both have experiences that cause them to confront their  perceptions of  themselves as well as other people’s preconceptions of them as Africans. Whilst they are away, Nigeria is changing and they both return to a country very different to the one they left. Above all, however, this is a love story.

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4, A Tale For The Time Being  by Ruth Ozeki

This was on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. It tells the stories of Ruth,a Canadian writer,  and a teenage Japanese girl, Nao ,whose diary Ruth finds washed up on the shores near her home in the aftermath of the Tsunami. Nao’s diary recounts her own struggle against bullying as well as the story of her grandmother, a buddhist priest, and her uncle, a reluctant pilot in World War 2. Ozeki plays with time, place and memory to create a magical tidal wave of a story.

5. The Infatuations by Javier Marias

A metaphysical crime thriller. Marias uses the voice of a female narrator, something he said he would never do, to examine the nature of love, loss, time and storytelling.There is a playful poke at the publishing industry and the ‘conceit’ of being a novelist.

It’s a novel and once you have finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novels imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with,a plot we recall far more vividly than real events….

A masterpiece.

And now the honourable mentions…..

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1. The Night Rainbow  by Claire King

Meet Pea, who’s struggling to make sense of why her mother is so sad and what she can do to help.Quirky and evocative, this is a real page turner with a big surprise.

2. Nothing Holds Back The Night   by Delphine de Vigan

A blend of autobiography and fiction, this is a woman’s struggle to understand her mother …..and her family. Outwardly gifted, successful and privileged, privately they are torn by violence and dark secrets. Beautifully written.

3. Dear Life  by Alice Munro

The latest collection of short stories from the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Thought provoking and moving, she makes every word count. Train will hit you like an express at full speed. 

So that is my round up of the year’s best……..I would love to know your top reads of 2013.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

It’s not about outward appearances but inward significance.

This is the book that everyone is talking about, the new Donna Tartt has been 11 years in the waiting.

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The novel follows the fortunes of Theo Decker whose childhood is shattered by the sudden death of his mother in a bomb attack during a chance visit to a museum . Theo survives the attack and just before his escape is handed a painting (The Goldfinch) by an old man also caught in the blast and dying. He also hands Theo a ring and gives him some instructions to find his antique shop in Greenwich Village. Moments before the blast, Theo has been captivated by the sight of a enigmatic red-haired girl, Pippa, with whom he becomes obsessed throughout his life.

Alone in New York, Theo first goes to live with Barbours, the family of a boy at school with whom he has a rather distant friendship, until he is tracked down by his alcoholic and feckless father and transported to a life of benign neglectfulness in Las Vegas. There he starts a life long sort-of friendship with Boris, a Polish Ukranian boy also living alone with his own father, and is introduced to a life of drugs and playing hookey.

In the beginning,Theo intends to tell the authorities he has The Goldfinch but for reasons he cannot fully understand he keeps it hidden. As time goes on it becomes harder and harder for him to think of parting with it. He can’t speak about it with anyone or even look at it.

The book has been compared to Harry Potter. This is unfair although there are indeed echoes…….is Donna Tartt a J K Rowling fan perhaps? Welty, the old man dying in the museum, has something of the Dumbledore about him. There is also a scene in which the adult Theo dreams he is looking into a mirror and sees his dead mother smiling back at him……a scene which occurs with Harry and his parents in, I think, Harry Potter And The Goblet of Fire although more movingly written in the latter. The book is much more than this though.

Tartt examines how a conflation of seemingly random acts can change the course of a life forever; how hurt , when buried, takes over a person’s every act without them ever understanding why and, crucially, how to be happy we must also experience and also learn to embrace sorrow.

Theo eventually does come to see what he can learn from the eponymous goldfinch in the painting he has treasured and hidden all his young life. It has dignity and whilst trapped  by a chain around it’s foot , it faces the world with bravery and beauty.

The book is very long at 771pp and at times it can seem so. I struggled a little with Boris….surely after a childhood and education in the USA he would have learned to speak more than an annoying pidgin (American) English ….however there is no doubt that , at it’s best , this is a tour de force and Theo’s journey stays with you long after you have closed the cover.

Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney

Night time skyline NYC

Night time skyline NYC

Another recommendation for my recent trip to New York, BLBC is unusual in that it is entirely written in the third person. First published in 1984 ,it is set in the coke-fulled days of Reaganomics .We never discover the name of the hero,who as the book opens, is reeling from a failed marriage and trying desperately to hang on to his job working in the Orwellian sounding Department of Factual Verification for a prestigious but un-named magazine.

The front pages quotes from The Sun Also Rises : ‘How did you go bankrupt ?’ Bill asked. ‘Two ways,’ Mike said. ‘Gradually and the suddenly.’ And this indeed mirrors your journey through the city streets aided and abetted by your friend Tad Allagash.

The writing at times is highly comic and very reminiscent of Henry Miller particularly when ‘You’ are recounting your struggle to be a writer rather than a lowly fact checker : “You wanted to be Dylan Thomas without the paunch, F. Scott Fitzgerald without the crack up.” or when describing ‘Your’ relationship with Tad…….here is Tad detailing, in a note, the latest blind date he has set up : Described you as cross between young F. Scott-Heminway and the later Wittgenstein, so dress accordingly.  Yrs in Christ, Tad

The book however is more than a very atmospheric and now nostalgic romp through the 1980s with nods to the pop music of the time and the greats of modern American Literature. ‘ You’ are on a similar journey to Holden Caulfield and the final section of the book is raw with the emotion of your real loss . I sobbed as the crisis was reached and the reason for your current breakdown became clear.The book is short , only 174pp, but it packs a massive punch.

 

     

 

 

 

The Man Who Wouldn’t Sit Down by Jacob M Appel

With a trip to New York imminent, I asked for some suggestions for bIG apple themed reading from the Commuter Bookclub. This was one of the titles that came up.

Winner of the Dundee International Book Award 2012 this is the story of Arnold Brinkmann whose comfortable West Village life as a botanist and Garden Centre owner is forever changed after a trip to a Yankees baseball game.

Arnold has been prevailed upon to take his young nephew to a game.At the end of the match, Arnold refuses to stand to God Bless America routinely played since 9/11. His refusal is picked up on camera and shown on the big screen in the ground, on realising this Arnold, somewhat at a loss, sticks out his tongue.

Arnold’s actions cost him dear. The media take up the story and protesters gather outside his house. His continued refusal to apologise casts him onto the fringes of American society.

A very comic treatment of what is an extremely serious subject, this book had me laughing out loud on the train on occasion.Towards the end the storyline does become a little farcical but there are acute observations on middle class American life and the hypocrisy of tub-thumping politics. Thanks to @OuchLibrarian for the recommendation !

Daniel Schwen

Skyline of NYC from Top of The Rock

 

Stoner by John Edward Williams

Decided to read this as a result of all the recent hype…….according to Ian McEwan, one of my favourite writers, it is ‘the best book you have never read’.

A campus novel set in the first part of the twentieth century, Stoner begins and ends with the death of the eponymous hero William Stoner. At first an undistinguished student of Agriculture he soon becomes diverted by literature and Letters and ends by becoming a Professor of Literature at the same university.

Stoner is the tale of the ‘little guy’….his heroic struggles are largely with himself. An inability to reach out emotionally to others : his parents, who he loves but largely abandons, his wife with whom he remains locked in a loveless marriage and his colleagues who fail to understand him. His inability to hold on to the opportunity for love that life offers him…his daughter who, like his parents he leaves to her fate or to maintain his relationship with Katherine in the face of society and faculty disapproval.

Written with great delicacy and empathy this truly is a forgotten gem. The influence on McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is clear to see. Stoner is not a naturally appealing character but Williams gives us a window into his soul. We understand him and suffer with him. Williams was clear the Stoner WAS a hero despite his mundane and unfulfilled life.

A joy to read….A classic of American Literature.