It’s not just lottery winners that the great finger in the sky randomly points down at. Sometimes it even happens to novels. On July 5, addressing the nation on the Today programme, the novelist Ian McEwan instructed listeners to pack, along with their swimwear, the novel Stoner – the beach book for 2013. Stoner, “a novel about drugs?”, the two million listeners may idly have thought, before McEwan began his meticulous eulogy: “extraordinary”, “hits at human truths”, “prose as limpid as glass”.
Even though the core of the story is set in Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age, there’s no booze, no flappers, no gangsters. It’s a story about a second-rate English teacher, in a second-rate American university, whose career is a failure, whose marriage and one adultery are a failure, and whose colleagues are glad to be rid of when he dies, prematurely, in post. It’s very like that superb Coen brothers movie, A Serious Man (2009), which, my hunch is, was inspired by Stoner.
John Williams had scant recognition as a novelist during his lifetime. Stoner got respectful reviews when it was published in 1965. “Well-written” was the general verdict. It came, it was read, it was forgotten, like most novels, even the well-written ones. But a few connoisseurs kept some word-of-mouth going.
Literature’s a lottery. But McEwan’s thoughtful intervention is itself thought-provoking. Stoner comes to us in a series aptly called Vintage. Its mission is different from that of, say, Penguin Classics. Vintage is dedicated to the publishing of old books that “deserve to be remembered”: brought up from the deep cellars of literary history, like old wine.