There were two living certainties during my recent time off: one, that I would not win Lotto; two, that I would not read a word of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. Both were contrary to my wishes, but that’s how it turned out. Indeed I read little while on leave, which I suppose makes sense if you consider a holiday to be a break from what you do for work. However, one book that did make it off the to-read pile was John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner, which I liked a lot. My 2014 Vintage Classics edition has blurbs by Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Bret Easton Ellis and our own Richard Flanagan (“As if Chekhov awoke in the mid-west, mid-century and wrote one of the great American novels”) — but it’s actor Tom Hanks who cuts to the chase in describing the story: “It’s simply a novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher.’’ The guy is William Stoner, who in 1910, aged 19, leaves the family farm to attend the University of Missouri and discovers his calling in the world of literature, studying it and teaching it. There’s not a lot of action in the novel — Stoner avoids both world wars; he marries young and later has a great love affair; he has the same job for more than half a century; he is involved in one serious academic stoush (his antagonist, Hollis Lomax, is a marvellous character) — but Williams uses the quiet story of one fairly ordinary if obstinate man to show the depth of what it is to be human. Williams’s prose is direct and clear; he writes with tenderness and I would describe the overall effect as melancholy rather than sad. Though the passage where Stoner thinks about his parents, having buried his mother not long after his father, is on the glass-half-empty side: “they would become a meaningless part of that stubborn earth to which they had long ago given themselves”. You could see Stoner’s life as one of disappointment, and hold him to account for a certain timidity. Or you could see it as a life of unexpected triumph, and respect the choices he makes. Either way, I think that emerging critic Hanks is around the money in saying “it’s one of the most fascinating things that you’ve ever come across’’. The book I was most reminded of, in that way that one work will recall another, sometimes for no obvious reason, was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, which is my favourite of his novels. I confess that one reason Stoner languished so long on the to-read pile was the title. Though in the back of my mind I knew it wasn’t a “stoner” story, it still put me off. I suspect this is irrationally linked to my deep dislike of the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski, which I think is one of the most overrated films, unless at the time I happen to be thinking instead about The Shawshank Redemption or Truly Madly Deeply ... but let’s not go there. I do pay attention to titles, however, and am easily deterred, which probably isn’t fair. Anything with a fruit or vegetable in it, for example, receives short shrift, especially if combined with an anonymous artisan and an exotic location. The Lonely Passion of the Avocado Pitter of Patagonia, that sort of thing. I’m also surprised when books turn up with titles that have been used before. Why Philip Salom’s new novel (which I hear is excellent) is called Waiting when in not too distant memory Ha Jin won a National Book Award for a novel of that name is the sort of question I ponder. As I do similarities in book covers. Pictured below are the covers of The One-in-a-Million Boy by American novelist Monica Wood, due for release in April, and Graeme Simsion's runaway bestseller The Rosie Project, first published in 2013. Looking at these side by side makes me feel nostalgic: as a kid I used to love those spot-the-difference puzzles, in the old Australasian Post I think. Congratulations to the writers longlisted for this year’s Stella Prize for women’s literature, which is worth $50,000 to the winner. The 16 books in contention are: The Women’s Pages by Debra Adelaide, The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop, Panthers and the Museum of Fire by Jen Craig, Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight, Hope Farm by Peggy Frew, A Few Days in the Country by Elizabeth Harrower, A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones, The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau, A Short History of Richard Kline by Amanda Lohrey, Anchor Point by Alice Robinson, The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood and Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger by Fiona Wright. So, 15 works of fiction and one collection of personal essays. The next step is the shortlist, due to be announced on March 10. “A writer can only hope to create a sense of his subject by accumulating their gestures; he has to trust that with his encircling imagery, if it’s insistent enough, the dead will appear for a moment, like a glimmer on the waves.’’ So writes Sydney poet Robert Gray in the introduction to The Land I Came Through Last, his awardwinning memoir of his childhood, with its focus on his complex father, a man who read the Latin poets (and much else), was vain and conceited but full of “self-distaste’’ (his son’s precise description), who had a weakness for drink but believed he “could never be called a drunkard while ever his shoes were clean’’.
On page 26 today we have published a long poem by Gray, one that makes me think of that “glimmer on the waves’’. Far be it for me to say what The Latter Days (or any poem for that matter) is about, but I think it’s fair to say it combines fragments from Virgil’s Aeneid, memories of a father and the poet’s more present thoughts, including of death and the dead. There are many passages and phrases that I enjoy in the poem but my favourite — and here I may be biased — is the image of the “porcelain claw” of the father’s disdain. And then this thing of beauty: the poet, so wounded as a boy by his father’s cutting remarks, commenting that later “when I came to understand it, / I would have carried him on my back, / out of his ruins”. I suppose that may be an allusion to Aeneas carrying his father Anchises from the sack of Troy, but, wow, who has not been there? Juan Thompson, the only son of Hunter S. Thompson, sounds like he has. In one of those not uncommon coincidences, the day after I revisited Gray’s memoir I read an interview in The Times with Thompson, who has just published a memoir about his famous father, Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up With Hunter S. Thompson. Based on the interview I suspect the book will be depressing reading at times. You wonder why any parent would be so unkind to their child. But Juan Thompson, too, seems to have come to a fuller understanding of his father’s behaviour. His thoughts on the best approach to writing the memoir provide our quote of the week: “Some of it isn’t pretty, and I’d think, ‘Would Hunter want me to talk about this?’ And I had a really strong feeling: just tell the truth. I really think he would have been disappointed if I had excluded the negatives. He would have said: ‘What the hell are you doing?’ ’’