John Williams would have relished the irony. The University of Denver professor's astonishing novel Stoner landed with a thud when it was first published in 1965. Forty-six years later, and seventeen years after Williams himself died at the age of 71, the book is being hailed as a masterpiece -- and has become a bestseller in France. Like the life of its protagonist, an obscure English professor, it's a stunning triumph disguised as an utter failure.
A new translation of the novel by popular French author Anna Gavalda has propelled the book to the top of sales lists in that country since mid-September and drawn ecstatic (and very French) reviews from the Paris elite.
From Le Figaro: "It is narrated in a quiet, subdued tone, as if whispered in the dark. Not a thread out of place."
From La Croix: "Written in a beautiful, profound, classic, modest style, it resonates like a song of primal origins, brilliantly, delicately rendered by Anna Gavalda."
Of course, the French are known for their inexplicable ardor for weird bits of Americana -- like Jerry Lewis. But the appeal of Stoner, as well as that of Williams' remarkably different other novels Butcher's Crossing (an anti-western) and Augustus (an epistolary historical epic), is something that crosses cultural lines. As I discussed in my profile of Williams, "Like an Open Book," he was a very private, driven perfectionist who toiled in almost-total obscurity in Denver for decades -- until 1973, when Augustus became the only novel by a Colorado author to ever win the National Book Award for fiction.
An unflashy but deeply affecting story told in a deceptively plain style, Stoner has always been more of a cult item, handed from one devotee to another, than a mass success. It's been chronically rediscovered by top critics and novelists, from Irving Howe to C.P. Snow ("Why isn't this book famous?" Snow demanded after it was finally published in Great Britain) to Morris Dickstein, who wrote a rapturous appraisal in 2007, calling it "something rarer than a great novel -- it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away."
Reissued by the New York Review of Books a few years ago, it's now found a global foothold thanks to Gavalda's translation. Nancy Williams, the author's widow, reports that publishers' inquiries about publishing rights are piling up from the Netherlands to China.
All of which seems eerily reminiscent of a passage in the last pages of the novel, when William Stoner, in his dying moments, caresses a book that he wrote years ago, an academic treatise that nobody really read:
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"It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and that it served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial. He did not have the illusion that he would find himself there, in that fading print; and yet, he knew, a small part of him that he could not deny was there, and would be there."
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