4
| News |

John Williams: Denver novelist is dead and living in France

^
Keep Westword Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep the future of Westword free.

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:

"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."

Mais oui.

More from our News archive: "Connie Willis: Why sci-fi's seven-time Nebula winning author hangs out at a Greeley Starbucks."

Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.

 

Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.

 

Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.