Sometimes you need some distance to appreciate a classic.
That was certainly the case for John Williams’ novel Stoner. When it was originally published in 1965, it received admiring reviews but sold just 2,000 copies and was almost immediately forgotten. The only publication to mention the book at all was The New Yorker, in its “Briefly Noted” column.
Fast forward to today and the book is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. It is a best-seller across much of Europe, including the Netherlands, where it has been the best-selling novel for the past two months. But it is not the action-packed thriller or steamy romance you might expect to be topping the charts. It is a quiet, slim novel about a young man who leaves a hardscrabble farm in Missouri to become a literature professor in 1910.
“It sort of pays tribute to a man whose life is, in one sense, utterly ordinary, but, in another sense, rich as anyone’s life can be,” said Edwin Frank, who runs New York Review of Books Classics, which republished Stoner in 2006.
But in the mid-1960s, Americans weren’t drawn to that style.
“That kind of realism was not in any sense fashionable at that point,” Frank said.
So the novel and Williams, who died in 1994, faded into obscurity, forgotten to all but a few aficionados.
When New York Review of Books Classicsrepublished Stoner, it was reviewed quite well, but sold modestly at first — until it caught the attention of Anna Gavalda, one of France’s best-selling novelists. She had to read Stoner in English — there wasn’t a French translation — but she says she still felt a deep connection with the book.
“I think it’s a book I could have written myself because I feel really close to the author and the narrator, who, in my opinion are probably a bit of the same person,” she said.
Gavalda liked it so much that she asked her editor to buy the rights, so she could translate it herself. And the book took off.
“My books sell really well in France,” she explained, “so when all the other European editors saw that it was me who translated this book, they were all curious about why Anna Gavalda translated it, and so they all bought the rights.”
Back in New York, Frank can only speculate as to why Stoner has so moved European readers like Gavalda.
“[Stoner] resonates I think, partly, because of the art with which the story has been told,” he said. “So even as he sets the scene in Columbia, Missouri, at the same time, it could be anywhere.”