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Decades Later And Across An Ocean, A Novel Gets Its Due

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, the only publication to mention the book at all was The New Yorker, in its "Briefly Noted" column. The novel received admiring reviews over the years, but sold just 2,000 copies and was almost immediately forgotten.

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 Classics republished 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."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Now, another story about something long forgotten, except this one is about a revival. For the past two months, the tale has been the number one novel in the Netherlands, a best seller across much of Europe. And we're not talking about Dan Brown's latest page-turner or salacious tell-alls or steamy romances. No.

The book that's riveted readers worldwide is a quiet, slim novel about a young man who leaves a hardscrabble farm in Missouri to become a literature professor in 1910. "Stoner," named for its protagonist, was originally published in 1965 and then almost immediately forgotten.

EDWIN FRANK: It got an admiring reception, but it didn't have great sales.

LYDEN: That's Edwin Frank, an editor with the New York Review Books. 1965's best seller list was filled with sprawling classics like "The Source," the James A. Michener novelized history of Judaism, and Saul Bellow's "Herzog." The other big titles were thrillers, John le Carre, "James Bond," whereas author John Williams' novel was neither. "Stoner" is the story of a Missouri man's outwardly, uneventful life.

FRANK: It tells about his career, it tells about his marriage, it tells about a love affair he has, and it tells finally about his death. And in doing so, 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.

LYDEN: Unfortunately, Edwin Frank says, Americans weren't drawn to this sort of Sinclair Lewis style in the mid-1960s.

FRANK: That kind of realism was not, in any sense, fashionable at that point.

LYDEN: The only publication to mention the book at all was The New Yorker in their briefly noted column. "Stoner" sold a meager 2,000 copies and quickly fell out of print. And its author, John Williams, passed away in 1994, similarly admired but obscure, forgotten to all but a few aficionados, like a bookseller on the Upper East Side, a friend of Edwin Frank's.

FRANK: Who knew the book and loved the book but found that it was next to impossible to get a hold of.

LYDEN: Edwin Frank is in the business of forgotten but great novels. He runs the New York Review Books Classics. He republished "Stoner" in 2006. Like many of their titles, it was reviewed well and sold modestly at first, until Anna Gavalda bought one of the copies. She's one of France's best-selling novelists. She had to read "Stoner" in English. There wasn't a French translation. And despite the language difference, she says she felt a deep connection with the book.

ANNA GAVALDA: (Through translator) 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.

LYDEN: Gavalda says the book is not just for people who love to read.

GAVALDA: (Through translator) But it's for people who need to read, for whom reading is vital. It's for people who can't live without books, culture and knowledge.

LYDEN: Gavalda liked it so much that she asked her editor to buy the rights. She wanted to translate it herself. And now that the book is selling so well in Europe, she couldn't be happier.

GAVALDA: (Through translator) My books sell really well in France, 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. So, yes, I'm really proud of that. It's perhaps my proudest achievement.

LYDEN: Back in New York, Edwin Frank can only watch and speculate as to why "Stoner" has so moved European readers like Anna Gavalda.

FRANK: Resonates, I think, partly, because the art with which the story has been told. So even as he sets the scene in Columbia, Missouri, at the same time, it could be anywhere.

LYDEN: And, too, there's a fitting ironic twist. In the novel, the memory of John Williams' protagonist also fades with time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner's colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now.

LYDEN: Stoner the man was overlooked, not so with "Stoner" the novel, Edwin Frank says.

FRANK: I don't know that anyone says it quite as beautifully as Morris Dickstein when he did in the times that something much rarer than a great book is a perfect book.

LYDEN: It's a pity, Frank admits, that Stoner was so neglected during author John Williams' lifetime. But with true classics, sometimes you need distance to appreciate the endurance. You can read an excerpt of John Williams' "Stoner" on our website at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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