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It often happens, at the end of a book which is important to us, to ask ourselves how the idea of that story was born, how and by whom the protagonist that struck us was conceived. Sometimes, when digging up, we can be left disappointed. At other times, a new world ready to be explored opens in front of us with the awareness that the novel does not actually end with the last page, but it continues in the life of its author. This is the case of John Williams (1922-1994), American writer who remained on the fringes of great literature until after his death and was praised for the rediscovery of Stoner, a novel which had to wait over forty years to turn from a hidden gem into a bestseller. In the folds of the veil seeming to cover the existence of this brilliant, learned and tortured professor at the University of Denver, there appears to glimpse at a reflection of William Stoner, the main character of his most famous book. A reflection that actually, after all, catches just one facet, however pure and sparkling, of the life of John Williams. For decades a cult object and a silent source of inspiration among students, professors, journalists and writers, Stoner is just one of the literary "clues" left by the writer. The life of the American author could easily inspire a novel of its own: dolorous and dynamic, full of disappointments, but also full of accomplishment built over time and with great difficulty, ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. Through an itinerary also punctuated by unreleased images, this report portrays the author after having followed his tracks in Colorado, in Arkansas and in Missouri, discovering his personal documents, places he knew and the people who knew him.
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I went into the bookshop on one of those days when I needed to escape from reality. When I'm in that phase, I like taking refuge among the shelves in search of a secret passage toward some imaginary place. My book was on one of the more anonymous shelves to which somewhat maligned, although skilful, authors had been relegated. My eyes were wandering on the volumes on display when my view stopped on a cover which recalled the wallpaper of a farm dwelling in the Old West. On that decorated wall, you could also distinguish two paintings: on the round, smallest one, there was a cowboy riding in the pasture; on the biggest, which was only partly visible, you could clearly recognize a buffalo. I looked at the name of the author: John Williams.
I liked that name. He seemed like a forceful writer. I read the back cover: Butcher's Crossing was the story of a boy, Will Andrews, who in 1873 leaves a comfortable city life to discover himself in a place of wonderful and uncontaminated nature: the Far West. I bought it and started reading it right away. It was one of those novels requiring some kind of effort from the reader. But then, it can give a lot in return. An apparently simple, cold and detached writing outlined such realistic scenery that they gave me the feeling of physically entering the story. Riding with Will Andrews in the pasture, closely watching Miller's killing spree visited upon the buffalo herds, feeling on my skin all the harshness of those lives led to the end by a wild and inexorable nature, I understood that book really had the keys to enter the true Old West.
Having finished the novel, what struck me was that the back cover displayed a series of comments from critics, but they didn't concern Butcher's Crossing. They all referred to another book by William: Stoner. A strange thing that aroused my curiosity, making me unconsciously mark that title in a corner of my mind. As it always happens when our attention is drawn by an object of particular interest, from that moment on, wherever I turned, I bumped into this book. It seemed like the whole world suddenly decided to talk about Stoner: the newspapers contained flattering reviews of it, the happy hour with friends of friends turned into a literary salon dedicated to this title alone. Even celebrities you'd never have suspected felt they had to express their enthusiastic opinions about it in the interviews. Some time later, I passed my usual bookshop and Stoner was there in the window, watching me with his glasses from the volume's cover. I went in and bought it without much thought.
The italian edition of Stoner
I started reading doubtfully, but it didn't take much for me to realize that there was a masterpiece in front of me, one of those books that really changes your life. At the end of that pinwheel of deep emotions, I wondered what character this author should be. He was able to give form to a life as sweet as it was tormented, both realistic and fictional. I looked online and I realized that little was known about John Williams, but that his life was made of the same cells that made Stoner, his most famous creation. Like two non-identical twins.
The more I studied his personal story, the more I seemed to discover an inexplicable affinity tying me to this author. What fascinated me of his books was the deep humanity that the characters were able to display and, when putting together the pieces of his life, I started realizing how, beyond his extraordinary talent for writing, there was an uncommon sensitivity. A sensitivity that appeared especially in his books because John Williams didn't like to reveal his most intimate details with anybody. In the pages of his novels emerged therefore the most delicate, emotional, almost feminine side of John, a side forged by the shocks he suffered during childhood and war. Beyond his work, however, there was a John about whom little was known and written: there were the cynical and reflective dandy, the party-goer who loved having fun with friends until late at night, the suitor, the strict but fair professor.
And that is how I started thinking about writing something about him, and before that, looking for the traces he's left and the people he'd met. I drafted out a project, but I had to put it aside because of other work commitments. About a year and a half passed. Then, in December 2016, when the biography written by Charles J. Shields called The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel: a Biography of John Williams was published, I finally made up my mind.
I contacted Dan Wakefield, one of Williams' best friends, through an email address I found on the Internet. He told me some anecdotes and gave me the contact details of Charles J. Shields, who had recently completed his book about John and had all the contacts I needed. Charles was extraordinarily helpful and sent me the contact details of people he had interviewed, including the email address of Nancy Williams, the fourth and last wife of the author.
At his point a little miracle happened, at least in the eyes of a European citizen as like me, because, in Europe, being invited to stay at the house of someone you have neither seen nor met after a short conversation through email sounds quite unusual. And still, this really is what happened. I wrote Nancy an email to ask her if she would be available for interview during my trip to the States. I had already arranged, just for this purpose, a stopover in Pueblo, the small town in the south of Colorado where she has lived since John passed away. She suggested we meet in Fayetteville where there is an extensive archive of documents that the writer donated to the local university. After the third email, she invited my wife and me to spend the days I would have stayed in Arkansas at her house. Honored and embarrassed at the same time, we gladly accepted.
A view by the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville
The five days we stayed with Nancy and her grandchildren, Eduardo and Olivia, were really unforgettable: they greeted us like we were part of the family and we truly dived in John's life. His documents kept in the Special collection at the University of Arkansas are extraordinary: you can admire unreleased photos, you can leaf through his novels' original drafts, some of which are handwritten; you can recall his story through the letter-writing relationships he kept for years with publishers, writers, professors, friends. Finding, between the folders, the notebooks on which he wrote while he was at war on the Southeast Asian front, the first draft of Nothing but the Night, was really exciting.
The entrance of Special Collection, University of Arkansas Library
Nancy's blue eyes still sparkle for John, even though almost twenty-three years have passed since his death. She doesn't like talking about his husband's dark side, which was fostered and, at the same time, appeased by the excesses of alcohol and tobacco. She tenses up as soon as she realizes that the conversation could go in that direction. But the disinterested availability she shows is the same that all - even the ones who considered him a snob- recognized in John.
From Arkansas, we went back to Missouri to visit the university campus of Columbia, where Stoner is set and where John Williams obtained his doctorate after the war. Strolling among the Jesse Hall's walkways, around Stoner's columns, I had the sensation of being on a movie set, as the colors, the atmosphere and the architecture faithfully reflected the novel's descriptions. I imagined putting my feet where, more than 60 years earlier, a young John Williams walked with some other students talking about literature. I lightly touch the doors' handles, I sat on the Jesse Hall's stairs, from where he must have stopped many times to look at that landscape that impressed him a lot. It all started from there, after all, among those lawns surrounded by low red brick buildings, like in the best American campus tradition. A context of peace and culture: what more could a person who came in from one of the worst wars in history ask for ?
The University of Missouri, Columbia
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