Where to begin? Perhaps the best way is to mention that an entire book was written (Jack Green, Fire the Bastards, Dalkey Archive Press) excoriating the book reviewing industry for their neglect of Gaddis’ masterpiece “The Recognitions” from when it was first published in 1955 and in subsequent years as it became more well known, providing verbatim quotes from actual reviews and tearing them apart, stating that these proved the authors had either not read it, were making things up, or outright lying, all the while damning it with faint praise or dismissing it as too difficult, too obscure. Difficult it is I will admit, and my initial inclination on my first read (shocked to discover my library actually had a copy of the original edition) was to take copious notes on the encyclopedic references seemingly crammed into each page, but finally abandoned as an impossible task that would preclude my ever finishing the book, deciding instead to lie back and enjoy it. 956 astounding pages and around half a million words later I knew my latest discovery was the most important I’d made in many years and was bursting to tell other people about it. At the time I was working in a library at a small Catholic school, which provided a good opportunity to poll various members of the English Department faculty as they checked out their books. The results were quite surprising as not one had read it and furthermore had not even heard of it. I had just discovered it through a front page article in the New York Times Book Review and assumed most of them must at least have read that but obviously that wasn’t the case. I sang its praises to anyone who would listen, calling it the American Ulysses, describing it as a book about art forgery, music, counterfeiting, gnosticism, and a damning history of the Christian Church set in the East Village of the late forties, with unforgettable characters (I even based a short story on one) and dialogue not set off by quotation marks but rather dashes, and so much more. No one ever got back to me about it. In the meantime I was so besotted by it I was going to undertake the labor of love of tracking down all those references one by one, until I fortuitously discovered that Stephen Moore had recently saved me the trouble with his A Reader’s Guide to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, which enabled me among other things to immediately track down a Thoreau quote he had used in it that I had despaired of ever finding. Gaddis, who had spent a decade writing it didn’t publish another book for twenty years. In the meantime there were all sorts of rumors as to who he really was, some saying he was actually Thomas Pynchon writing under a pseudonym, their lives were so reclusive there was little to no information about them, and their works so similar in their density and complexity. He gradually gained more recognition, winning two National Book Awards as well as prestigious grants and fellowships but never what he deserved in his lifetime. Here is a link to an award-winning website devoted to him: http://www.williamgaddis.org/ In spite (or maybe because) of my proselytizing I only know of two other people who have actually read it, but I promise you if you do take the plunge the time spent doing so will be richly rewarded.
This is not so much about a writer as a book, as not a lot has been written about John Williams, although I imagine that soon will change. In one of those literary miracles that occur every decade or so his novel Stoner, originally published in 1965 and republished in 2006 as part of the New York Review of Books Classics series, (which republishes relatively unknown or largely forgotten books much like The Dalkey Archive Press) became an overnight sensation. It was another case of a prophet not being recognized in his own country; when originally published the book sold 2,000 copies and received little notice in the literary press, but its reputation was kept alive by word of mouth and the occasional review appearing over the years. When it was republished in 2006 it received glowing reviews and sold modestly at first, when Anna Gavalda, a best-selling French novelist read it and was so impressed she asked her publisher to buy the rights so she could translate it herself into French. The book took off in Europe because of her reputation and then acquired a huge audience on its own merits.
I suppose I had read about it somewhere or maybe heard the piece about it on NPR and immediately went out and bought a copy and was instantly hooked. That summer I read it on my lunch breaks in Forest Lawn Cemetery, a beautifully designed Olmsted project, sitting on a bench on a slight rise under a shade tree to shield myself from the relentless summer sun, and found that I enjoyed it so much it became one of those rare books you don’t ever want to end. I read much more slowly than normal, reflecting on what I had read each day, savoring each page, finally finishing it on the last day of summer on a golden day suffused in sunlight. Even then I was reluctant to go back to work but lingered a while longer in the shade, knowing this was a once in a lifetime experience. To describe what its about, the simple story of a man’s life, doesn’t do it justice, or explain why I felt immediately upon finishing it that it was the perfect novel, that I might even be able to write something like it myself because it seemed perfectly effortless, that anyone could do it, though I knew that was far from the case, but something to forever strive for. John Williams is an example of a writer’s writer par excellence, having published four novels and two books of poetry; alongside Stoner I highly recommend Augustus (which shared the 1972 National Book Award), and Butcher’s Crossing, published in 1960. He is why writers write, and it’s so fitting his work has been kept alive in the old way, via the oral tradition.