Tag Archives: Virginia Woolf

Long & Short: The Return of the Novella

The original, 1937 cover for Of Mice and Men

I write “return” with a degree of critical care. Did the novella ever leave? If yes, why had it gone? Or maybe it was never really big at all, and therefore isn’t making a return so much as a début. All of this is unclear to me. But what has become definitely apparent is that there’s been a recent surge in interest for novellas. The form is infamously tricky to define, of course. A novella is supposed to be book-length, because it can be published on its own, but not quite novel-length. But then, does the novella exist at all? Maybe it’s just a long short story, or else a short novel. In terms of content and form — this has nothing to do with length — I have certainly found this true on some occasions. Some novellas, like Ethel Wilson’s “Tuesday and Wednesday” and “Lily’s Story,” which are collected in her Equations of Love, feel like short stories that have been inflated. In terms of emotional resonance and narrative breadth, they remain, well, a little short. Other novellas, like James’ The Aspern Papers, are much shorter than novels, but pack the punch of longer, more ambitious works.


Some clues as to the return of the novella:

To begin with, there was Julian Barnes’ first Booker victory in October with The Sense of and Ending, which was the shortest book on the shortlist, and has been called a novella by some. Also, last year, the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris inaugurated the Paris Literary Prize to celebrate the novella, which is awarded to a work of fiction between 20,000 and 30,000 words. And let’s remember how much ink was spilled a few years ago about Robert Bolano’s posthumous masterpiece 2666, which is really 5 interlinked novellas. Also, the American short story genius Jim Shepard’s most recent collection, You Think That’s Bad, contained a novella titled “Gojira, King of the Monsters”, which was also published separately as a stand-alone book. As for publishing houses, Penguin has of course recently had a lot of success with elegant collections of short books: Penguin Great Ideas, Penguin English Journeys, Penguin Great Loves… Last year, they came out with Mini Modern Classics, 50 short pieces of fiction, published as their own, lovely little books, to celebrate 50 years of Penguin Classics. What’s great about the selection is that the editors have generally chosen little-known stories; letting them stand on their own gives them some well-deserved visibility. To be fair, a lot of the stories that make up the books in the series are actually short stories, not novellas. Moreover, from what I can see most of the volumes collect more than one story. Borges’ The Widow Ching—Pirate, for instance, also includes 5 other stories from the Argentine master. The design for the collection is very nice, playing off the silver, black, and white of the traditional Penguin Modern Classics, with much bigger author pictures on the back covers. Penguin has also released 5 production videos for the series: they’re great fun to watch.

More directly novella-related, perhaps, Melville House, which is becoming increasingly renowned for great books and great designs, has published a collection of books called The Art of the Novella, featuring, among many others, Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf, The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville, and 5 different stories entitled The Duel (by Casanova, Checkhov, Conrad, von Kleist, and Kuprin). The whole series is a great idea, and is perfectly executed: the choice is varied and classic, and the designs are remarkably simple and fresh. Their selection is sometimes a little wobbly in terms of form, however: I’m not entirely sure The Hounds of the Baskerville, for instance, is usually considered to be a novella, but that’s another story…

All this attention on novellas is wonderful; for one thing, novellas are awesome. They’re short enough to be read in a few sittings and to be quite focused aesthetically, but they’re also long enough that they have the time to creep into the brain of the reader; they cut out their own space and demand that their issues be addressed. I have a short-standing theory that the act of reading happens en deux temps. Maybe this only happens to me, but I feel like I always need a short period of adaptation when I start reading a book, not really to get used to the characters and the setting so much as to adjust my reader’s ear to the rhythm of the writer’s voice and the linguistic rules of the book’s universe. I believe this is why I can’t immerse myself completely in a book and read long swaths of it in one sitting until I’ve passed a certain point (sometimes this point comes early, sometimes later, never after the midway point) — then all is well and I can drive on to the end, perfectly attuned to the story’s music. The advantage with novellas is that they’re so short and well-formed that even a reading en deux temps can occur quickly. You can begin with two or three short sittings to start immersing yourself in the world of the story bit by bit, like a swimmer gradually dipping his limbs deeper and deeper in cold water, and then finish off the rest of the story in a single, smooth dive. The novella invites you to do all of that in one day, or even a few hours. Ideally, I would suggest leaving a night’s sleep in the middle to allow the shift to occur and finish the novella the next day — it makes the experience last longer. 

Long-winded, baggy novels are great, but I have a particular fondness for the tight focus of short books. Among my favorite novellas are Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Alice Munro’s “A Queer Streak”, Mann’s Death in Venice, James Joyce’s “The Dead”, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Henry James’ “The Lesson of the Master”, Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Disinherited”, Maupassant’s Boule de Suif, and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Some of these straddle the line with the short story or the novel, but the long and short of it is that they’re just the right length. Plus, they’re all exquisite and quick to revisit. Between lengthy dinners and short shopping sprees, why don’t we all dip into a novella for the Holidays? Happy reading!

Escapades in the Picaresque

Gabriel García Márquez is perhaps the grandfather of fabulist fiction, but the tradition goes far beyond his works of magical realism...

I find that lately I’ve been developing a soft spot for books that move away from the more traditional forms of storytelling — perfect plot arch, realistic descriptions, few narrative digressions, consistent characters, and so forth — and into literary universes that are altogether more fanciful. My readings have brought me to discover three such novels in the last couple of months, and I thought I’d share the pleasure with which I read them. All three of the books are quite famous, but they emerge from unique different traditions; still, they are all similar in their approach to certain artistic truths by their exhilarating stories and exuberant prose-styles.

The first of these books is The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. It is, simply, a masterpiece. Written in 1938, two years before the author’s death, it was only published in 1967, Bulgakov’s works having long suffered at the hands of the Soviet censors. The novel, which meanders through the lives of a cast of vivid characters, follows the arrival of the devil in person (accompanied by a few of his hilarious henchmen) in a hot spring in Moscow, and his meddling in the affairs of Margarita, a beautiful, brilliant woman, and her lover, nicknamed the Master, who has written a novel about Pontius Pilate (the reader is also privy to three chapters from this novel, interspersed throughout the book). It’s a thrilling, sparkling ride, with an intrusive narrator leading the reader on with obvious relish. Thanks to Bulgakov’s powerful, elastic writing, the story is at once funny, fantastical, sexy, moving, and violent. A myriad of adjectives for the myriad of moods and sensations the novel provides with such perfection. 

The Vintage cover for The Master and Margarita, just as wild and wonderful as the novel itself.

The second book I read in the same vein was Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. I came to this novel with a certain amount of reticence, since I found everything I’d read by Woolf to be utterly depressing. Not so Orlando. It was a writer’s holiday for Woolf, who worked on the novel as a kind of joke for her charistmatic, bisexual friend (and sometime lover) Vita Sackville-West; it’s also a real treat for the reader, who gets the chance to experience a writer at the top of her game, writing on a rampage, free from the bonds of tradition. Orlando is the story of the eponymous character, who begins life as a man in the 16th century and then sails through the centuries until first quarter of the 20th century, changing sex along the way. Woolf often focuses on beautifully rendered moments of fancy, like “The Great Frost”, during which “birds froze in mid-air and fell like stones to the ground” and the Tames becomes a pleasure ground for the city of London, or the cloud that comes to rests upon the British Isles on the first day of the 19th century, altering “the constitution of England”:

The muffin was invented and the crumpet. Coffee supplanted the after-dinner port, and, as coffee led to a drawing-room in which to drink it, and a drawing room to glass cases, and glass cases to artificial flowers, and artificial flowers, and artificial flowers to mantelpieces, and mantelpieces to pianofortes, and pianofortes to drawing-room ballads, and drawing-room ballads (skipping a stage or two) to innumerable little dogs, mats, and china ornaments, the home — which had become extremely important — was completely altered.

 The tone is light, the writing carefree; Woolf is free as bird and can do whatever she likes, while creating an insightful satire of history and raising questions about the role of women in society. Orlando alone proves Michael Cunningham’s recent claim that Virginia Woolf was fun at parties, something many find difficult to believe. 

The original Hogarth Press dust jacket for Virginia Woolf's Orlando.

Last, and certainly not least, in this small list of fabulist fiction of mine is a very strange novel called Gould’s Book of Fish: A novel in twelve fish, by Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan. I have never read anything quite like it before. In the first section of the novel, we meet a male narrator, in modern-day Tasmania, who discovers in an old junk shop an original copy of The Book of Fish, a 19th century document filled with watercolour paintings of fish (which really does exist, by the way). What’s special about this book is that it’s also covered in writing; in a way it acts as the testament of Gould, the artist who painted all the fish, who was a convict in Van Dieman’s land. The narrator reads through Gould’s story, fascinated, but learns that Gould depicts only fictions in his Book of Fish, relating to people and events that never existed. In The Book of Fish, he recreates his own version of the penal colony in Van Dieman’s land, with a fake commander ousting the real one and establishing a Republic of New Venice, building a railway that goes nowhere and a great Mah-Jong Hall. When the book mysteriously disappears, however, the narrator decides to rewrite Gould’s story by memory, which makes up the eleven other sections. So the story we read is a recreated fake, even within the universe of the novel, and things get only worse from there. Like an intricate, tricky hall of mirrors, versions of fakery and artistic inventions are made to stare at each other in the face, multiplying the fictions into infinitely divisible versions. All of them are valid, but none of them are real. Truth is inconsequential in Gould’s Book of Fish; instead, the novel revels in the joyful possibilities of the counterfeit. There are echoes of Borges at times, for instance when Gould, reading the fictitious archives of the penal colony that another character has written, comes upon the very words he is now writing in a kind of mind-boggling narrative circularity. What keeps everything together is Flanagan’s mastery of language. His prose is exuberant and majestic — he uses countless metaphors related to the sea in order to maintain a coherence in imagery — and he is especially successful in crafting an original, provocative voice for his Gould, which gives the novel its energy and thrust. 

These are three excellent novels, which create exciting universes and really original reading experiences. In the wake of Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize victory this week for her imaginative novel The Tiger’s Wife, we should perhaps expect more of these fabulist pieces of fiction to emerge as a counter-movement to the realism that has been dominant for the last decades. Authors exploring new magical realism or the picaresque certainly have a strong tradition to rest upon and emerge from, and their books are bound to be interesting and altogether different, as these seem to be inherent tropes of the genre. 


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