November Recommendations — Novellas

Though I never caught wind of any genuine controversy (certainly nothing that came close to the scope of the controversy the judges’ statements sparked), after Julian Barnes won this year’s Man Booker Prize for his “short novel” The Sense of an Ending (my review here) there were still questions about whether the book was long enough for the prize, which goes to the “best eligible full-length novel,” “full-length novel” never being defined.  The Sense of an Ending is only the second-shortest book to win the prize, the shortest being Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore (my review here).  Shorter ones have been finalists, including J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country (my review here) and even William Trevor’s “Reading Turgenev,” which is one novella that forms his book Two Lives.

Anyway, when Barnes won, there were a few interesting bits of commentary on The Guardian website, one from Laura Bennett called “When is a short novel a ‘novella’?” (here) and one from Claire Armistead called “When is a novel not a novel?  When it’s a novella” (here).  Each uses Barnes’ win to think about the novella’s bad reputation.  Publishers don’t like novellas because they don’t sell, so either they don’t publish them or they call them “short novels.”  In Bennett’s piece, Armistead is quoted as saying, “[The term novella] has fallen into disuse because it sounds like a patronising diminutive – without the scope of a novel or the discipline of a short story.”  In her own piece, Armistead says, “I wonder whether part of the image problem of the English-language novella, at least, is the association of length with vigour.”

In the comments below Armistead’s piece, John Self quotes Saul Bellow’s introduction to Something to Remember Me By, Bellow’s book of three novellas:

Some of our greatest novels are very thick. Fiction is a loose popular art, and many of the classic novelists get their effects by heaping up masses of words. Decades ago, Somerset Maugham was inspired to publish pared-down versions of some of the very best. His experiment didn’t succeed. Something went out of the books when their bulk was reduced. It would be mad to edit a novel like Little Dorrit. That sea of words is a sea, a force of nature. We want it that way, ample, capable of breeding life. When its amplitude tires us we readily forgive it. We wouldn’t want it any other way.

Yet we respond with approval when Chekhov tells us, “Oddly, I have now a mania for shortness. Whatever I read — my own or other people’s works — it all seems to me not short enough.” I find myself emphatically agreeing with this. [. . .] At once a multitude of possible reasons for this feeling comes to mind: This is the end of the millennium. We have heard it all. We have no time. We have more significant fish to fry. We require a wider understanding, new terms, a deeper penetration.

Rather than just list a few of my recommendations this month (which I still do below), I wanted to see what people think of novellas.  Me?  I love them.  Many of the best books I’ve reviewed on this blog are novellas, which neither lack the scope of a novel or the discipline of the short story.  I’m sometimes surprised at commenters here and there who say they don’t like novellas (or short stories).  One on this site, intrigued by a short book, had the courage to admit, “I generally do away with the short reads because I feel like it is rarely done well.”  I think this is a prevalent misconception, similar to the misconception people have about contemporary literature in translation.  All things considered, the large English novel is rarely done well either, so usually the problem is not the novella (or the literature in translation) but that the readers are generally unaware of what’s out there (so they don’t buy them, so publishers hesitate to publish them, so they get even less attention, and so on). 

But the great thing about this day and age is that novellas that are done well are readily available, so there’s no reason to avoid them. 

What are your thoughts on the novella?  Do you read them?  Do you avoid them?  If you avoid them, why?  And have you read enough of them to form a solid opinion?

Here are some of my favorites I’ve reviewed on this blog (I’m not holding myself to five this month).

  • First Love, by Ivan Turgenev (original review July 3, 2008).  I read this in one rather short train journey, and I still remember it vividly.  A masterpiece of world literature from a time when the term “novella” didn’t have negative connotations.  Today this would be called a short novel.  Whatever the case, it goes for the gut.
  • The Pathseeker, by Imre Kertész (original review January 18, 2009).  This is a selection from Melville House’s fabulous Art of the Novella series (actually, this one is from the Art of the Contemporary Novella series).  A strange book that avoids talking about its subject directly, and is all the more powerful for it.
  • A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr (original review March 8, 2009).  I recommend this book all the time, so you’ll see it again.  Best if you just read it.
  • An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, by César Aira (original review May 29, 2009).  And yes, I’m going to continue pushing Aira until more of you read him.  I’ve reviewed five of his books, each a novella, and I’m tempted to list them all right here.
  • By Night in Chile, by Roberto Bolaño (original review July 24, 2009).  This is the novella that started to shift my opinion of Bolaño.  I started reading him with his mammoth novel 2666 (my review here).  That large book captivated my mind, but when I finished it I was disappointed.  I didn’t understand it.  Slowly (well, over the course of a year) I came to understand it more.  By Night in Chile helped.
  • The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares (original review September 7, 2009).  I know, I’ve recommended this book recently too, but this only goes to show how serious I am when I say that some of the best books I’ve reviewed on this blog are novellas (and literature in translation).
  • Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton (original review May 7, 2010).  I thought this book was headed to the rather conventional, somewhat romantic ending (and I was loving it notwithstanding).  It didn’t end there, though; instead Wharton gives us the most devastating ending I can imagine.
  • Daisy Miller, by Henry James (original review May 17, 2010).  I have read this one countless times, and just thinking about it now I’m feeling the urge to reread it again.  A charming tragedy.
  • Not to Disturb, by Muriel Spark (original review July 12, 2010).  Not the strangest Muriel Spark book I’ve read, but disturbing enough to make this list.  I should have recommended it yesterday.
  • Bartleby the Scrivener, by Herman Melville (original review February 11, 2011).  I read this one for the first time earlier this year, and I now know why I felt like I was missing out: “I would prefer not to.”  I get that reference now.  But more important are many of the other aspects of this brilliant novella.

So there are some of my favorites.  Have you read any of them?  Are you tempted to read more novellas?

8 thoughts on “November Recommendations — Novellas”

  1. Simon T says:

    Oh, you are speaking my language! I adore the novella – I really admire any writer who can make something brilliant in a short space. Economy seems so rare in novelists, and books seem too long rather more often than they seem too short. From your list, I’ve read the Spark, Bioy Casares, Carr, and Wharton (all great) – and I have the Turgenev, so glad to hear that’s good. Spark is so, so good at these.

    There are so many novellas I love – here are just some that come to mind (and for the purposes of this, I’m counting anything under 200pp as a novella…)

    Lady Into Fox – David Garnett
    The Love Child – Edith Olivier
    The Loved One – Evelyn Waugh
    Love of Seven Dolls – Paul Gallico
    Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead – Barbara Comyns
    The Heir – Vita Sackville-West
    The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald
    Virginia – Jens Christian Grondahl
    In the Springtime of the Year – Susan Hill
    Echo – Violet Trefusis
    Fair Play – Tove Jansson
    We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson

    Thanks for addressing such a wonderful form of literature – you’re making me ponder on potential blog posts on this theme…

  2. Scott W. says:

    Great topic, Trevor. The novella is such a curious form, but I think no less a form for it. While lately I seem to come down with some sort of virus for 1,500 page trilogies, some of my favorite works of literature have been novellas. Off the top of my head – and not duplicating the terrific list you and your first commenter, Simon, have provided (“Lady Into Fox” – !), here are a few more:

    Season of Migration to the North – Talib Sayeh
    Indian Nocturne – Antonio Tabucchi
    Barnabo of the Mountains – Dino Buzzati
    Two Serious Ladies – Jane Bowles
    Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos
    The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene
    Great Granny Webster – Caroline Blackwood
    Nocturnes for the King of Naples – Edmund White
    The Palm-Wine Drinkard – Amos Tutuola
    Diotime and the Lions – Henry Bauchau (alas, not available in English yet, to my knowledge)
    The Pilgrim Hawk – Glenway Westcott
    The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
    Then there’s Steinbeck, Kafka, Calvino, James, Giono, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Bainbridge…

  3. Kinna says:

    I love novellas, quite frankly. I’m a great fan of short stories so it might be tempting to think my appreciation for novellas is a natural progression from that. I grew up in a literary African household where I was surrounded by African fiction, some of which are novellas. The longer length novel hogs all the attention to the extent that a writer is only considered a novelist after publishing a novel. Novellas are an integral part of my reading. Some recent reads include:
    The Yellow Arrow – Victor Pelevin
    Omon Ra – Victor Pelevin
    The Day the Leader was killed – Naguib Mahfouz
    We Never Make Mistakes: Two Short Novels – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
    The Chase – Alejo Carpentier
    The Beggars’ Strike – Aminata Sow Fall
    Fly, Away Peter – David malouf
    I think Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novellas are his best work.

  4. leroyhunter says:

    You know I’m a zealous convert to Aira, Trevor, and Episode is on the shelf. As are Ethan Frome and Daisy Miller. I’ve read all your Kertész reviews and he’s on my wish list. The others I’ve read (except Bolano) so I whole-heartedly endorse your novella-love.

    I tend to think of 100-120 pages as being novella length, but there are no hard and fast rules clearly.

    Anyone interested in the form should check the Melville House series – Classic and Contemporary flavours.

  5. kimbofo says:

    Great post, Trevor.

    I love novellas — and agree they don’t receive the attention they deserve. I keep meaning to add a novella category on my blog, and I think your post may kickstart me into doing just that.

    From your list I have read First Love, A Month in the Country and Ethan Frome.

    Can I add Elizabeth Jolley’s The Newspaper of Claremont Street, Tim Krabbe’s The Rider and Maeve Brennan’s The Visitor, all read and reviewed on my blog this year.

    I think you’d also appreciate the independent publisher Peirene Press, which only publishes novellas in English translation. More here: http://www.peirenepress.com/books/exclusive_offers

  6. tolmsted says:

    My appreciation of novellas & short stories has increased as I’ve grown older. And I, for one, love the word “novella”. Marketing people over-think things. I’ve never in my life heard someone say “I don’t read novellas” or “I don’t read short stories”. It’s a bit of an odd premise, don’t you think? Like saying “I refuse to read a literary work that is less than 200 pages”.

    Of the ones you named I’ve read Ethan Frome, Bartleby the Scrivener & Daisy Miller. I would add Roth’s Nemesis (does that count as a novella?), Aira’s Ghosts, Chejfec’s My Two Worlds and Calvino’s The Nonexistant Knight & The Cloven Viscount – all among my personal favorites. I also think Stephan Millhauser’s novellas & short stories are much better than his novels.

    As for short story collections – I’m a big fan of when an author explores a place or community through a series of linked stories – like William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha stories. Despite all the hype (and studious avoidance of calling it what it was: a short story collection) – Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad was also very good. And I’m currently reading VOLT by Alan Heathcock. So far I am enjoying it.

    Great post, Trevor! It’s good to see everyone’s recommendations.

  7. I too am a big fan because they tend to be tight and therefore usually pack a bit of a punch. Some I like include:

    Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a death foretold;
    Elizabeth Jolley’s The newspaper of Claremont Street;
    David Malouf’s Fly away Peter;
    Jim Crace’s Being dead;
    Martin Amis’ Time’s arrow

    These are all short but I’m not sure, exactly, where you draw the line for a novella. Some say x thousand words but how on earth are we to know how many words a novel is. And if you go by pages, the number of pages can vary a bit with font type and size etc. So I tend to go with roughly 200 pages or less.

  8. Shelley says:

    Bartleby would be at Occupy Wall Street, facing the Bank of America, holding his sign, which would say…

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