Starting October 2014, I’m reading Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, all 52 of them, in a year (they’re printing more, now it’s 55!), and posting a blog on each book on their website. Read my introductory post and browse the posts, below.
That’s what’s so strange about reading this story, that it seems impossible that it hasn’t been done before: a story that simply narrates a person’s death! Novels, of course, are full of deaths – people die all the time! – but novels are concerned above all with life, and so what they get out of death is the continuance of life beyond it, despite it, without it.
In its brutal-comical take on the military life it’s only a hop and skip away from Catch-22, and takes Hašek’s Good Soldier Švejk happily in its stride to get there. In its willingness to plumb the depths of personal despair – to write it, rather than simply show it – it’s at least as close to Sartre as it is to Dostoevsky.
Taken together, however, they are, quite simply, not a novella. Why, Melville House, why?! Perhaps the publishers will point to their note on the inside flap that the work, “first published anonymously, due to the author’s fears of the Tsar’s censors […] would prove such a watershed publication that it has become the namesake for Russia’s most prestigious literary award, the Belkin Prize, given to the best novella of the year”. To which I can only reply, Why, Russia’s most prestigious literary award, why?!
You don’t have to be an adept of Freud or Lacan to see sex writ large here. Not just in characterisation of the double’s gaze as “voluptuous”, or those “erect” hairs, but in the final lines, which seem to me like a particularly wicked and brilliant picture of the male psyche at its worst – before, at the moment of, and after orgasm. Elizabeth Gaskell, get out of my head!
30. First Love, by Ivan Turgenev
There is nothing here that is not thoroughly familiar, from literature and… well, if not from life as such, then perhaps from the habits of remembering one falls into as one grows. If being in love for the first time wasn’t actually like this, you might think, then it’s hard not to remember it this way.
29. Adolphe, by Benjamin Constant
My question, obviously, boils down to two things: what is the nature of the coherence or affinity between narrative and seduction? And to what extent is the tendency towards seduction a male trait?
28.The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley
It’s a lovely book, and ends most romantically indeed, offering hardbitten readers the kind of wet-eyed final page turns they don’t usually allow themselves.
27. May Day, by F Scott Fitzgerald
There is also – and this is something I shall store in my back pocket for creative writing classes – an utterly beautiful and exemplary use of the semi-colon. Look at the work it’s doing. The way it balances the two clauses, as if in a set of scales, and shows that, in Edith’s tired, loveless, drunken and rather shallow mind, the two thoughts weigh about the same. Neither presupposes the other, though each validates the other. They are, in a way, both the same thought. All that, in a semi-colon.
26. Lady Susan, by Jane Austen
Lady Susan really is a wonderful character. You don’t love to hate her. You don’t despise her. You don’t fear her. You simply enjoy her – which is perhaps the flaw of the book. It is so airy a confection that nothing, really, is ‘at stake’, as it is in Laclos’ far more malicious and tragic novel. It’s written on the harpsichord, rather than the piano, lovely, occasionally virtuosic, but brittle, with no shade to temper its bright light.
25. The Duel, by Anton Chekhov
It is the way these characters hate, desire, envy, despair of, consider and ignore each other that makes them human, makes them like us. Like us, they spend as much time thinking what they might do, or say, as they do doing, or saying, anything. Chekhov knows that our exterior, social life – the life of action – is just the tip of the iceberg, the modest, often accidental overspill of our grand interior life.
24. Michael Kohlhaas, by Heinrich von Kleist
Michael Kohlhaas is epic, though it’s not an epic. It is widescreen. It is a movie. More specifically, Michael Kohlhaas is a Russell Crowe movie.
This book – this thing by Balzac – I read through increasingly gritted teeth. I couldn’t believe how tedious it was, how overwrought and overwritten, how unfunny, how fundamentally pointless. To apply the absolutely lowest test of literary worth, none of the sentences made me want to read the next sentence.
He’s less hip and tortured than Dostoevsky, yes, and less refined and ironical than Chekhov. Perhaps it’s not just happiness that writes white, by greatness, too. Could you imagine a novel, or a novella, that’s so perfect it doesn’t need to be read? Is this that novella? Well, nearly. Not quite.
Sometimes, at this distance in time, we can only stand and stare. This is a very modern tale, and an utterly alien one, both. Definition of a novella: small enough to be taken in as a unified whole; big enough to make you stand and stare.
This is one of those books, like David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, that dissolve the category of literature. They bring down the whole building on top of themselves. After The Horla, no more books.
19. The Lifted Veil, by George Eliot
Who is more self-obsessed than the person who can see into the souls of those around him or her? With no mystery to them, what is the point of even talking to, or looking at, other people?
Funnily enough, the effort that Fitzgerald expends on coming up with luxuries beyond the wildest dreams of mortal man (solid diamond dinner plates with emerald inlays, a bed that tips you straight into a bath in the morning, surrounded on all sides by aquariums, and with a “moving-picture machine” to entertain you) is duplicated in an eerily similar novella, also in the MHP series
It reminds me of the big scene you get in a Hollywood film where the star in his post-prime greatness gets to at once out-act and anoint the young star on the rise – think: Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, Robin Williams and Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves/Johnny Depp/John Cusack/Chris O’Donnell/Andy Garcia in… well, you know the films, and you know the scenes.
Oh Henry, oh Henry James! What did the English language ever do to you, that you felt impelled to treat it so, with such a stern yet loving hand? If he is ‘the Master’ then he is the master not just of his peers, but of the language itself. He bends it to his will as fiercely as any sadist in his Red Room, yet the contortions he produces are beautiful, the knots sure and certain, the strike of the whip exact; there is no charity in clumsiness, after all.
Whereas Kleist’s duel was for incredibly high stakes, and played out in the presence of God, this is a private arrangement brought about by the ignominious pile-up of i) a Venetian dancer’s wounded pride ii) a lovestruck Polish count’s sense of wanting to do what the Venetian dancer wants, and iii) a Venetian gentleman’s unwillingness to have his country’s name dragged through the mud.
We don’t need to read Cervantes, because we’ve already read Cervantes, because Cervantes wrote everything that came after him; he is in its DNA.
12. Parnassus on Wheels, by Christopher Morley
If, like me, you like books, you’ll love it, for it is the cross-stitch sampler embodiment of two of your greatest, most private and secret dreams, the sort of whimsical thoughts-to-self you suck on on long train rides like a liquorice stick, that you blow on summer’s afternoon like a bubble pipe…
Strange paradox – that if the book was ‘better written’, it wouldn’t work so well. The Awakening feels just modern enough that I expect it to be more like the books that have come after it, that have happily played in the novelistic spaces it opened by force
If he yields, then it turns into a romp. If she yields, then it’s a dull morality tale. If neither of them yields, then we throw the book away in disgust. It’s this kind of zero-sum game that points up a possible defect to the novella form
9. The Dead, by James Joyce
The snow is falling, in the final line, and again in the line, the snow is falling, and seven times in that paragraph, but at the same time the language is rising, and your heart, reading it, is rising, and your eyes, too
8. Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf
This might be what was left after a much bigger novel had been ruthlessly edited – except that this is what was discarded, not what was kept. It is the sweepings of the cutting room floor. It is a file of murdered darlings.
7. Alexander’s Bridge, by Willa Cather
“He took her roughly in his arms.” – No, wait! Come back! A book to make you think not just that this soul is worth fighting for, but that it even exists. Includes digressions on Sterne and wire loop games.
6. Fanfarlo, by Charles Baudelaire
I’ll bet there’s plenty of people who know Baudelaire more through reading Walter Benjamin, or as the theorist and archetype of the flanêur, or simply for the line “Hypocrite lecteur—mon semblable—mon frère”, rather than as a poet
5. The Beach at Falesa, by Robert Louis Stevenson
I was reading, I realised, a James Bond book—hero, setting, villain, girl, explosive climax and all
4. The Duel, by Heinrich von Kleist
There is no use expecting Kleist to give us clues as to the truth behind these paradoxes. They are riddles, not mysteries. You can’t read it like you’d read an Agatha Christie.
3. The Eternal Husband, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
An exploration of the particular breed of male sexual rivalry that hovers between the co-dependent and the homoerotic
2. A Sleep and a Forgetting, by William Dean Howells
The philosophical nub of the story is: is it better to live in blissful ignorance, or tragic knowledge?
1. Bartleby The Scrivener, by Herman Melville
There is something pitiable about Bartleby, but also something rather ghastly