I’ve spent the last few months trying to write a novella, and it turned out a spectacular, epic fail. Ian McEwan believes “the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction”, the “beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant.” Which probably explains why it’s so difficult to write. My novella ‘grew’, without my noticing, almost secretly like a plant outside my window, into a novel. Which is a little embarrassing, because in all my interviews over the past year, I waxed eloquent about my next project, how I’m so intrigued by the form of the novella, its precarious balance between short story and novel. Oh dear. Of course, the lesson here is to not talk about what you’re working on, unleashing merely vague hints into the world rather than all-out specifics. Well, lesson learned. Perhaps, one day, I’ll manage to find a story that sits tamely in between rather than unfurling into something far longer. Until then, I shall gaze lovingly at the novellas I’ve read and loved, and marvel at their exquisiteness.
L’Étranger Because we all read this book in college, and it changed our lives. In his own afterword to a 1955 edition of the book, Camus wrote: “A long time ago, I summed up The Outsider in a sentence which I realise is extremely paradoxical. ‘In our society, any man who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral is liable to be condemned to death.’ I simply meant that the hero of the book is condemned because he doesn’t play the game … He refuses to lie. Lying is not only saying what isn’t true. It is also, in fact especially, saying more than is true and, in the case of the human heart, saying more than one feels. We all do it, every day, to make life simpler. But Meursault, contrary to appearances, doesn’t want to make life simpler. He says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings and society immediately feels threatened. For example, he is asked to say that he regrets his crime, in time-honoured fashion. He replies that he feels more annoyance about it than true regret. And it is this nuance that condemns him.” (Buy here)
The Turn of the Screw While I’ve struggled with many a Henry James novel (The Portrait of a Lady, The American, The Ambassadors)…alright, let’s not mince words, as this blogger in The Guardian puts it, I can’t bear Henry James. (“Wading through his books seems to me to be the literary equivalent of wearing a very stiff and uncomfortable shirt simply in order to attend an endless speech given by a dull and pompous old headmaster.”) Although, I differ when he says The Turn of the Screw bored him rigid. It (in keeping with the imagery) scared me stiff. No slashers and screamers here, James was interested in “the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy.” The story is simple: an isolated country house, a young governess, and two strange, beautiful children. Seriously creepy. (Buy here)
Utz What a glorious gem of a book. Chatwin captured my heart with In Patagonia – despite the allegations of his travel writing being, at times, fictionalised (he’s an artist, not a writer for Lonely Planet – and I don’t mean this is in a derogatory way. Just that the aim and readership of the books are different. ) I love his quiet, observant style. Early in life, he worked at Sotheby’s as their expert on Impressionist Art, and even though he happily retired from the art world for a stint in academics and then as an arts and culture journalist, it surfaces in Utz. Which is about, as Chatwin explains in an interview (four months before his death from AIDS at 48), “a man who falls in love with his art collection, but at the same time he’s fallen in love with his maid.” Eventually, “it’s the maid who wins.” The Jewish collector, who risks his life in Czechoslovakia during its period of Soviet rule under Stalin, cannot bear to separate himself from his Meissen porcelain. “I looked at the ageless complexion of the figures. Things, I reflected, are tougher than people.” (Buy here)
Bonjour Tristesse Sagan wrote this when she was eighteen, to international acclaim, and a few pages in, you can tell why. Even though written in 1954, the prose remains refreshingly buoyant and startlingly contemporary. It tells the story of 17-year-old Cécile, and her adventures with her doting father, a new stepmother and her boyfriend – set in one summer on the French Riviera. “A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness. Whatever that means.” Lovely. (Buy here)
On Chesil Beach I read this two autumns ago, in the midst of an Indian summer that burst upon the UK suddenly at the end of September. I was staying with old friends in Dorset, out in the countryside, in their lovely old cottage, and we’d spent the day at Chesil Beach. It was one of those rare glittering sunshine days, and the coast in that part of the country is spectacular. We came home, tired and happy, and I found this on their rambling bookshelf. The books reminds me of one of those perfectly polished stones found on the pebbly beach. (Buy here)
Of Mice and Men A few books have made me weep. Copiously. Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (on the London tube, where people don’t even exchange glances, let alone cry like they’ve just been jilted), Zusak’s The Book Thief (at the house of a stoic ex-boyfriend who said, ‘Yeah, it’s sad.’), and Watership Down (those brave bunnies!). I love many Steinbeck books – East of Eden, Grapes of Wrath, Travels with Charley – but this one, about George and Lennie, two displaced migrant ranch workers, is my absolute favourite. “As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment.” (Buy here)
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe “And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being loved is intolerable to many.” Carson McCuller has this strange, tense way with words. They drop sharp, and deliberate and you have a feeling there’s much heart that goes into her writing – because it shows. This is, as with her other books, set in Georgia in the South, populated by lost souls. A mysterious stranger shows up at Miss Amelia Evans’ door, claiming to be kin, and what unravels is the often convoluted ways of love. (Buy here)
One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovic I can’t really begin to tell you how much I love this book. And how much it broke me. This is like a Heaney poem – Ulster Twilight, for example – where the image is microscopic, and at the end, zooms out into something so much larger that it leaves you numb and staggering. The story is set in a Soviet labor camp in the 1950s, and describes a single day of an ordinary prisoner – simple, yet extraordinarily powerful. (Buy here)
A Clockwork Orange I remember reading this is college, and dropping “Nadsat” words into conversations. ‘Hello, droogs, fancy some firegold?’ Burgess’ extremely violent, dystopian teen anti-hero story was meant to end on a happier note – i.e. Alex sees the error of his ways and repents – but this chapter was dropped, and we’re left with something much more darker and disturbing. “Is it better for a man to have chosen evil than to have good imposed upon him?” (Buy here)
In Praise of the Stepmother Even if this isn’t always slotted as a novella – perhaps ‘slim novel’ might be a more fitting description – it’s a beautiful little gem of a book. Wicked, witty, tremendously fun and infinitely sophisticated. Don Rigoberto and his second wife arouse each other by telling highly eroticized classic myths based on the six well-known paintings (reproduced in the book); meanwhile, Rigoberto’s seemingly cherubic young son, Alfonso, cunningly seduces his stepmother. Alfonso is a preteen boy, though, so, as you can imagine, this is Llosa’s most well-known and controversial work. (Buy here)
I’ve come to a point in my blogpost when I realise that, with the number of novellas I’d like to include, it would take me a year, at least, to finish. I’ve left out the most obvious ones – Breakfast at Tiffany’s (SO much better and darker than the movie), Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Animal Farm, The Old Man and the Sea, A Christmas Carol, The Metamorphosis, Notes from the Underground, Heart of Darkness, The Sense of an Ending. And then there’s also the ones I’m yet to read – Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Melvilles’s Bartleby the Scrivener, and possibly a few hundred more. I shall leave you with my favourite “novella-adapted-to-screen” movie – here. Hint? It’s by Stephen King.