Novellas in November is entering nearly at an end, but we have one more week celebrating the classic novellas.
I’ve been struck this month by how a novella can feel denser, deeper and often more satisfying than a longer novel. The compression and economy of scale at the heart of a novella can often bring forth a suggestiveness and intensity of focus which is incredibly appealing.
That intensity of focus is obvious in these five classic novellas, which are some of my favvourites of the genre.
The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers
Miss Amelia Evans, tall, foreboding and fiercely independent runs a small-town store. She has always looked after herself, bar a disastrous ten-day marriage but when a hunchback cousin, Lymon, appears from nowhere, Amelia opens her heart and her doors, transforming her store into a popular café where the locals come to meet. Lymon has a strange hold on Amelia and any chance of happiness between them is doomed, when Marvin Macy, Amelia’s ex-husband returns from jail to create a bizarre love triangle destined to bring violence, betrayal and pain.
The Ballad of the Sad Café is a moving meditation on love told through clear, poetic prose. Through this southern Gothic tale of misfits and eccentrics, McCullers creates a mythic tapestry of life, exploring themes of isolation – the isolation of the individual and the shared isolation of a community; the value of life and the pain of unreciprocated love.
But though the outward facts of this love are indeed sad and ridiculous, it must be remembered that the real story was that which took place in the soul of the lover himself. So who but God can be the final judge of this or any other love?
In McCuller’s writing I always sense an acute awareness of the folly of the human condition and this is most pronounced in The Ballad of the Sad Café, which, despite the foreshadowing and sense of impending disaster still produces an ending with the ability to shock, a mystery to ponder and a coda to give hope.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
So begins The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka’s 1915 classic novella of angst and alienation, in which a travelling salesman struggles to cope with his new arthrosporic state. His metamorphosis is not just a physical one, the change from human to insect means that Gregor loses his identity, his status, his relationship with his family who are repulsed by what has happened and above all, he loses his ability to communicate.
What is probably most striking about The Metamorphosis is probably the fact that Kafka never explores the cause of Gregor’s transformation, nor does any other character wonder as to the reason. His slow deterioration towards death corresponds to his families dwindling lack of concern for his plight and in some ways the horror of The Metamorphosis is not the transformation itself but the estrangement, loneliness and isolation it brings. It is a harrowing, but strangely comic musing on the struggle of human existence.
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
Published 60 years ago, when the author was a mere 18 years old, Bonjour Tristesse left France’s literary establishment in uproar. This slim novella of 30,000 words became a scandalous success, presenting as it did a teenage girl making choices about her sexuality and despite Sagan going on to publish over 20 novels and short story collections, her first published work has always remained her best known.
A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sorrow. The idea of sorrow has always appealed to me but now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I have known boredom, regret, and occasionally remorse, but never sorrow. Today it envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, and sets me apart from everybody else.
This short novel of barely 30,000 words is a story told by Cécile, a precocious 17-year-old girl who is spending the summer on the Côte d’Azur with her widowed father and his young girlfriend. Cécile is having her own sexual adventure with a handsome law student but the arrival of Anne, a friend of her late mother disrupts their languid self-indulgence. As Anne tries to lay down rules for Cécile and begins a serious relationship with her father, Cécile hatches an ill-advised plot to stop the paid marrying, that will have devastating consequences for them all.
Echoing the brevity of a summer romance, this sharp detailed little novella is a beautifully structured, vividly written exploration of sexual liberation and familial relationships and is at once harsh and sympathetic. When I read it as a 17 year old A Level French student, I was amazed by its frankness, its glamour and those sharp, sharp edges that make it unforgettable.
The Dead by James Joyce
I was in two minds whether or not to include The Dead, the final story in James Joyce’s 1914 collection Dubliners. At almost 16,000 words it is almost too short to be called a novella, but to call it a short story, I feel does it a disservice. It is a tender and passionate tale of disappointed love and frustrated expectations that explores how we live and what we expect from life.
The story is a simple one. A professor and book reviewer Gabriel attends a party at the home of his aunts on the Feast of the Epiphany. At the party, he dances, has an awkward conversation with a colleague, carves a goose, gives a short speech and watches his wife Gretta as she listens to a tenor singing. Back at their hotel room, he feels a sense of longing and love for his wife only to have her reveal the poignant tale of Michael Furey, the boy she loved and lost before Gabriel, the boy she has never forgotten and the love of her life. Gabriel drifts off to sleep reflecting on the fact that his wife has never loved him with that same passion and with a profound sense of his own mortality.
It may not sound like much, but multitudes have been written about the meaning and themes of The Dead. Meaning aside, The Dead contains some of the most beautiful prose I have ever read and a lyrical, unforgettable final passage, where Gabriel accepts all that life and death can bring.
Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead
John Huston made a beautiful film adaptation of The Dead starring Donal McCann and Anjelica Huston and it is well worth seeing. The film is available to watch in its entirety on YouTube.
No one Writes to the Colonel by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera is known for his sprawling epic novels of magic realism, but in No One Writes to the Colonel, he tells a short, simple but equally powerful tale of poverty and hope.
The titular Colonel and his wife live in poverty, their hard lives marked by scraping together what they need for food, asthma medicine and feed for their fighting cock which belonged to their dead son. But Fridays are a different matter. On Friday the postman comes and for the last fifteen years, the Colonel has dressed smartly, gone to the harbour and waited for the army pension cheque that would change their lives but never comes. His wife knows the cheque will never come. The townspeople know the cheque will never come, but every Friday the Colonel pins all his hope on the mail boat and the promise of redemption from the struggle of their lives
‘You can’t eat hope,’ the woman said
‘You can’t eat it, but it sustains you,’ the colonel replied.
Márquez elevates this simple tale in his inimitable style, bringing an elegance and lyricism to lives that are full of hardship and struggle. Though faced with ruin and clutching at straws, the Colonel never allows himself to be robbed of the one thing that makes his life bearable. His hope that it will get better. This is a beautiful celebration of resilience and belief in the face of the inevitable, told with a poetry that lingers long after the short volume is finished.
If you had to pick a favourite novella, what would it be? Have you read any of my choices?
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!