In Praise of the Novella

How long is a novella? Longer than a short story and shorter than a novel. Sure. Yet this answer doesn’t seem satisfactory. Is Melville’s Bartleby a novella or just a really, really long short story? I’m pretty sure Melville’s Billy Budd and Benito Cereno are both novellas. What about Kafka’s The Metamorphosis? The edition we read last week clocked in at a slim 40 pages. Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men and The Pearl–at about 100 pages each, these seem in novella territory. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, that’s a novella, right? What about García Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold? James Joyce’s The Deador is it “The Dead”?–is collected in Dubliners but it also gets published as a novella. So which is it? Short story, novella–or both?

The Dead has recently been republished by Melville House as part of their Art of the Novella series. They’ve also got a series called The Art of the Contemporary Novella which we’re just loving over here. Lore Segal’s Lucinella was a treat and Nanni Balestrini’s Sandokan floored us. Melville House was kind enough to send a copy of  A Happy Man by Hansjörg Schertenleib and we’ve thoroughly been enjoying it. Like all of the books in the series it fits neatly in a blazer pocket and is ideal reading at traffic lights and doctor offices. It’s kinda hard to beat that. Praise the novella for its compact nature and ease of readability. Full review forthcoming.

It was the copy of Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, new in trade paperback from Picador, that showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters this week that kinda sorta prompted this whole post. The book, detailing a three-week visit from a terminally-ill friend is terse and tense and, uh, spare, a perfectly-paced exercise in all the ugliness of being human and having emotions. Ugh. Garner makes great use of the novella as a specific medium here. The book is a sustained internalized encapsulation of a brief period, vivid and funny, but also harsh, as Garner lays bare all those things we think but shouldn’ t say (and think we shouldn’t think). At any greater length her prose might risk veering into navel-gazing territory, but the constraint of the novella provides a control and rhythm that compels (and rewards) reading. Full review forthcoming.

So anyway, here’s an admission: we’ve never read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities but all these novellas prompted us to pick up a copy today at our favorite used book store. It’s a novella, right? It’s certainly slim. And choppy. We’ll get to it soon.

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