Novellas, argues Matt Blake, are the perfect way to discover some of history's greatest writers.
Novellas, argues Matt Blake, are the perfect way to discover some of history's greatest writers.
The humble novella, that most slippery of literary inventions. Too long for a magazine and too short for a book, Stephen King once called them ‘an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic’ (though that hasn’t stopped him from writing several himself).
Ian McEwan, on the other hand, called the novella the 'perfect form of prose fiction … the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated, ill-shaven giant.' No wonder: his debut novel, The Cement Garden, clocked up a meagre 144 pages but helped him establish a formidable literary reputuation. 'If I could write the perfect novella I would die happy,' he said in 2012.
Actually, the form has a long and glorious tradition, and provides the perfect gateway into brilliant but sometimes tricky writers like James Joyce or Albert Camus, or those with intimidatingly large bibliographies, like Toni Morrison or A S Byatt.
And the best bit is, you can finish them just in time for the Sunday roast. Here's some good places to get started.
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1915)
Franz Kafka's masterpiece is as chilling as it is charming. A salesman wakes up in the morning to discover he's transformed into a giant creepy-crawly. The rest is about alienation and transformation and how it feels to be rejected by the very people you love the most.
But it's also brutally funny, covering subjects like mental illness, the trappings of the workday and the weirdness of dreams with Kafka's trademark mix of neurotic anxiety and literary panache.
Hounded by ill health and racked by self-doubt, Kafka hated his writing and once said of Metamorphosis: 'Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to its very marrow.' Almost nobody on Earth agreed, and it became one of the most famous short stories in the history of literary fiction.
At The Mountains Of Madness by H P Lovecraft (1936)
'Gaze long enough into the abyss, and the abyss will gaze back into you,' so the famous Nietzche quote goes, and H P Lovecraft's terrifying novella does something similar in 128 pages. It follows a team of explorers who set off to Antarctica to drill beneath the ice for the sake of science.
But it doesn't take long before the experiment goes south, as they slowly uncover unspeakable horrors entombed within. It starts with the discovery of a number of dessicated tentacled, starfish-headed aliens that are now dead. Some, though, have been carved open for food, with tools. But by what? Best not to tell you that now but, needless to say, a lot of white snow turns very red, and a lot of sane men go very insane.
A science buff who paid fastidious attention to the natural world, Lovecraft's style of fiction nevertheless focused as much on the cosmic horror of the unknown as it did on claret and gore. His ability to plumb the darkest depths of our collective fears verges on alien, and is very scary indeed.
The Old Man And the Sea Ernest Hemingway (1952)
This is a fable about growing old, loneliness, friendship, and fish – in that exact order. It's about other things too, like the power of purpose and life's struggle against the elements (and masculinity, of course; it's Hemingway).
Awash with sweat and seasalt, The Old Man And The Sea follows an old man, a young boy and a big fish. The old man's luck has run so dry that his young apprentice – and only friend – has been forbidden by his parents to sail with him anymore. So the man sets out to sea alone. He hooks a giant marlin and, over the next few days, they do battle – man versus fish – each in a desperate fight for their own survival.
Through all this penetrates an elemental truth: we're born into a volatile world and then we die, and what gets us through all the glories and failures and loves and losses in between, ultimately, is hope. It will reaffirm your love of life. And sushi.
Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1938)
Virginia Woolf's 134-page exploration of transgenderism is as poignant today as ever – some 91 years after its publication. It follows Orlando, an Elizabethan poet, who changes sex from a man to a woman and lives for 300 years without ageing, meeting a phantasmagoria of famous literary figures along the way.
Not only does our protagonist watch history unfold first-hand, but discovers their unique position makes them an expert on matters of the heart. It was inspired by Woolf's long and intoxicating relationship with the bohemian poet and aristocrat Vita Sackville-West, whose son would later call Orlando, 'the longest and most charming love letter in literature.'
Enchanting, witty and written when Woolf was head-over-heels in love, it the only one of her novels in which no one dies.
Breakfast At Tiffany's by Truman Capote (1958)
The little black dress. The long black gloves. The pearls. The slender cigarette holder. We all know Holly Golightly – she is one of the most iconic characters of 20th-century Hollywood. But if you've only seen the film, you don't really know Holly Golightly. For that, you need to read Truman Capote's 1958 novella.
Capote's Golightly isn't just the dreamy, 'lopsided romantic' portrayed by Audrey Hepburn in the movie (which Capote hated). She's also a hard-nosed escort and freewheeling-go-getter, as comfortable in high society as she is with the criminal underworld. She drifts into the narrator's life, spellbinds him with her free-spirit and wacky ways, then is gone, leaving only mystery and memories in her wake.
It's a book for anyone prone to bouts of fuzzy nostalgia – those fleeting but unforgettable encounters with people who appear, change the course of your life, then vanish. Which is to say, in fact, we've all known a Holly Golightly.
Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1968)
'Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions', is how this wildly witty but profound novella begins, and it goes on with the same inimitable comic penmanship for which Muriel Spark is famed.
It charts the lives and loves of various girls of slender means in 1945, living at a shabby/smart boarding house near Kensington Gardens. Until, that is, a shocking event transforms the wry comedy of their lives into tragedy. But its beauty lies in its telling.
Spark covers ground in a single phrase that many accomplished writers would take sentences to stumble through. Her scenes are short, her style is simple and her comedy is subtle as she circles around the idea that people are always weirder than they seem at first. It's slim, unnerving, taut, darkly comic, and very, very touching.
Slapstick Or Lonesome No More by Kurt Vonnegut (1976)
Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain is eye-meltingly ugly. So ugly that he and his twin sister, Eliza, were cut off from society by their parents to live in solitude. But they soon realise that, combined, they form a super-brain of indomitable intelligence. So they decide to use it as a force for good and set out to end loneliness in America.
Under the slogan 'Lonesome No More', Swain becomes president, and later, as the world crumbles, King of Manhattan. But the planet's oil is running out and the Chinese have worked out a way of shrinking themselves so they can invisibly invade the US. There are other problems, too, like an invasion of microscopic Martians who, when inhaled by humans, give us a disease called the 'Green Death.'
In this post-apocalyptic black comedy – dedicated to Laurel and Hardy – Vonnegut is at his most hilarious, ridiculous, grotesque, and personal – a book he describes in its prologue as 'the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography.'
A Month In The Country by J L Carr (1980)
This is a very good book and it's not as well-known as it should be. Set in 1920, it follows a First World War veteran whose broken marriage leads him to a summer job in a rural village to uncover and restore a Medieval mural that's been hidden in the parish church for hundreds of years.
There, he meets a fellow war dog camped in the graveyard looking for a lost grave, among a host of other country-types, and sets about trying to restore his faith in life. Despite his deep scars from both war and a failed marriage, he soon surrenders himself to the healing rhythms of village life and unearths a new sort of happiness.
It is a warm and elegant story that rustles with nostalgia for England-of-old, when life was slow, people rode horses and carts and fell asleep beneath trees with hankies on their faces. Love, loss, life and art are all on the menu - along with some of the best prose you'll find anywhere.
Morpho Eugenia by A S Byatt (1992)
The first of two novellas in A S Byatt's Angels And Insects, Morpho Eugenia tracks the life of William Adamson, a Victorian entomologist who has spent ten years in the Amazon rainforest, studying butterflies, moths, ants and termites. He goes home planning to fund his new scientific research by selling rare specimens he found there. But he loses everything in a shipwreck – all but his collection of rare butterflies, including one called a Morpho Eugenia.
Flat broke, he finds a rich benefactor with whose widowed daughter, Eugenia, he falls hopelessly in love. He gives her the butterfly and they marry, despite their obvious class gap. Only, his happiness is shattered when he learns she keeps a dark secret.
Booker-Prize winner A S Byatt blends postmodern magical realism and Victorian fiction in this lovely story, set in a time when the fight between Darwinism and religion was at its fiercest. It's about insects, taboo, sex and science, with a heavy dose of philosophy, family, gender and God.
Home by Toni Morrison (2012)
Home tells the story of an African-American soldier who comes back to his homeland traumatised by the Korean War.
At first locked inside a hospital for shell-shocked veterans, he gets news that his sister, back in Georgia, is in mortal danger at the hands of a nefarious eugenics doctor. So he breaks free, penniless and barefoot, to rescue her.
As he makes the arduous journey to find Cee, it soon becomes clear that America is still a place of hardship, violence and visceral racism. He has changed, but his homeland hasn't.
What emerges is a journey of discovery, of himself and of his country, condensing many of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison's favourite themes of memory and inner demons, love and loss, uprooting and homecoming. It is as profound and moving a story as you would expect from America's most celebrated author, about a man broken by war in search of his manhood, and his home.
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