Why size sometimes matters.
My writing life has been hectic lately (I’VE BEEN WRITING FOR 40 DAYS STRAIGHT!), and instead of following my regular routine of evening reading, I return to the computer after dinner to get a few more pages done. Frustrated at how few books I’ve read recently, I’m ignoring longer works in favor of novellas, which deliver the satisfaction of a novel without the time commitment.
There is no strict definition of a novella, other than it is a work of fiction that’s longer than a long short story but shorter than a short novel. Generally, the word count does not stray over 50,000. In layman’s terms, a novella is a work of fiction that can be read over the course of four or five hours.
As a writer, I find novellas excellent tutorials in the craft of fine writing. The story follows a single, simple narrative arc without side plots or digressions, the characters must be quickly and powerfully drawn, and there is no room for flab in the prose.
Many of my favorite works are novellas, including Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a beloved classic that taught me reading is for more than just pleasure, and storytelling is an art form.
Due to its concision, the novella invites repeated readings. Though I very much enjoyed War and Peace, I’m one and done, whereas I have read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness at least half a dozen times. Heart of Darkness is a story of identity crisis (a common theme in the genre), both for the narrator, Marlowe, who must confront the terrible price that colonialism exacts as he navigates his steamboat up the Congo River, and for Kurtz, who went into the wilderness as “an emissary of pity and science and progress,” only to rule over his isolated trading post with cruelty, superstition, and extreme despotism.
My well-thumbed edition of Heart of Darkness comes with another excellent Joseph Conrad novella about an identity crisis, The Secret Sharer, a compelling portrait of the duality that resides inside us all.
In it, an earnest young captain who has just been given command of his ship offers refuge to a sailor fleeing a murder charge, hiding the fugitive in his quarters. After struggling to gain his crew’s respect, the captain internalizes the fugitive’s darker qualities, thus becoming an effective leader. Or is it that the fugitive is just the captain’s alter ego? The brilliance of Conrad’s text is that the reader is left uncertain.
Novellas are useful for practicing a second language, too. A recent trip to Mexico made me realize how rusty my once-fluent Spanish was, so I undertook El Coronel No Tiene Nadie Quien le Escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel) by Gabriel García Márquez, a plainspoken allegorical tale of an aged partisan fighter who has been waiting 15 years for his army pension.
Because of the simplicity of the prose and plot, I was able to read it with minimal assistance from the dictionary. The novella has one of the all-time best last lines that, like the work itself, is succinct and to the point: “Mierda.”
Found among the piles of books that act as bookends for my unruly shelves was a copy of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. I neither know how the book got there nor how I had never read it before, as I read everything of Wharton’s that I can get my hands on, even the posthumously published The Buccaneers, unfinished at the time of her death and “completed” by Marion Mainwaring.
Ethan Frome was well worth the wait, the prose vivid and lyrical, the characters finely drawn, the plot utterly heartbreaking. It, too, is the story of an identity crisis, as the simple, hardworking hero yearns to leave his sickly wife for her young, vivacious cousin.
For those who like a little nihilism with their novellas, I recommend Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, a Depression-era tale of a confused and divided young man (another identity crisis) whose job is to answer the desperately unhappy letters of a newspaper’s advice column. Cynicism, religious fervor, and sex collide in the speakeasies and dingy walk-ups of 1930s New York City, as Miss Lonelyhearts (in a stroke of authorial genius, West refers to his protagonist by his advice-column pseudonym) suffers tremendously and inflicts tremendous suffering.
For those who would rather something with just as much bite but a lot more levity, read (or re-read, or read in French) Voltaire’s classic satire, Candide, which skewers religion, philosophy, the corrupting influence of money, and pretty much everything else associated with being human. The action-packed plot follows our young hero through a string of catastrophes and calamities, as well as some triumphs, which transform him from a naïve optimist into a world-weary cynic before he finally finds fulfillment in simple labor.
Speaking of labor, time to get back to cultivating my own garden. After that, maybe I’ll take a crack at Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw which I found in a dusty copy of Great Short Works of Henry James just now on my bookshelf.