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Little treasures (that’s novellas to you)

December 10, 2009
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I realised a few years ago that quite a few (though by no means all) of my favourite works of fiction are novellas. I think it’s because I admire succinctness, the ability to convey an idea, feeling, impression in very few words. (By contrast, I love Big Fat Books – which I may post on another day – because you can get down deep and spend time with them like you do with a good friend).

I’m not going to get into arguments about definitions. My definition is simply that a novella is a short book, and that means (ignoring issues of printing styles resulting in different word numbers to a page) one that is under or not much over 200 pages. I’m prepared to be flexible on this! The Wikipedia article I’ve linked to above lists some famous novellas in its opening section. I’ve read several of them – including the Steinbeck, the Conrad and the Orwell – and rather like them, but for some reason they haven’t made it to the list I’ve been compiling over the last few years. And so, here is my list of really special novellas (to date):

The list-maker’s law says that whenever you make a list, the minute you finalise it you will think of more to add to it. I know that – but decided to go ahead anyhow because even though there are others I might wish I’d added, I know that these are ones I’m very glad I remembered. Almost half are by Australian writers, and the majority are relatively recent. I’m not sure whether the latter means that more novellas are written now or that I am reading more of them now? Is it that I appreciate terseness more the older I get? You know, time is running out so why waste words getting to the nub of things? These books, one way or another, get to the nub of things in ways that have managed to capture my imagination and not let it go long after I’ve finished them…and that, after all, is why many of us love to read.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2009 11:31 pm

    Hi,
    Three I must add to your list of wonderful novellas. “The Visitor” by Maeve Brennan and “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick and “Pobby and Dingan” by Ben Rice. And of course “The Spare Room” by Helen Garner, but you’ve already mentioned Helen Garner. I’m currently reading “The Well” by Elizabeth Jolley – wow, it’s good.

  2. December 12, 2009 8:25 am

    Thanks tony … I haven’t heard of (or clearly read) Maeve Brennan or Ben Rice, so will look them out. The only Ozick I’ve read is a short story – and I mean to read more of her. I liked The spare room a lot – indeed I like Garner a lot, though she can drive me spare (no pun intended) at times (specifically with a couple of her wonderfully written but very opinionated non-fiction). I think The well is amazing (but then Jolley is a favourite of mine) … if you like it, see if you can check out Newspaper…

  3. December 12, 2009 8:58 am

    John Crowley’s Engine Summer is something like two hundred and three or two hundred and two pages long, and it’s the best of his short books, I think. Daniachew Worku’s The Thirteenth Sun is about one hundred and seventy pages long and very, very good.

    Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. Funny, bright, sharp, and droll, with its straight-faced congratulations of a gentleman for the impressive pimple on his nose, and the reputation of inventing raspberry whiskey, “which is very likely, as nobody has ever appeared to dispute it with him.”

  4. December 12, 2009 10:34 am

    Again, I don’t think I’ve heard of John Crowley or Daniachew Worku but will look out for them. BTW Tiffany’s book is closer to 240p but it is well spaced with lots of white so I included in my list, Close to 200p then is a shoe-in!

    I have read Castle Rackrent though and thought it was a hoot – I’m going to create a page for my lists eventually so will probably add it in there. Here it is at Project Gutenberg for anyone interested: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1424 (BTW I read it for my Jane Austen group as we were reading books that Austen read or we know she was aware of the author. Different members chose different texts and authors to read – this was my choice).

  5. adevotedreader permalink
    December 12, 2009 11:19 am

    I’m glad to see Malouf on your list as I loved Fly away Peter (and everything else by him I’ve read). One Day in the Life of… was also a remarkable read.

    I have A Kindness Cup in the TBR pile, so it’s encouraging to see it included. I still haven’t read Thea Astley yet!

    I think Henry James, Muriel Spark and Jeanette Winterson are wonderful novella writers. This year I anjoyed Amanda Lohrey’s Vertigo.

  6. December 12, 2009 3:28 pm

    Thanks Sarah … you know what I’m going to say to you about Astely! Get to it, girl! Henry James – you know I don;t think I’ve read any of his short works? I’ve read Portrait of a lady and Princess Cassamassima but I think that’s all. Muriel Spark – I guess you mean The prime of Miss Jean Brodie? I think I read that long ago, and I do have a copy in my TBR pile. Another one to read soon. I haven’t yet read Amanda Lohrey … that’s one I should get to I think!

  7. December 12, 2009 4:46 pm

    It’s been so long since I read the short Jameses that I can’t remember which one I preferred. Daisy Miller sticks in my mind, for some reason. A few weeks ago I reread What Maisie Knew and was surprised by the shortness of it. I’d been reading the longer James before that, and I’d got it stuck in my head that there were two kinds of James, long James and novella-James, with nothing in the middle. Maisie was in the middle. Nice call on Spark. Girls of Slender Means has one of the neatest, most concise first lines I think I’ve ever seen. Malouf, oh yup. All good.

    Who else writes short books? I’m trying to think. Lawrence wrote some shorts, The Virgin and the Gypsy, St Mawr, etc. E.M. Forster. Madame de la Fayette and The Princess of Cleves. Colette. Thomas Love Peacock.

    Worku was an Ethiopian writer who died – when? In the 1990s, I think. Thirteenth Sun is his only work in English and it’s a sod to find, but I fell over a secondhand copy, which was my complete good luck. A modernist novel, one of those books in which an author tries to sum up the state of the nation. The nation in this case is Ethiopia under Haile Selassie. (Prognosis: gloomy.) Crowley is alive and well and won a Hugo several decades ago for a novel called Little, Big, the story of a family dealing with a sort of fairy infestation – a beautiful book, wonderful language.

    • December 12, 2009 4:57 pm

      So much to read, so little … you know the rest. Actually, I’ve been meaning to read Daisy Miller after Nafisi discussed it (it was that one wasn’t it?) in Reading Lolita in Tehran.

      I haven’t read that Lawrence, though may have it in a pile here somewhere. Will look out for Worku..

  8. December 14, 2009 4:22 am

    Oh gosh, I’ve read seven of those, and am now wondering what novellas I would add to the list. Stefan Zweig must feature in there somewhere, and what about Guy de Maupassant or W G Sebald?

    A nice posting, reminding me of much that enriched in times past

    • December 14, 2009 8:32 am

      Thanks Tom … DKS beat me to it re Sebald. I was going to look at my The emigrants to see how long it is. I reckon at 235 I’d squeeze it in. Guy de Maupassant – did he write novellas? I mostly know him through his short stories – my bed-time reading during university days. I don’t know Zweig so will check him out.

      Noone has mentioned Kafka … I didn’t include Metamorphosis because, shock horror, I have started it but never finished it. Don’t quite know why that is.

      • December 14, 2009 6:33 pm

        Maupassant wrote a longer thing called Bel Ami and a few others, I think.

  9. December 14, 2009 7:49 am

    Which Sebald would you include? Aside from After Nature, the ones I’ve go here all come out to more than two hundred pages. (Nearly three hundred for Rings of Saturn, two hundred and thirty-five for The Emigrants, much more for Austerlitz, and I don’t have the others.)

    Henry de Montherlant’s The Bachelors.

  10. December 15, 2009 9:09 am

    Oh, oh, oh, and how could I forget Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. Shame on me!

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