ESSAYS & REVIEWS
Briefly, the case for the novella
January 22, 2006
A famous French critic once listed the 32 (I think it was) ways in which a novella can be distinguished from some other work of fiction that just happens to be a little on the short side. Among his more interesting distinctions was the question of elapsed time. In a true novella, he asserted, the action isn’t left to sprawl over many months or years but, rather, turns on a very tight temporal axis. Possibly so in many cases. But the most obvious defining characteristic of the novella is still the fact that it’s indeed relatively short.
In W.H. New’s Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada,Warren Cariou suggests that the novella is between 15,000 and 50,000 words in length. The former figure is the equivalent of a only dozen of these columns; the latter is half the size of what was until recently considered a full-length novel but now, when rising costs have caused the average Canadian novel to shrink a bit, equals perhaps 75 or 80 per cent of one. In any event, Cariou’s pronouncement, while necessary, is somewhat arbitrary as well. My own recently released novella, Tales of Two Cities, is longer than 50,000 words, and no one will think it unusual in that respect. The point is that the novella though short is not just a novel that isn’t quite long enough. As I’ve said before, that’s like insisting that a pony is a baby horse.
If size were the only consideration, however, there might be reason to revive what American magazine and pocketbook publishers of the 1940s and ’50s called a novelette. We can’t do this, however, because the term doesn’t take complexity into account. The novella isn’t simply longer than even a long short story and shorter than a novel, it’s also more complex than the first but not so complex as the second—in structure, in characterization: the works. Cariou is dead right in pointing out that the novella “is most often concerned with personal and psychological development rather than with the larger social sphere [and] generally retains something of the unity of the short story [but also] the more highly developed characterization and more luxuriant description” of the novel.
For various reasons, often including the sort of highly personal lyricism that leads to accusations of artiness, we usually consider the novella to be essentially French. The undisputed modern master of the genre, however, was Russian (though she had her greatest popularity in France, where her books were bestsellers and won her state honours). This was Nina Berberova (1901-93) who was born in St. Petersburg and was part of its heady literary and arts movements by the time it became Petrograd. By the time it became Leningrad, she was already long gone, having run off with a poet named Vladislav Khodasevich. They travelled to various capitals as part of the entourage of the elderly Maxim Gorky before settling in Paris, the catch-basin homeland of Russians dispossessed by the Revolution. Before going to the U.S., where she spent the second half of her life, she laboured mostly for the French capital’s vigorous émigré press, but also turned to fiction, most famously her novella The Accompanist (1934), which is still available in English as a New Directions paperback and was made into a film by Claude Miller about a dozen years ago.
The Accompanist is the tale of a professional pianist who begins to see herself as the rival of a famous soprano for whom she plays. It runs to about 25,000 words, the length Berberova normally gravitated to, as with The Ladies from St. Petersburg and the works collected under such titles as Three Novels and The Tattered Cloak and Other Novels. Of course, the use of the word novels in the last two instances causes confusion, especially as she also wrote somewhat longer (but never full-size) works such as The Book of Happiness and Cape of Storms, both of them translated into English after her death. The reluctance of various publishers over here to use the term novella—until recently at least—no doubt came from their knowledge of what their customers feared.
Anyway, her novellas are the most revolutionary Soviet writing imaginable not because of their politics (they have none, really) but rather because of their artful concision. Even today, Russian reading tastes run strongly in favour of tediously complex, long-winded and lugubrious novels with immense casts of characters and overabundant subplots, as though wordage and detail alone will always enhance and never, beyond a certain point, deaden. Berberova was engaged in a war of artistic subversion against one of the most deep-seated assumptions of Russian culture.
This winter, John Barth, author of The Sot-Weed Factor and such other over-the-top satires, has published three novellas (average length, about 18,500 words) under the title Where 3 Roads Meet (Thomas Allen, $23), a book likely to point up the fact that the novella as a form has had a shakier time of it in America, often being used as a vehicle for sentimentality or comedy, albeit serious comedy. A brand-new example of the latter is We’re All in This Together: A Novella and Stories (Random House Canada, $31.95), a first book by Owen King of Maine, about 57,000 words exclusive of the stories used to round it out. The people who are all in it together are members of one family whose proximity to one another is made perilous by the results of the disputed American presidential election of 2000. King writes with zest and cleverness and to serious enough purpose, but there’s no mistaking that this is a work that has come to light in a civilization whose most durable genres are the pop song and the sitcom.
You have only to compare it to Her Body Knows: Two Novellas by David Grossman (Douglas & McIntyre, $35) to see the difference in sophistication of feeling and artistic subtlety. Grossman is a top Israeli novelist here turning to the more difficult shorter form for the first time. The first novella, Frenzy explores, among other things, how jealousy can cause the mind (and the spirit) to play tricks. The other one, from which the book takes its title, also concerns an illicit love affair, as seen through the lens of a child who gets hurt by it. Both novellas are translated by Jessica Cohen.
Of course, there’s a history of novellas in Canadian lit too, a spotty or at least discontinuous one perhaps but one populated by many of the big names. Ethel Wilson’s Hetty Dorval is really a novella. Mavis Gallant essayed the form in “The Pegnitz Junction” and Alice Munro in “The Albanian Virgin.” Carol Shields wrote a novella called Happenstance (1980) about a man’s reaction to the collapse of his marriage, then two years later brought out another one, A Fairly ConventionalWoman, telling the same story from the wife’s point of view; eventually she republished them together under the former’s title. In Quebec as well, the novella has had its impact, as with Anne’s Hébert’s Le Torrent and Marie-Claire Blais’s Le jour est noir. The most acclaimed Canadian novella of recent times has been the tiny gem Ticknor by the rising star Sheila Heti, which appeared last spring.
Even some Canadian writers you might think unlikely to embrace the novella have done so. Perhaps the oddest example is the late tough-guy Depression realist Hugh Garner, the author of Cabbagetown. He’s not read much anymore if at all, but readers will be surprised by the genuine literary excellence of one of his novels — The Silence on the Shore (1962) — and the novella that lends its title to Violation of the Virgins and Other Stories (1971). Of course, he never would have called the latter a novella. He would have found the word too artsy-fartsy, not to mention namby-pamby and nicey-nursey.
Seven Oaks is pleased to welcome acclaimed author, poet, travel writer, critic and publisher George Fetherling as a regular columnist. His most recent book, Tales of Two Cities, is available at www.subwaybooks.com.