#7: Michael Kohlhaas, by Heinrich von Kleist

Strangely, this novella turned up on a Halloween list of “Spooktacular” books by The American Scholar. Spooktacular? Not quite. Not at all. It is a tale of bloodthirsty revenge, but to me it reads almost like a fable, with the moral made explicit from page one:

Toward the middle of the sixteenth century, there lived on the banks of the Havel a horse dealer by the name of Michael Kohlhaas, the son of a schoolmaster, one of the most upright and at the same time one of the most terrible men of his day. Until his thirtieth year this extraordinary man would have been thought the very model of a good citizen. In a village that still bears his name, he owned a farm on which he quietly earned a living by his trade; the children with whom his wife presented him were brought up in the fear of God to be industrious and honest; there was not one of his neighbors who had not benefited from his benevolence or his fair-mindedness—the world, in short, would have had every reason to bless his memory, if he had not carried one virtue to excess. But his sense of justice turned him into a brigand and a murderer. 

So this is a tale of a search for justice taken too far; or, as the blurb describes it, “that of the honourable man forced to take the law into his own hands […] one of the most stirring tales ever written of the quest for justice”.

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#4: Bartleby the Scrivener, by Herman Melville

I haven’t read Moby Dick, and I sometimes wonder if I ever will. I hadn’t actually read any Herman Melville until now. From the large box of unread novellas, this slim volume caught my eye for the single quote placed on the back:

“I prefer not to,” he respectfully and slowly said, and mildly disappeared.

 

 

The blurb for the Melville House edition of the book states that “Academics hail it as the beginning of modernism”, and for some reason the phrase on the back cover had me expecting surrealism. Or absurdism. I expected that Bartleby would, in fact, disappear into thin air: something that I’ve wanted to do on more occasions than I could possibly recall.

But no, not quite. In fact not at all. Bartleby hangs around well past his welcome.

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#3: The Duel, by Heinrich von Kleist

This is one of five novellas titled The Duel in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, and possibly the shortest of all of the novellas, regardless of title. Yes, that’s why I chose it! It comes in at a slim fifty pages, which I’ve estimated to fall just shy of 10,000 words.


I’ve never read any work by Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811), best known as a playwright, poet and writer of short narratives—collected along with The Duel in his Gesammelte Erzählungen (Collected Short Stories). This could be considered a long short story, or perhaps a “noveltini”, as per the Tiny Owl Workshop’s recent call for submissions. It definitely can (and should) be read in a single sitting.

This new translation by Annie Janusch is a joy to read with simple yet richly descriptive prose. At over 90 words, the opening sentence is digressive and packed full of character names, drawing us in with terms like “enmity” and “clandestine marriage”. It’s sheer density is enticing, but it’s somewhat difficult to follow and I was glad that things settled down from there on in.

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#1: The Awakening, by Kate Chopin,

I first read The Awakening as part of an undergraduate Narrative Fiction course, and so far it remains my favourite novella—if not my favourite book. I’m currently working on a stage-play adaptation as part of a Script Adaptation course, so now is the perfect time for a close re-reading.


Written in 1899 by Kate Chopin, its publication was met with charges of immorality, ruining Chopin’s literary and social reputation in a tragic example of life imitating art. While it retains some aspect of Chopin’s earlier work (short stories that were often trivially described as “local colour”), The Awakening moves beyond these, into what were deemed socially unacceptable areas—particularly for a female writer—and contains an early-modernist style that at first holds readers at a distance but then gradually draws us into Edna’s psyche, a shifting narration that formally echoes the shifts in Edna’s own situation.

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The Arrival / The Opening

Oh. My. Fucking. God.

A very special box arrived today, and look what greeted me from the top layer:

 

The opening

 

I got a bit excited. A mess may or may not have been made. OK a mess was made:

 

Opened

 

I brought a few well-known favourites to the top. And then I went through them all, wondering where to start. What order should I read these in? Alphabetical by author? This has the advantage of reading consecutive works by the same author if they appear more than once, allowing me to provide sparkling insights into their novella oeuvre. Reverse alphabetical? (because my last name is Young and alphabetical gets a bit unfair!!) Or should I go totally random? Pick one from the box and see what happens? Some other method?

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What even is a novella?

The great battle of literary forms seems to focus primarily on the short story versus the novel, with the general consensus being that the novel is superior in its greater scope and possibilities—just try selling a short-story collection to a publisher!—but this over-simplification neglects poetry; it neglects the ultra-short gems of flash fiction that are prevalent online; and it neglects the novella.

Personally, I love them all. So why focus this site on novellas? And what even are they?

Well. The first answer is simple: the novella is oft-neglected, and yet I’ve enjoyed so many of them in the past few years. They deserve the increased attention that they seem to be getting. And they deserve more!

But what is a novella? Is it just a short novel?

Well yeah. Type the question into Google and you’ll be told that a novella is “a short novel or a long short story”. But how long is a piece of string?

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Yes. All of them.

In late 2014 Melville House announced their Art of the Novella series, an admirable project to publish classic novellas in book and ebook form. To celebrate the launch, they offered the first fifty-six of the books at a special price.

I couldn’t resist.

There have been some problems with the international shipping, but I’m expecting the books to arrive soon. When they do, I’m going to stare them in the face and read—in the words of Honey Bunny from Pulp Fiction—”every motherfucking last one” of them.

honeybunny

Along the way I’ll post reviews, my thoughts on the novella as an art form, favourite quotes and whatever else I can come up with. It could take years, but I’m in this for the long haul.

Join me!

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