#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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#2: Feathered Glory, by James Lasdun

“Feathered Glory” is a seventy-page novella by James Lasdun, published in the latest issue of The Paris Review (Issue 212, Spring 2015). I’d never heard of James Lasdun before, and I didn’t have this novella in my planned list of conquests, but I do read The Paris Review, so I came across it by accident, as a pleasant surprise.

Following the serial publication of Rachel Cusk’s novella Outline last year over four issues (to be covered in a future post), I didn’t expect to find a complete novella inside this issue of the magazine. At this length though, which I estimate at around 25,000 words, it’s very manageable and doesn’t dominate this issue, which also includes many other stories plus poetry and interviews with both Hilary Mantel, Lydia Davis and Elena Ferrante.

“Feathered Glory” follows the marriage of Richard, a school principal in a small town 100 miles north of New York, and Sara, his wife who dabbles in weaving and animal welfare. Their quotidian existence is contrasted from the first page with that of Richard’s friend Victor, a music journalist “leading the disorderly and, in Richard’s private opinion, increasingly depressing life of an ageing bohemian.”

At nearly 50, Victor is recently married to a younger woman named Audrey; they are raising a young daughter. We learn about Audrey from Richard’s perspective, defined in relation to Victor rather than in her own right. Lasdun’s narration privileges the men in most parts, and I was ready to fault him for this: the women are talked about in the opening pages, but the men decide to go out for dinner alone—”Sara won’t mind”—and it’s through their conversation that their stories are presented. However the perspective does shift to Sara in the middle of each of the novella’s three chapters, and it’s in these sections that the prose shines most brightly (while also providing the opportunity for some enjoyable moments of dramatic irony).

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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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