Friday, October 31, 2008

The Man In The Picture: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill

A truly chilling tale, The Man In The Picture haunted me as I read it. A story within a story and yet within another story -- quite apropos, frame story for a story about painting -- the overall tale is about a painting of a Venetian carnival and the characters within it, one of whom makes eye contact with viewers. As we get deeper into the scene and eventually deeper into the dark history of the painting and its subjects, we become drawn into a dark world of dread.

The telling of such a tale is supposed to relieve the teller of the secret burden of such supernatural occurrences. Yet when a tale is passed on, the hearer bears the burden and can become consumed with the horrific, inexplicable details. One knows that the tale is true, but also knows that it must not be true. For were it true, the truth would be too terrifying. Paintings are not supposed to change, especially after the oil has been dry for decades. The old saw tells us that life imitates art. The Man In The Picture explores that notion and scares us with its implications of mortifying mimesis.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Here's a toast to 'Tiffany's' on landmark novel's 50th birthday

One of the books on my Lit Flicks Challenge list!

Myra Overton has sailed here from England on the Queen Mary 2 to celebrate her 70th birthday. First stop: Tiffany & Co. on Fifth Avenue.

In her purse is an envelope addressed to "Mum." Inside is a homemade card sporting a photocopy of the iconic image of Audrey Hepburn with her long cigarette holder.

"You really can have breakfast at Tiffany's," reads the note from her son and daughter-in-law. It also says a gift card is waiting for her on the third floor.

"An American on the ship told me to forget about the movie and read the book," says Overton, who is from York, England. "He said it was the best thing Capote ever wrote. So I'm going out and finding it after I go in here."

That's impeccable timing on her part, because it's the 50th anniversary of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's. A special edition (Vintage, $12.95, paperback) of the novella is being released in November, packaged with three other Capote classics, including A Christmas Memory.


Monday, October 27, 2008

Bookslut October Roundup

In the past Bookslut had a novella review series, Small, But Perfectly Formed. While that series no longer runs, they still frequently review novellas. Each month I'll offer a roundup of their offerings.

A History of the World for Rebels and Somnambulists by Jesus del Campo

"Enter the Spanish philologist Jesus del Campo and his slim, crazy, funny, History of the World for Rebels and Somnambulists, which is exactly what it says it is. It’s a roughly -- very roughly -- chronological account of world history, marked by the bravado and befuddlement of presidents, biblical figures, scientists, poets, magicians and God alike."

The Bruise by Magdalena Zurawski

"Had I not completed Magdalena Zurawski’s prize-winning novel, The Bruise, with my fingers gripping the cover and its pages pressed beneath my thumbs, I might have questioned whether my astonishing literary odyssey was instead some feverish dream."

Hail The Three Marys, a review of three novellas by Marie Darrieussecq, Marie-Claire Blais, and Marie Ndiaye.

"A trio of Maries, writing in their French mother tongue, have emerged on the literary scene, and have proved that they can break out of the gender mould, whilst remaining defiantly feminine. These talented women have relaunched the French novel on the international stage, and are forcing the critics to retract their draconian judgments."

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Golden Jubilee For "Things Fall Apart"

A birthday party for an African classic.

"Chinua Achebe's 'Things Fall Apart', which celebrates its golden jubilee this year, is Africa’s best known work of literature. The slim novel has been translated into 50 languages and has sold 10m copies. Never once has it been out of print."

From the Economist.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia

In the post-Godfather cinematic imagination, the Mafia have always existed. Dons and their families have big weddings and ghastly shootouts in the booths of Italian restaurants. But after reading Leonardo Sciascia's The Day of the Owl, one realizes the Sicilian crime syndicate was once considered a myth, a legend born out of the aftermath of Fascist Italy.

The novella's story is simple enough: a man is murdered on a bus and the crime is eventually solved by Captain Bellodi, an Italian from Parma but considered a foreigner by Sicilian standards. One of the Carabineri informants leaves a letter after his death (another murder) which links all the crime in the city to Don Mariano Arena, the local family boss. Though the case eventually goes to a high court in Rome, nobody is punished.

Written in 1961, it is difficult for us on the other side of the Godfather to imagine how dangerous it would have been for a writer, even one of fiction, to write anything about the mafia. Yet the coda tells otherwise: "One thing is certain, however: I was unable to write it with that complete freedom to which every writer is entitled." He further mentions that the reader shouldn't confuse the characters in his story with any "real person or actual occurrence." We see this caveat at the end of films or one of the front pages of other works of fiction as part of the required legalese, but to have the author pen a special coda (and thereby stepping out from behind the invisible narrator's curtain) makes one wonder what kind of peril Sciascia had entered by writing The Day of the Owl.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Untrue Confessions

Review of The Partisan's Daughter by Louis de Bernières:

"Two unreliable narrators perform a discordant but appealing duet in A Partisan's Daughter, a new short novel by Louis de Bernières, author of Birds Without Wings. One of them, Roza, a native of the former Yugoslavia, has long been missing; the other, Chris, a mopey old Englishman, reciting his story 30 years after the fact, comes under the heading of 'not dead yet.' He's had one great adventure in his life, and he tells the reader about it in the mopiest of tones. Life has more than passed him by. You might say that life has lapped him many times in the boring marathon of existence. But yes, just once, for a limited time, he fell under the thrall of a modern Scheherazade who (to quote the Beatles) 'filled his head with notions, seemingly."'The storyteller was Roza, and as he listened to her, his excruciatingly dull life was redeemed by the enchantment of narrative -- and the thought of future sex."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Amazon to Sell E-Lit Shorts for 49 Cents a Piece


"If it works for iTunes… Online retailer is offering digital-only bits of literature - Amazon Shorts - for 49 cents each, including samples from new authors, alternate chapters and scenes to well-known stories, one-act plays, classic short stories and memoirs from writers, reports Information week. Buyers can read the works or print them from the Amazon site, download them as PDF files or request that they be emailed as plain text.

Steve Kessel,'s VP of digital media, is quoted by Reuters as saying, "We hope that by making short-form literature widely and easily available, can help to fuel a revival of this kind of work."

Publishers have always had a hard time selling and marketing the single, short-form work - the novella, or the novelette, or the even shorter "novelini" - he said."


The Novella Is A Peculiar Beast

Doors Open by Ian Rankin reviewed by author John Connolly.

"The novella is a peculiar beast. To play devil's advocate, it lacks both the succinctness of the short story and the scope of the novel, and often seems to provide a kind of halfway house for ideas that are too involved for the former, but too thin for the latter.

It also seems that the finest novellas eventually tend to be adopted by the larger family of the novel.

Do we really think of The Great Gatsby, Animal Farm, Heart of Darkness or The Outsider as novellas?"

Rankin's novella was originally published in serialized form in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Novella As Feuilleton

A review of a release of a novella that existed in serialized form, but not in book form.

"As did many writers of the past," Bob Perreault explained, "Adelard Lambert published his novella as a 'feuilleton,' a serial novel in a newspaper. 'The Innocent Victim' appeared in several issues of Ottawa's daily paper, 'Le Droit,' but unlike his more fortunate colleagues, Lambert did not live to see his 'feuilleton' published in book form."

Adelbart Lambert's novella, The Innocent Victim, is available here.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

BRAVO! Light in the Piazza is brilliant!

Review of a recent production of the 2005 Tony-winning musical, which was adapted from a novella by Elizabeth Spencer.

"Patrons were on their feet Friday evening at the Stevens Center, giving Piedmont Opera's remarkable production of Adam Guettel's musical The Light in the Piazza a well-deserved standing ovation. James Allbritten, the show's conductor, had just taken a bow.

Oddly, the final curtain didn't fall as it usually does after the conductor walks on stage. Allbritten asked audience members to settle down and take a seat.

Elizabeth Spencer, who wrote the 1960 short novel on which Light is based, was in attendance, and Allbritten wanted everyone to see her stand before applauding her for the wonderful seed she had planted."

There is also a 1962 film adaptation.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Norman MacLean Reader

A review of a new book of material about Norman MacLean, the author of the novella, A River Runs Through It.

"Smartly edited by O. Alan Weltzien of the University of Montana, the book brings together manuscripts and letters found among Maclean's papers after his death in 1990, as well as hard-to-find essays, lectures and interviews. Maclean did not draw a distinction between his life and his fiction, and the material in the "Reader," much of it available for the first time, burnishes his achievement."

Friday, October 10, 2008

Novella News

I've decided to include tidbits of novella news in BBBE -- other writers' reviews, new publications, other blogs, ephemera and miscellanea.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Novella Hunter

I scanned the shelves. Not reading the titles and only occasionally tilting my head to the right, I made steady progress. At times, my head tilted as my hand reached up for a book -- not a thick brick, but a slender sliver.

Best done in used book stores to avoid sticker shock, novella hunting yields wonders. The fat spines reel past my vision. Classic titles on slender spines catch my eye: The Great Gatsby, The Heart of Darkness, The Old Man and the Sea, Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men, Master and Man, Bartleby the Scrivener. And personal favorites beg me to buy to give to friends: The Fly-Truffler, The Club of Angels, Silk, The Lover. For such a misunderstood form, the novella hunter has an abundance to bag.

The same hunt can be done in a big bookstore, but the price is dear. Though slimmer than the double quarter-pounder novel, the novella costs the same as a novel, much like in wine shopping where 250ml bottle of dessert wine may cost as much or even more than a regular 750ml bottle of red wine. Like a dessert wine, the novella compresses its sentences and its words are hand-picked. Everyone bends an elbow for water, toasting with beer is common, and a few enjoy wine, but even fewer sip dessert wines. As any winelover will tell you, a Bordeaux may blow you away but only a Sauterne, particularily a Chateau D'Yquem, can be called the queen of wines. It must be sipped, too much would be too exquisite for any palate.

With any talk of wine and books, prose runs purple. And it becomes excessively so with considerations of the the novella. No definition suffices. Scholars propose plot limits; publishers submit page limits; contests recommend word counts. One author calls his one hundred page book a novel; another calls her two hundred page book a novella; a third dead one calls his fifty page book a nouvelle.

Publishers avoid using novella on book jackets to keep the price high, or they use it to justify the high price. Literary critics avoid writing clearly about it (and anything else). Novelists avoid it so that their books won't be blurbed as slim gems. Should we trust the author when he calls his book a novella? Doesn't the intentional fallacy prevent a reader from trusting what the author intends? Should we trust the publisher who only wants to justify the price?

If the book is perceived as being high-brow, the book will be a novella with a novel price markup. If the book is low-brow or somehow doubts itself, the book's title must have A Novel underneath it, almost as a foundation and a justification. Whom do we trust? How do we know what the book is to be called? Is it a novel, a short novel, a novella, a long story, or just a short story?

Who can claim authority? There exists no Novella Panel of North America to settle the score. As far as I know, the French have yet to award a special prix for the only novellas. Though the word has Italian origins, do the Romans travel literary roads seeking it? As the Delphic oracle urged self-knowledge, each reader has no choice but to choose for one's self. For every definition, there is a counter-definition. A reader may be unable to define exactly what a novella is, and actually have no real need to do so, but he knows one when he sees one on the shelf.

So the novella sits on shelves like Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, which Schubert described as a slender Greek maiden between two Norse gods, the genre-bending Third and the colossal Fifth. The gods roar and spread their thick arms demanding your attention, but ignore them and quietly recollect yourself. Scan the horizon for slender elegance, not brutal bombast. When you spy one you'll know it ... tilt your head and reach up.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Ivory Gazing

A portmanteau phrase pulled from my own neologistic noggin, ivory gazing stitches together two opprobrious terms and amplifies their disdain. The ivory tower is replete with professors stroking pointy chins who pronounce, pontificate and, natch, profess; navel gazing is an activity that solely preoccupies the bore whose navel endures the tedium of its owner's odd expression of ennui.

My blog, Big Book Big Evil, requires the occasional essay addressing the philological and philosophical perplexities of the nimble and noble novella. When such an arduous article is needed, it will bear the tag ivory gazing.

The reader has been duly advised.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Lit Flicks Challenge

Lit Flicks Challenge

Another challenge to bolster my blog! The Lit Flicks Challenge focuses on books made into movies, literature into film, stories into celluloid. To complete the challenge, participants must read five and see two, though I think it would be much more enjoyable to see all five. A generous timeline is given, September 2008 to February 2009.

And as per the raison d'être of BBBE, all five will be novellas. Out of the five I've selected, two I've read and seen, two are brand new, and one is a mystery.

The two that I've read and seen are Pascal Quinard's novella All the World's Mornings (Tous les matins du monde) and Marguerite Duras' The Lover. It's been a while since I've read and seen these two: at least a year and a half for the former; over a decade for The Lover. In both cases I saw the film before I read the novella; this time around I'll read the novella and then see the film. These two have been important to me, and I wonder how they stack up now.

In the spirit of exploration, I've selected two that I haven't read or seen: Villa des Roses by Willem Elsschot and Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote. I've read and reviewed Elsschot's Cheese and own an as-yet-unread collection of his novellas. Though I've seen the biopic Capote, I've never read Breakfast at Tiffany's nor seen the classic film with Audrey Hepburn. Yeah, yeah, I know -- but ars longa, vita brevis! So cut me some slack.

My final selection is a mystery -- not a whodunit or private detective story, but a true mystery. I have no clue as to what it will be, but I wanted to leave one space open for spontaneous discovery, serendipity if you will. Chance favors a prepared a mind. My antennae will be up and I hope that more novella-into-film adaptations will blip on the BBBE radar.

Here's the quick list for easy viewing:
  • The Lover
  • All The World's Mornings
  • Breakfast at Tiffany's
  • Villa des Roses
  • a mystery

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Book of Proper Names by Amélie Nothomb

I always enjoy reading Nothomb's novellas. Each one has enough quirks interspersed throughout to keep the eyes moving and the mind traveling toward the magnetic pull of the final page. And there is usually a certain magic about them, not magic realism, but a charmed realism.

The Book of Proper Names is imbued with this charmed realism. About a beautiful slender dancer with a tragic past and a bizzare name, it tells the story of Plectrude's childhood and teenage years right up to the first blush of adulthood: first best friend, first love, first child. Though the final scene is abrupt and contains a cute riff on the "author's dead" trope, the novella as a whole fits together well. Like a good novella should, it reads quickly and uses its minimal space for maximum impact.

Nothomb's novellas often include autobiographical underpinnings; although the main character is Plectrude, we sense that it's just another mask for Amélie. The narrator of her novellas usually has the perspective of a child of around ten. Even though Plectrude (or any other Nothombian character) ages, the narrator in a charmed realism story must see the world as a ten year old:

Ten is the most sunlit moment of growing up. No sign of adolescence is yet visible on the horizon: nothing but mature childhood, already rich in experience, unburdened by that feeling of loss that assaults you from the first hint of puberty onward. At ten, you aren't necessarily happy, but you are certainly alive, more alive than anyone else.

This ten year old perspective is leavened with a bit of the if-I-knew-then-what-I-know-now authorial tone. And even if the character isn't ten, or doesn't age, the same tone will still be found. In Fear and Trembling, the main character (in another nod to autobiography, this one is named Amélie) is a stranger in a strange land who must live in a language environment that is quite foreign to their native one. Anyone who can speak a second level to at least the level of a common ten year old will know what a charmed life it is.

Nothomb uses the novella to describe herself and her view of the world. And so we read her novellas as a species of roman à clef. The actual experience in each scene may be fictionalized, but somehow her real life experience is felt lurking behind the fiction. Like the Wizard of Oz, whose real name was behind the curtain, Amélie Nothomb uses characters' names to distract from the author behind the page. And when we get to the final page and turn to the author's photo inside the back flap, we don't really care what about her real name or even if the events were actually real. Through her storytelling and odd characters and settings, we're charmed. And that's a real as we need in a novella.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Reflections on the Novella Challenge

Just over two weeks ago I stumbled upon and joined the Novella Challenge. Originally scheduled from April to September, other participants had joined and finished long ago. By time I joined, I had just finished reading Saul Bellow's The Actual and had a handful of novellas sitting on shelf that needed to be read. At first, I wasn't sure if I would blog about them. I worried that it would put too much pressure on me and that I'd give up.

I didn't give up and finished the challenge with one day to spare -- not quite the very last minute, but close enough. I'd read six novellas, written a couple of thousand words in seven blogs -- eight including this one; I also wrote a blog about novella hunting, which I will post later; and another blog with a list of novellas owned and read, which I will not post later. And I rekindled my novella passion.

Throughout my reading life, I've read novellas even though I didn't know that they were novellas: Heart of Darkness, Animal Farm, The Call of the Wild, The Old Man and the Sea, Bartleby the Scrivener. I probably encountered the term sometime in college -- perhaps after seeing the film The Lover and then tracking down the story, which I subsequently learned was not just a novel, but a novella. But I didn't really start obsessing over them until grad school when I read Gustaf Sobin's astounding The Fly-Truffler, which was so magical and transformative that I realized I never wanted to read anything over two hundred pages for the rest of my reading life. This was reinforced by further research and discovery of novellas by Tolstoy and Melville, and newer authors like Amélie Nothomb and Luis Fernando Verissimo, and new-to-me authors like Willem Elsschot, whom I'd reviewed several years ago. I had stacks of novellas next to my bed.

Then, I stopped. I graduated grad school, taught college, got divorced, went though a bout of depression and general aimlessness; all of which was made worse by my inability during that period to read any fiction, short or long. The only fiction I encountered was through film. My reading consisted mainly of Internet articles, non-fiction, and religious works; I was also going through a profound conversion to Catholicism, and afterwards read Tolstoy's Father Sergius during a weekend at a music and liturgy conference, a weekend that helped me decide to become, again, a full-time musician -- though not a liturgical one

And then I read a fantastic memoir, The Mystery Guest, by Gregoire Boullier. It read more like a story than a real memoir, for the story had far too many tidy coincidences. Most importantly, it was short and it reminded me of a novella.

This memory lingered a bit and I went back and read more Tolstoy, Master and Man, and also read Steve Martin's second novella, The Pleasure Of My Company, which made my novella torch shine a bit more brightly. But the novella that put my obsession on full stalker mode was Alessandro Baricco's Silk. Though a bit experimental, I reveled in it. It made me realize that I had to start reading fiction again (I still had a few non-fiction books to get through), though it took me a few more months to eventually borrow The Actual from my library and stumble upon the Novella Challenge.

And I am grateful. Due to a rough patch in my past, I'd lost something that I'd loved. I'd even almost forgotten about it. Now, I remember. And once again there are stacks of novellas next to my bed.