April 2005

James Morrison

Small, but Perfectly Formed

Melville House’s Art of the Novella

Before launching into this month’s column, I’ll quickly make a timely restatement of what "Small But Perfectly Formed" is all about. Why devote time and words to advancing the cause of the novella? Because the best novellas allow the reader to approach literary perfection. Falling between the short story (which far too many people, even keen readers, foolishly dismiss, saying that they finish just as they start to get into them) and the novel (many of which, even when very good indeed, go on far too long), the novella can combine all the depth and richness of a great novel, with the brevity of a long story, meaning the average reader can absorb it all in one reading session.

Similar thoughts seem to have prompted the production of the Art of the Novella series from publisher Melville House. As they put it:

Too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story, the novella is generally unrecognised by academics and publishers. Nonetheless, it is a form beloved and practiced by literature’s greatest writers. In The Art of the Novella series, Melville House celebrates this renegade art form and its practitioners with titles that are, in many instances, presented in book form for the first time.

Indeed. The nine initial offerings in this series are all excellent examples of what the novella can achieve. Though I will briefly discuss all of them below, three in particular warrant closer inspection for one simple reason: they are wonderful short novels written by writers better known for forbiddingly huge and often difficult masterpieces. If you’ve ever wanted to experience the work of these word-magicians, a 100-page offering is a far more manageable prospect than a 1,000-page one.

Henry James: The Lesson of the Master: Henry James has experienced something of a renaissance recently. Few decent newspaper review pages have failed to mention the cluster of James-influenced books that came out last year, headed by the novels-about-James by Colm Toibin and David Lodge, and the James-styled and name-checking The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, which won the Booker Prize. It’s also true that James, as a writer, has beaten off many would-be readers with his prose style. He went from being a subtle but engaging writer, sensitive to the slightest nuance, to a writer so subtle and sensitive that endless pages of convoluted sentences seem to crawl past without anything happening. His habit of linguistically circling whatever he was writing about became quite obsessive, and his later novels seem clotted and often unreadable (his great friend Edith Wharton certainly found them so). Although many would disagree, I suspect his habit of dictating rather than physically writing perhaps led him into too many sentences that just never seem to end. So what about The Lesson of the Master, then? This is the other side of James, ‘The Master’ himself at his best, a cunning and funny tale of admiration and ambition. (Graham Greene was right when he said that people miss out on a lot when they don’t realise how funny James can be.) A young and talented writer meets an older writer whose gifts the younger man thinks are being wasted on commercial novels rather than great art. It’s the old story of the battle between integrity and selling out, made more complex by the question of whether a life not devoted wholly to art will mean that the art inevitably suffers. You marvel at James’s skill at making every word, every thought, add an extra weight-bearing strand to the tangled net that binds his characters together. He manages to make this near-infinite complexity grow from the smallest utterance or gesture, without it seeming the slightest bit ridiculous.

Leo Tolstoy: The Devil: Something of a curiosity, but no less powerful for that, Tolstoy’s The Devil is less well known than his The Kreutzer Sonata, but rather more successful, since it does not lapse into the didactic lecturing that dragged the increasingly mad Russian’s writing down in his later years. Shocked by what he had written, and worried about his long-suffering wife’s reaction to it, he hid the manuscript in the stuffing of a chair to be found after his death. Found it was, fortunately, and this dark little tale of lust and obsession was published posthumously. It starts with a typical Russian landowner, fearing that lack of sex will do him harm (“balls like watermelons” is not the phrase Tolstoy uses, but we know what he means) exercising his rights of droit du seigneur over a local married woman, who cheerfully submits. When the landowner marries, however, he finds his thoughts drawn irresistibly back to the woman he has used. A bad ending seem inevitable, but, DVD-like, this tale has a choice of two, since Tolstoy himself was unable to decide which to use. Both are published in this edition: the first is neater, the second perhaps more realistic and brutal.

Herman Melville: Bartleby, the Scrivener: Many people have fallen at the first hurdle when it comes to reading Moby-Dick. Melville’s most famous work was a critical failure, one of several, which contributed to Melville giving up fiction for the last 30 years of his life. Bartleby is a novella that nobody should find a struggle to read: short, clear, amusing and sad, it’s rather hard to summarise, but easy to recommend. Subtitled "A Story of Wall Street," it could be read as an indictment of capitalism’s tendency to crush the individual, as a tale of passive resistance, as a character study of a man descending into madness, or as a Kafkaesque melding of bureaucracy and the inexplicable. Whichever way you take it, it is one of the best-known novellas in the English language, and rightly so.

The other releases in this series also deserve your attention, though lack of space means I can’t explore them all in as much detail. Edith Wharton’s The Touchstone has already been described in an earlier column. Anton Chekhov’s marvellous My Life will be examined in a future column dedicated to this master of the short story and novella. James Joyce’s The Dead is perhaps the best story from one of the best-ever story collections, Dubliners. Arthur Conan Doyle’s justly famous The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the greatest, though least typical, of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Gustave Flaubert’s ironic A Simple Heart is the best of his great Three Tales. Finally, Ivan Turgenev’s First Love is an intriguing story of romantic and sexual competition between and father and a son.