February 2006

James Morrison

Small, but Perfectly Formed

Hesperus Press Part I

Any serious look at the great short books can’t avoid the wonderful and extensive library published by Hesperus Press. They’re an Italian-backed publisher based in the UK. Since 2002 they have published more than 100 novellas and short-story collections by some of the world’s greatest writers. What’s more, many of these books had long been unavailable, despite the stature of their authors. In addition, those written in languages other than English have been freshly and sensitively translated. A whole collection of great Russian, Italian, German and French writing is available again to be enjoyed.

Giacomo Casanova, The Duel: There has been a surge of interest in Casanova recently, with several miniseries and movies about his life emerging over the past few years. If you want to know why, take a look at his magnificent autobiography, which, at 12 volumes (even though unfinished), is well beyond this column’s usual purview. However, it’s so bloody good that it has to be plugged. Casanova was a spy, a musician, a novelist, a gambler, a con-man, a political exile and a duelist, as well as a notorious lover. His autobiography brings this crammed career to rich, engaging life.

If you’re interested, but the idea of tackling those 4,000-odd pages seems a bit daunting, try this elegant novella instead. Based on an episode from his life, but fictionalised to take a different direction, the duel of the title is fought over the honour of an insulted ballerina. Sardonic and clever, it makes you realise what genuine literary gifts Casanova’s endless bonking has obscured. See also Arthur Schnitzler’s brilliant Casanova’s Return to Venice, to be covered in a future column.

Louisa May Alcott, Behind a Mask: The famed author of Little Women and its sequels had a little-known parallel career as a writer of sensation fiction in the heady style of Anne Radcliffe. Behind a Mask is the best-known of these murky, gothic novellas. Subtitled A Woman’s Power, it explores the strange, fascinating power exerted over all the men in a household by the new Scottish governess, Jean Muir. Building up to a race against time, it has all of the glorious melodrama of the best of this kind of story, but none of the usual padding. Those of you who liked the Lovecraft and Wilkie Collins recommendations of an earlier column should go for this in a big way.

E. M. Forster, Arctic Summer: There are a lot of novelists who could learn from the example of Forster. He wrote six wonderful novels (one too autobiographically homosexual in theme to publish in his own lifetime), then decided he’d said all he had to say, and stopped. This, even though he lived on for nearly half a century more. We can all think of writers we wish would do the same, but who instead depreciate the few good books of their early careers with piles of pallid, lifeless mush. The difference is that Forster had the makings of at least one more masterpiece, and Arctic Summer is almost that book. The plot in a few words: one man saves another from accidental death under a train, and unwittingly binds their lives together, with tragic consequences.

Intending to turn a short story into a novella, Forster expanded the first three-quarters but then gave up. The result is still surprisingly rich and satisfying, despite the necessarily truncated final chapter (complete, but weirdly brief and rushed compared to what comes before it), and a worthy companion to his other books.

Elizabeth Gaskell, Lois the Witch: A century before Arthur Miller tackled the Salem witch trials, the great Mrs. Gaskell wrote a grim and moving novella on the same topic. Everybody who knows their history can imagine what befalls Lois without even needing to open the book, but the sheer skill and flair of the writing is more than enough reason to proceed. It’s also interesting to see how two politically brave and active writers approached the same story in such different times.

Nikolai Leskov, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Leskov is probably the least well-known writer discussed here. Anton Chekhov cited him as a significant influence, and you can see it in Leskov’s wit and perceptiveness, and in his elegant but simple sentences. Something of the subject matter of this early work can be guessed from the title. A hint of the story’s final body count is there, too. But as the deaths mount up, who is manipulating who? Is it Katerina, the lady of the title, or her lover, Sergei? And as their relationship sours, and retribution closes in, which of them will turn on the other? Halfway between a tragedy and a thriller, with all the best bits of both genres, this will make you curse the difficulty in finding more of Leskov’s work in English translation.

I hope that these five books demonstrate something of the breadth of Hesperus’s output. Next month’s column will explore a few more. With any luck they’ll update their website by then, and there’ll be some hints of their publishing schedule for 2006.