August 2006

James Morrison

Small, but Perfectly Formed

Even More NYRB

On with part two of a good, hard look at the brilliant short novels in the New York Review of Books Classics range. As I mentioned last time, pretty much all of their near-200 books are brilliant, but here is another handful of short, concentrated, rich shots of amazing literature.

We Think the World of You, by J. R. Ackerley: Joe Ackerley, who died in 1967 at the age of 71, is one of Twentieth-Century literature’s hidden gems. He wrote three works of unconventional and fascinating autobiography, a single short novel, and a play. All but the play are reprinted by NYRB.

Although the three non-fiction books are not novellas, we’ll give them a brief look here as they’re just too good to ignore. Hindoo Holiday (Ackerley hated his publisher’s spelling, always preferring ‘Hindu’) is a funny, bizarre memoir of his time as a self-deluding rajah’s secretary. My Dog Tulip details Ackerley’s life with his beloved Alsatian, Queenie -- the name was again changed by his editors, who thought the dog’s real name would draw too much attention to the author’s homosexuality. My Father and Myself, published posthumously, is the story of Ackerley’s discovery of his father’s secret life as a bigamist with a second, hidden family.

Like E. M. Forster, Ackerley didn’t write many books, but what he did write was brilliant. Perhaps there needs to be a thesis written about Edwardian, gay, initial-using literary geniuses who know the importance of literary self-control? We Think the World of You, the sole novel, is a wonderfully funny and understated story of misdirected lust, class difference and dogs. The narrator is a middle-class gay man who falls in love with a sort-of-straight man, who is also working class, married, and in possession of a beautiful German Shepherd. Gay man unwisely moves in with sort-of-straight man, wife and dog. Sort-of-straight man ends up in prison for petty theft. Gay man fights sort-of-straight man’s wife and parents for access to him, and ends up taking on responsibility for the dog. Look, you need to read this book.

The Unknown Masterpiece, by Honore de Balzac: When you look at the output of some famous writers, the sheer volume of words can be pretty off-putting. Balzac, a Nineteenth-Century realist (though not so much a ‘realist’ that he didn’t occasionally make use of some pretty loopy plots), is best known for ‘La Comédie humaine’, a vast, inter-connected sprawl of 95 novels and stories. It was intended to be even bigger, with almost 50 extra episodes unfinished when Balzac died. Faced with such a monumental pile of books, where the hell do you start? For most it probably seems easier not to bother, which would be a mistake.

The answer is The Unknown Masterpiece. This novella, published by NYRB alongside another (Gambara), is short, clever and gripping. A ‘fable of modern art’, as one critic described it, it’s the story of a painter who is either a towering genius or an utter, utter failure. Perhaps he’s both. Balzac certainly wants to have a bet either way. Writing about art may sometimes be as useful as dancing about architecture, as the cliché has it, but writing about artists can be a lot of fun to read. And if you like this, Gambara is a natural successor, dealing as it does with a musician whose calling destroys his life.

The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares: An Argentinean writer much less known than his brilliant friend and collaborator, Jorge Luis Borges, “Bioy” was also less consistent in the quality of his work. But he did write at least one great book, a dreamy novella inspired by movies and the flapper actress Louise Brooks. Published in 1940, it’s also one of the earliest books which uses virtual reality as a central conceit, long before the digital age.

It begins like a Latin American version of a story by Wells or Stevenson (both favourites of Casares and of Borges, too). A mysterious island, rumours of a terrible disease, a refugee from justice, and all-too-real ghosts who keep on repeating the same actions… Tinged by post-modern ideas without losing its emotional heart, fantastic without ever seeming preposterous, this is a weird and exciting book. The Louise Brooks photo NYRB use on the cover is great, too -- the white-swathed actress with her famous bangs, surrounded by piles of books. Just like the book, it’s haunting, sexy and literary.

Chess Story, by Stefan Zweig: This book was actually covered in this column last February, under its alternative title, The Royal Game, published by Pushkin Press. Well, NYRB have it out too, in a new but also excellent translation, so I’ll plug it again. I originally described it as “the tale of the reigning world chess champion coming up against an unknown opponent while on a cruise ship headed for Argentina… it demonstrates that games can be as serious as anything else in life.” It’s bloody marvelous, too. Confusingly, the same book is also published by Penguin under the simple title Chess. Three editions of the one great book means you should be able to get hold of one. If you don’t, we’ll come round and break your windows.

This was going to be the end of this look at NYRB’s novellas, but a quick search of their catalogue keep turning up more and more masterpieces, so we’ll do more next time.