The Art of the Novella

Lunchtime literary shopping

Chock it up to good marketing. Before I even knew about the independent publisher Melville House I admired my friend SG’s “I would prefer not to” tote bag. Black, white, literary, emblazoned with the iconic line from Herman Melville’s novella Bartleby the Scrivener. When I started working in DUMBO, Brooklyn I rounded the corner of my building and saw those same totes hanging in the window of a light, airy bookstore. Intrigued, I went in.

Melville House puts out a range of books that are necessary, even if major publishers don’t think that they are. They publish books in translation that are best sellers in other countries, but that most Americans have never heard of.  They publish cultural criticism that’s too political for major publishers. The tote bag advertises a series called the “Art of the Novella,” which strives to bring attention to this often neglected and maligned form of literature.

This August a reader and novella fan proposed a challenge: he would try to read all 42 books in Art of the Novella series in August. In another smart marketing move Melville House invited other readers to do the same (I believe three novellas was the minimum for participation) and to tweet and blog about it.

Excited to participate I walked around the corner from work and picked up some attractive little volumes, all nicely bound with a solid color on the front in matte stock (the contemporary novellas have glossy stock) and nice “french folds” on the inside. You feel classy just carrying one in your bag! I also liked the project because it gave me a chance to try out some classic authors that I’ve heard about, and should have read, but have some how managed to avoid over the course of my reading history. I pictured myself stretched out on the beach, reading a novella, and being literary. Of course, it didn’t work out this way and I had a very busy August with less reading than planned.

August reading #artofthenovella

Here’s what I did read:

A Simple Heart Gustave Flaubert—the story of a simple country maid in search of love who finds companionship (and religious obsession) in a parrot. It’s seen as an early example of Flaubert’s realism. I thought it both empathized with and created a caricature of the hardworking, but ignorant because of her circumstances, rural peasant. Its commentary on the class divide in 19th century France is clear. I understand how ground breaking it may have been on the time to feature such “common people” in literature, but it does come off as a little trite.

The Lemoine Affair Marcel Proust—this novella was originally published serially in a newspaper and the last few sections were published posthumously. In it Proust immitates the styles of different prominent French writers to descibe the political innerworkings, intrigue and fallout caused by a minor scandal where a merchant claimed he could make diamonds out of coal. I suppose if I knew 19th century French literature better I would have found it more amusing.

The Lifted Veil George Eliot—My favorite of the classics that I picked. While I think Eliot’s characterizing the main woman character as shallow and heartless behind an intriguing exterior is a little tired, I like the psychological nature of this story. It really kept me on eggshells and I think it was the only one of my classic selections where I wanted to keep reading to the end, instead of just being motivated to finish because the novella was, well, short.

Lucinella Lore Segal—I don’t know if I was cheating with this one because it’s from the Contemporary Art of the Novella series, but this was by far my favorite. Released in the 1970’s this slim volume lampoons the New York literary scene (and the artist colony Yaddo) with rollicking wit. It is told by a poet and social climber, who may also be talented and is certainly obsessive in the way writers can be, Lucinella.  The tone and voice of this novella reminds me a lot of one of my other favorite narrators: Sally J. Gorce in The Dud Avocado. It also is a reminder of how difficult it was, and remains, to be a sassy, weirdo woman artist or writer in the 60’s and 70’s. And 80’s, and 90’s and today. The book takes a turn towards the weirdly sublime in the end, which would not be how I would write the ending, but I stayed along for the ride and it was fun.

So what’s my takeaway from my month of reading not as many novellas as planned? Mostly that my reading tastes are thoroughly rooted in the “modern” and “post-modern”—basically 1920 and forward. There are plenty of novellas from Melville House’s series in this category, such as The Awakening, Jacob’s Room, and Country of the Pointed Firs (lovely book about Maine!), but I’d already read them! This is not a hard and fast rule, but generally the pre-modern literature (which laid the ground work, I know, I know) of the 19th century feels so stuffy to me, and so staid compared with what came next. It’s kind of like comparing the Barbizon school with Cubism in art history, you know? Oh, did I just loose half my readership with that pretentious reference? Dude, whatever, reading is cool and I can’t wait to check out Melville House’s other releases! And bro, hey, I got a rad tote bag.

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