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Novels or Novellas? Two Great Reads

imagesI’ve just finished reading two fine books, both slender volumes, both touted as novels — Ru, Quebec author Kim Thúy’s first work of fiction and The Way of the Dog by American novelist Sam Savage. More on them in a moment, but first let me clarify something: no matter what the book jackets say, these books aren’t novels; they’re novellas. That’s not because they’re short; there’s more to the novella form than length.

Nonetheless there’s a mantra in the business (with some truth behind it) that says novellas don’t sell unless they’re bundled up into a fat volume. The thinking goes that there’s not enough heft or value for the money in those skinny works. Worse, some reviewers view novellas as either failed novels or run-on short stories.

Yet marketing novellas as novels just blurs the distinction between the capacious form of the novel with its wonderful tangle of characters, plot and subplots, and the spare beauty of the novella which in its classic form entertains only one point of view and no subplots at all. Tolstoy, James Joyce, Edith Wharton, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus — and more recently, Marion Engel, Hans Keilson and Ian McEwan, to name only a few — have excelled at both forms, producing novellas that are bare-bones brilliant, with no descriptive padding or unnecessary digressions, and a laser-sharp focus on a character’s heart. As much as length, it’s these attributes that shape the novella. This is why I insist on describing both Ru and They Way of The Dog as novellas, not novels.

ruRu (which in Vietnamese means lullaby and in French means both a small stream and the flowing of blood or tears) has garnered many international awards, including the Governor-General’s Literary Award for French-language fiction in Canada. Told in the first person, it recounts the journey of a young woman who grew up in a well-to-do Saigon family, became a war refugee in Malaysia and struggled to begin a new life in Quebec. The language (exquisitely translated by Sheila Fischman) is spare and poetic, and, true to its title, the narrator’s stream of consciousness moves with the to-and-fro of memory and the present, a quiet voice that holds in reserve a remarkable inner strength. The layout of this small work creates short paragraphs broken by space, evoking a meditative sense in which the silence surrounding words is as important as the words themselves. To try to describe this work in terms of chronology would not do justice to either its ephemeral quality or the way in which it enfolds one woman’s consciousness. It is that flow of life which is the subject of this beautiful novella. Too short? Read it again. And again.

Ru by Kim Thúy is translated from the French by Sheila Fischman and published by Vintage Canada (2012).

13591794Sam Savage’s The Way of the Dog is narrated in the first person by Harold Nivenson, a wry and skeptical soul, a minor artist and collector disillusioned with the world of art, to which he’d sacrificed life and integrity. He inhabits a decaying mansion which embodies both his own declining health and the hermetic world which he and his circle had constructed for themselves. With the death of his artist friend and rival Peter Meininger, this world fell apart and Harold came to realize that he’d not been true to himself in his desire for acceptance and acclaim. As a character, Harold is by turns witty, sarcastic and depressed about the declining state of intellectual discourse, his gentrifying neighbourhood, his uptight, artsy neighbours (including a prolific novelist, producer of what he terms “literary waste products,”) and by the loss of his deceased dog with his canine gift for living life in the present moment. A cormudgeon he may be, but Harold’s voice is irresistible, shooting off sparks of wit, regret, tenderness, and just plain ornery life. As with Kim Thúy’s novella, this stream of consciousness feels far more true to the mind’s ruminations than any precise chronology. The tale is subtle and unsentimental in its inference that Harold ultimately makes peace with life.

All that artistry in the span of one hundred and fifty pages. In a novella, short is good, but attentive and loving focus is very good. This slim work has both.

 The Way of the Dog by Sam Savage is published by Coffee House Press (2013)

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 Want more of a fabulous art form? Both Melville House Books (Brooklyn, N.Y.) and Quattro Books (Toronto) specialize in publishing novellas of every description.

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Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone

I’ve just finished reading an astounding five-hundred-page novel called Every Man Dies Alone by the German writer Hans Fallada. The book was written in 1947, but was only translated into English two years ago. What took them so long??? This compelling and inspiring page-turner was written — believe it or not — in the space of twenty-four days by a man who’d spent much of the Second World War confined to a Nazi insane asylum. As one of the first novels to emerge from that dark period of history, it has a stunning, frightening immediacy. To read it is to experience with all five senses what living in Nazi Germany must have felt like. You might choose, as I did, to read this book on the beach, because now and again it helps to look up at the beauty of the day, to keep yourself anchored in the real and present world.

Every Man Dies Alone is based on the true story of Elise and Otto Hampel, a working-class couple in Berlin who decided to resist Hitler by writing messages of protest on hundreds of postcards, urging civil disobedience and workplace sabotage and by distributing these notes all over the city.  It was their hope that other citizens would pass the missives around and begin to act against the regime. It didn’t work out, either in fact or in fiction. Cowed and terrified by the Nazis, Berliners found the cards and turned almost all of them over to the police, yet even so, it took two and a half years before the couple were arrested. They were sentenced to death.

Knowing the bleak outcome, you may wonder why you’d want to read this book. To me, their simple act of resistance — as futile as it seemed —  was so stunning and so unheard of that I couldn’t help feeling that it deserved to be honoured through my reading. To read the saga of the fictional Otto and Anna Quangel is to rescue their deeds from oblivion and death. To read their story is to bear witness to the courage of people who speak the truth, even at the cost of their own lives. Is it a good read? And how. It’s both an action-packed thriller and a novel of ideas — about courage, truth-telling, moral integrity and the wisdom of a peaceful life in the face of sadism, cruelty, and stupidity. Most astonishing of all is the huge range of twenty or more distinctive characters. From the taciturn Otto Quangel to the conflicted cop Escherich, from Hetty the Gestapo-hating pet-shop owner to Eva the postal worker who delivers a form letter to the Quangels announcing the death of their soldier-son, each of these people is well-crafted, memorable, complex, and, by turns, profound, despicable and occasionally funny.

Every Man Dies Alone is a disturbing novel, but it’s a powerful affirmation of life, and the care Fallada took to delineate and enliven his characters stands as a confrontation of the savagery and inhumanity that his people endured. Don’t miss this book. Read it in sunlight, on a beautiful day. That’s Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hoffman, published in 2009 by Melville House Publishing.

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Two Novellas: Benoit Duteurtre’s Customer Service and Gale Zoe Garnett’s Room Tone

Two very entertaining — and short — reads for you today, both of them novellas. The first one is by a young French author named Benoit Duteurtre, and it has the delicious title of Customer Service. Right. Aren’t we all just waiting for someone to come along and skewer all those outrageous phone menus that lead you down some sinkhole in a parallel universe where you’ll never get any service? That’s what the book is about and since Benoit Duteurtre was a young protege of Samuel Beckett, you can guess that his sense of the absurd is fine-tuned, to say the least. The very title Customer Service has a kind of savage Orwellian cruelty, but don’t go looking for profound insights, depth of character or lyrical language. This is satire with a sure sense of the ridiculous — and it’s a very funny read. The story, told in the first person, concerns a young man whose parents give him a very high-tech cellphone that he can’t live without – until one day he loses it in a cab. Then he discovers that his parents had also bought him a plan with benefits that did not apply if the phone were lost. In other words, our poor friend would have to keep paying for this plan for a year even without the phone, while having to buy a new phone and a new plan. Got that? Has this happened to you? Read on, as the poor guy’s phone-menu hell begins. Recalling that he was a preferred customer, he fights his way through a Kafkaesque blur of telecommunications bureaucrats, becoming outraged and hysterical, only to find that the named Customer Service rep does not exist. I won’t tell you what happens after that, because the remainder of the story veers off into a wonderland of wierdness. I just wonder why there aren’t more satirists working this same rich lode of terminal idiocy. That’s Customer Service by Benoit Duteurtre, published in 2008 by Melville House in Brooklyn, New York.  Go to www.mhpbooks.com.

Now another novella, this one by Canadian writer Gale Zoe Garnett, who’s also a poet and an actor. Her book Room Tone has been out for a while now, but I’ve just caught up with this affectionate insider’s look at the world of film. The story’s told through the eyes of Nica Lind, the child of a French new-wave film star and a Danish photographer. The title of the book refers to the practice of recording the sound of a room, in case it’s required as background if some film dialogue has to be re-recorded. It also points to the state of silence on the set while this is happening, a calm which joins everyone in a co-operative and meditative state of mind.

Told in the first person, the story is written in the intimate voice of innocence lost and wisdom found, as Nica, who makes her way as a serious film actress in Europe, is invited to work in Hollywood. There’s plenty of wit in the writing, as the tone changes from high-minded artistry to Hollywood-agent bombast and ridiculousness.  How a frustrated actress negotiates the rocky shoals of money vs. art unfolds nicely in this slim book which is divided into old-fashioned chapter headings: ‘Nica Enters The Family Business,’ ‘Big Face, Small Voice,’ ‘All the Action.’ Each of these creates distance, and each hints that what follows ought to be read with a bit of ironic detachment and good humour. Over all, it works. The last scene with Nica riding the Helsinki ferry with her dad has a lovely tranquility which evokes the cinematic idea of room tone as a still moment that calms all fear and anxiety . “No past, no future. Only the early morning light,” she says. “Only the room tone.” I would have dropped that final sentence, that nudge in the ribs about the room tone. We could hear and feel it ourselves in the deft writing which preceded it. Over-all, it’s a nicely-written novella. That’s Room Tone by Gale Zoe Garnett, published in 2007 by Quattro Books in Toronto. Their website is http://www.quattrobooks.ca.

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