Tag Archives: novella

Three Books in Three Days (3): John Calabro’s An Imperfect Man

ImperfectMan_v2-split-copy-145x218For the last book in this three-day roundup, I’ve picked a novella — one of my favourite literary forms. Too often, reviewers treat novellas either as mini-novels or bloated short stories (if they bother with them at all). Yet if you’re looking for a textbook example of classic novella form, John Calabro’s An Imperfect Man has it all. A compelling and tightly focused plot, a strong, first-person narrator and not a wasted word — this is a model novella and a compelling read.

Set in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, the story concerns Jack Hughes, a teacher who (we gradually learn) is tormented by the belief that his left arm does not belong to the rest of his body. He lives alone in the house where he grew up, the child of a single Irish mother who was exiled to Canada as a pregnant teen. A somewhat reclusive man, he reluctantly makes the aquaintance of his married neighbour, Lisa, a nurse who eventually confronts him with the fact that he suffers from a psychological disorder. (A check with Google shocked me with the fact that Body Integrity Identity Disorder or BIID is a real condition, accompanied by a desire for and pursuit of amputation). Throughout the story, we feel the presence of Jack’s dead mother and her amputee boarder who was kind to him as a child. Stories of failed relationships (and Jack’s anxious attraction to Lisa) thread their way through the fine weave of this novella until it reaches its inevitable conclusion.

What may seem like a grim subject is balanced by a solid, detailed grounding in the Parkdale neighbourhood near Toronto’s King Street and Lake Ontario. In the end, the clash between Jack’s apparent body delusion and this evocation of a vital, living world out of reach drives the story forward and keeps us reading. What makes it even more compelling is this reader’s sense that the story might serve as a cautionary tale for a do-what-feels-good culture. Those who’ve read Calabro’s previous novella (The Cousin) know that this writer is no stranger to the extreme edge of offbeat subjects. In An Imperfect Man, he shapes a troubling plot with great compression and emotional control, all marks of a fine novella that deserves a wider audience.

An Imperfect Man by John Calabro is published by Quattro Books (2015).

In closing this mini-series, I should explain that I have been very busy with a tsunami of writing (a novella — Here Comes The Dreamer — due out next week, plus a completed novel and an embryonic one). I’m ridiculously behind on reviewing books, with no hope of catching up! But I keep trying. Other things mop up time (marriage, friendships, eating, sleeping and laundry). I’ll continue my attempt to be The Thoughtful Blogger rather than the negligent one. Happy autumn!            

 

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Lost and Found: Fred Bodsworth’s Classic Novella

booksSometimes a book will sit on my shelf for years, passed over — or even forgotten — until that moment when my need for insight connects with a bang-on story.  Some books “wait” for me longer than others. As a kid in New York, I remember dipping my toe into the pond of adult reading where I came across a puzzling book title: Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth, included in my mother’s  volume of Readers’ Digest Condensed Books (although why a novella needed condensing, I have no idea). I assumed the book was non-fiction, I didn’t know what a curlew was, and when I found out it was a bird, I lost interest.

It was only last fall that Last of the Curlews came my way again, noted in the obit of its author Fred Bodsworth, a renowned Canadian naturalist who lived in Toronto (as I do) and died in September 2012, just a month short of his 94th birthday. By now I was alert to the natural world (and married to a birdwatcher), so my interest was piqued by the title of this classic work. Yet as a writer and lover of the novella form, I felt certain that a story told from the point of view of a bird was going to be either stunning or godawful.

Try brilliant.

Bodsworth tells the tale of an Eskimo Curlew (now believed extinct) seeking a mate in its Tundra nesting grounds, migrating southward in the fall and northward again in its quest for a partner. Juxtaposed with the narrative is a series of bulletins from the Royal Society of London, describing the gradual extermination of the species from over-hunting. This prescient work was published in 1954, and its author never made the mistake of either pounding the pulpit or turning birds into little people with feathers. He’s the observer, telling the story as if he were flying alongside the curlew, always reminding us that birds wait “for the prompting of instinct to tell them what to do next.”

Yet in its singleminded point of view, the novella manages a feat of empathy worthy of the best practitioners of the form. Bodsworth knew that all creatures, human or animal, carry within them yearnings for intimacy and for companionship. It’s the instinctive power of our own sexual and social drives that keeps us reading about the struggle of  the lone curlew as it seeks both a mate and a flock of migratory companions.

Because of its subject-matter, Curlews contains vivid descriptions of events not  often found in literary work. Consider the harrowing experience of bird migration or the delicate love-play of avian species. To its credit, the writing is unsentimental, eloquent and direct.  However tragic its conclusion may appear to us, we see that from the curlew’s point of view, there’s no grief, no sense of loss. Life goes on, tugged along by the pull of instinct, and the bird doesn’t know it’s the last of its kind.  In this contrary clash of emotions, the book ends. We know what the bird cannot, and its innocence confronts us with the harm we have done to our world.

Last of the Curlews is a sad, eloquent, and beautiful novella. It is also a work of great artistry, one I’m grateful to have read at last.

 

Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth (illustrated by T.M. Shortt with an afterword by Graeme Gibson) is published by McClelland and Stewart in Toronto, New Canadian Library, 2010 (Other editions are available).

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Carole Reads!

Here’s a “heads-up” for all of you who live in the Toronto area (and even if you don’t!): I’ll be reading brand-new work at a Novella Night as part of the popular WordStage Reading Series. More soon, but save the date: Wednesday, December 14th . Things get rolling at 7.30 pm, at the New Dooney’s Cafe, 296 Brunswick Avenue (south of Bloor).

Torontonians, you’ll receive a newsletter soon with more info. Hope to see you there!

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Hans Keilson’s Comedy In A Minor Key

There seems to be no end of books inspired by World War II, no doubt because we still have truths to absorb and lessons to learn from that conflict. This, at least, was the sense I had after reading Hans Keilson’s haunting novella, Comedy In A Minor Key.  The author, a psychotherapist, fought in the Dutch resistance and died this year at the age of 101, outliving by many years the trauma that shaped his life.  Kielson writes with gentle irony about the everyday domestic routines that hold insanity at bay during wartime.  Yet out of the calm of an ordinary household, he weaves a story of dark humour and edge-of-the-seat suspense.

His story is set during the Nazi occupation of Holland, where a young Dutch couple, Wim and Marie, hide a Jewish man, Nico. Only the most trustworthy people know about their guest, and the chronic fear of discovery seeps into the mood of a tranquil home. The cleaning lady runs into Nico as he peeks out of his room; later, the co-operative doctor who comes to tend the ailing fugitive has to find an alibi for his frequent visits.  Yet instead of discovery and death at the hands of his Nazi foes, Nico meets an ordinary fate when he dies of pneumonia and Wim and the doctor are left to dispose of the body in the dead of night. Successful in this nerve-wracking task , Wim’s informed by Marie of a glitch in their plan that would have been comic, had it not put their lives in danger.  Now the roles are reversed; their Jewish guest is safe in death and his hosts are on the run.

What makes this small book so compelling is its quiet tone, its depiction of the ordinary lives of two gentle people whose simple domesticity is juxtaposed with an exterior madness that we feel but never see. Tea and laundry, stacking wood and setting the table keep harsh realities at a distance: the far-off rumble of Allied bombers, the awareness that their country is under occupation, the knowledge that the world outside the house is full of suspicion and dread.  That troubled world is mirrored in the upstairs room where Nico is in hiding. Yet the writing conveys a mood of tranquility, while Nico’s presence disturbs the calm surface with an undertow of tension. That tug-and-pull makes for gripping reading.

Wim and Marie’s home shelters them in domesticity, and the calm deliberation in which they carry out their daily tasks allows a glimpse into the brave souls of the two main characters — and by extension, into the lives of many ordinary people who endured the war’s privations with strength and patience. It’s only when the couple flees their home that the reader senses the strains that circumstances have placed in their otherwise loving relationship. Their crisis ends, and in a beautiful scene during the evening blackout, they return home to touch and reclaim in darkness all that was once familiar and visible, all that must be understood in a new and poignant way.

Both ironic and tender, this novella is a nuanced exploration of a time in history that still has much to tell us about unimaginable bravery and the simple tasks of everyday that see us through the night.

Comedy in A Minor Key by Hans Keilson was translated from the German by Damion Searls and published in 2010 by Farrar Strauss and Giroux (New York).

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Men Alone: Two Debut Novellas

Back from holidays now, I’ve just finished reading two exceptional novellas — The Old Whitaker Place by David Chambers and Mitko by Garth Greenwell. The two books complement and mirror each other. Both are debut works, the first by a retired man, the second by a youth. Both are characterized by exceptionally strong and distinctive voices, both are told in the first person, and both deal with solitude and loneliness from two very different perspectives. The Old Whitaker Place is narrated by eighty-two year-old Tom Whitaker, a man wedded to the Vermont  home built by his great-grandfather after the Civil War. He’s a stubborn, somewhat cormudgeonly fellow who has trouble accepting help from his son Ben who lives in Connecticut, drives up on weekends, and hopes to place his father in an assisted-living residence. Old Tom broke up with his wife years ago, and is happiest when he’s alone. The story traces his struggles to remain independent and to deal with his begrudging affection for Teresa, a gutsy woman thirty years his junior who helps him remain in his house. The pleasures of this story include Tom’s crotchety yet reflective voice and David Chambers’ eye for the telling details of character. We learn a lot about old Tom’s frame of reference when he says that his son Ben has “decided to become homosexual,” and when he later frets over his “willfull decision to be strange and girl-like.” He assumes that his gay son picked up his preference from his mother’s side of the family, but when Ben’s partner Morris leaves him because he’s too fussy and difficult, the reader doesn’t need to be told how Ben got that way.

The author is equally adept in summarizing Tom’s and Teresa’s relationship. Tom tells her she’s no ordinary person and he reaches for her hand. Teresa sees it coming and pats it. There are many more such pointed observations in this work. Compression is one of the virtues of a good novella, and in this small book, David Chambers manages to suggest the sweep of a life in all its dignity and imperfection.

Another strength of the novella form is its ability to tell a potent, disturbing story that would lose its intensity in a longer form. Mitko by Garth Greenwell is a fine example of an author working within a tight structure and a formal, cultivated voice in order to frame and compress his powerful material. The narrator of the story, a young teacher newly arrived in Bulgaria, falls in love with Mitko, a young hustler who he pays for sex. They have a few encounters, including one in the narrator’s apartment, and one at a resort hotel where the relationship ends. We learn — again, through telling details — that each manipulates the other and that the teacher is relatively prosperous while Mitko is impoverished, alcoholic and ill. Loneliness, unfulfilled longing and the unbridgeable gap of privilege and poverty permeate this slight work. What keeps us reading is the author’s remarkable voice — refined and distant, its tone reminiscent of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice but also reflective and cerebral to the point of excluding real intimacy.

Yet the novella’s finest achievement is its structure and the moment of innocence which Greenwell places at its centre. After his first encounters with Mitko, the narrator picks up the story two months after their last meeting. At this point, he’s on a weekend away with his students. Alone in an idyllic mountain town, he ends up at a cafe by the river, where he witnesses a playful little girl leaning over the water’s edge, held secure by her father’s arm as she turns to embrace him.  “With her father’s body folded around her,” writes Greenwell, “she laughed with a kind of joy it was difficult for me to recognize, so certain it seemed of a home among the things of the world.” There’s a radiance to his beautiful description of an innocent embrace, one in dramatic contrast to the paid-for sex in the story. As the narrator backtracks, describing his last encounter with Mitko, his retrospective use of the image of the child allows the reader a poignant reflection on the hopeless situation of the two men. This is an intelligent and thoughtful placement of imagery as a lens through which to view the complexity of relationships, both innocent and impossible.

These two fine novellas are both published by Miami University Press in Oxford, Ohio.

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The Best Revenge (2)

Today’s story is about not getting even.

I’ve had good reason for mulling this over.

Revenge is pointless because what’s been damaged — almost always in a relationship of some kind — is damaged for good. Anything new that grows in its place will not replace what’s lost. If it weren’t so, there’s be no vengeful impulse, no grief or outrage — or, in my case, no disgust, frustration and annoyance.

On the list of grievances that might upend a writer, I do not include rejected manuscripts. Not at all, because the editor who turns you down at least signals respect for your work by taking the time to read it. With that in mind, I’d been given more than a little respect from the press which published my manuscript A Gardener On The Moon —  named by them as co-winner of the 2010 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest. It was a delight to work with a small but cosmopolitan publisher. Sure they’d be happy to read another submission, I recently offered them a second novella manuscript and was asked to submit a query letter first. When they’d published me already? Odd, I thought. The query was turned down. “Too many authors, not enough spots,” said the email. (Gone are the days when award-winning authors were prized by their publishers!) When I inquired further, they told me they were not reviewing any new manuscripts until September 2012 and were booked up until 2013.  Then why did you tell me you’d consider my query? I queried.

The answer was obvious. Knowing the quality of my work, these individuals chose to waste my time with a fishing expedition. She writes well. Let’s see if the proposal is sexy enough to bump its way into the lineup. I guess it wasn’t.

This publisher’s backlist features no second-timers; odd in dollars-and-cents terms if you think of writers as financial investments, some of which might pay off as their works are added to the list. More to the point, there are those of us who still believe that writing forges relationships, that our fellow professionals ought to be courteous enough to respect our time and interested enough in new work to develop the writers they’ve already published. Not so — and the indifference stings.

In Helen Prejean’s book Dead Man Walking (on which the film was based), she discusses a man whose loved one was murdered and who then witnessed the execution of the killer. The man said afterwards that it wasn’t enough; he couldn’t get past the insult, he wanted to see the man die over and over. Eventually, he came to terms with an anguish far greater than any I could imagine.

I find hope in his difficult change of heart.

Living is the best revenge, the saying goes.

Along with writing.

Words stitch up the careless rents in our human cloth. They can’t mend what’s unravelled, but they grant a kind of mysterious grace. They restore our sense of dignity as only the truth can.

So that is my story.

The work goes on.

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Heinrich Böll’s The Train Was On Time.

Our conventional idea of a well-constructed novel (or novella) has a narrative arc: beginning, middle and end, climax and resolution, an energetic plot dramatized by a protagonist and an antagonist with a conflict brewing between them. Good reading, but sometimes the structure’s too tidy for real life, where conflicts happen all the time, but resolution often sputters out like a damp firecracker. For writers of war stories, most modern wars have no “narrative arc” at all; they end not with surrender but with exhaustion, cease-fires and peace talks. The German writer Heinrich Böll knew this when he wrote his first novella The Train Was On Time. Germany was about to be defeated in World War II, and the only possible closure for his characters was death.

Published in 1949, the novella tells the story of Private Andreas, shipping out on a troop train to the eastern front. He’s aware that Germany is losing the war, and as the train leaves, he has an intimation that he’s bound to die. Because of the precision of the German trains, he’s convinced that he’ll be able to pinpoint both the exact time and the place of his death. He becomes obsessed with his imminent demise, and either in spite of, or because of what he knows is coming, every moment seems magnified in its importance, from the experience of eating sausage sandwiches packed for him by a chaplain to the card games and drinks shared with two other enlisted men.

Yet Andreas grows into a feverish awareness of the catastrophe that Germany has inflicted on the world. He drifts through memory in a dreamlike state, haunted by the imagined eyes of a woman he might have loved in France, praying at times for the suffering Jews until the line between dream and reality seems to dissolve. At last  Andreas and his companions end up in a brothel on what he believes is the last night of his life. It seemed predictable at first that he’d fall in love with his companion Olina, but not a sentimental note is struck in this brief non-sexual relationship. The brothel is staffed by patriotic Polish women, and the Germans are no safer than the ladies. Love unfolds, but there’s a unsettling ending to this story, one that confronts us with the truth that all of us share the same fate. Trapped in the jaws of violent history, that fate can be especially cruel.

No doubt the writing of this parable was an act of conscience — both to expiate the crimes committed by Germany and to signal Böll’s concern for morality and justice. With or without a narrative arc, the tale’s untidy ending speaks the truth. The author won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972.

The Train Was On Time is by Heinrich Böll. This edition is translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz and published in Brooklyn, New York in 2011 by Melville House.

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