So, in an earlier post I wrote about what a Novella was, in broad terms.
With those thoughts in mind, here are five great novellas according to that 17.5 to 40k word count definition* .
(*Except where one of them isn’t…)
This list is not obscure at all; the chances are they’re all familiar to most casual readers – they’re simply stories I have loved, and go back to often. If you haven’t read them, or haven’t read them in a while, they might be worth (re)visiting.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
“They had walked in single file down the path, and even in the open one stayed behind the other. Both were dressed in denim trousers and in denim coats with brass buttons. Both wore black, shapeless hats and both carried tight blanket rolls slung over their shoulders.”
What makes a great book or movie? My (massively overly) simple definition is that you can study it in school/ college and still think it’s great (or in the case of exceptional educators, learn that it is great).
Like a lot of ‘O’ level English students of my age (that’s GCSE in slightly newer money, or Star Unit Credit or whatever it might be these days…) I had to study Of Mice and Men. Unlike a lot of my classmates, I’d already read it…several times. This made both the work assignments around it, and the chances of getting a good kicking for being a swot a whole lot easier.
At around twenty-nine thousand words Of Mice and Men is short on words, but long on impact. Published in 1937 and originally running to a slight 187 pages, it of course tells the story of George and Lennie; two field workers in depression set California trying to scrape out a living until they can ‘live off the fat of the land’. George is canny – smart in his own uneducated way, and has been looking after Lennie – strong, hulking and in the language of the book ‘retarded’ for a long time. When they are taken on at a farm to do casual work they do their best to mind their own business, all the time dreaming of a day which, through interactions with some of the other men working on the farm, may actually come to fruition and allow them all to escape their individual exposures to intolerance. But we can see the omens looming on the dust bowl horizon.
Steinbeck’s first attempt at what was termed a ‘play-novelette‘ is a three act piece with two chapters each. It’s structure has made it highly adaptable: over the years produced as plays – both on stage and radio, tv and movies. (The most successful to my mind still being Gary Sinese’s 1992 effort starring himself and John Malkovitch).
What none of the adaptations have quite managed to capture however is the beautiful simplicity of Steinbeck’s writing and ability within it to cover such a wide range of themes.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
It was cold after the sun went down and the old man’s sweat dried cold on his back and his arms and his old legs. During the day he had taken the sack that covered the bait box and spread it in the sun to dry. After the sun went down he tied it around his neck so that it hung down over his back and he cautiously worked it down under the line that was across his shoulders now. The sack cushioned the line and he had found a way of leaning forward against the bow so that he was almost comfortable. The position actually was only somewhat less intolerable; but he thought of it as almost comfortable.
It had been many years since I’d read The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize Fiction winner, when we visited his Cuban home while on holiday a year or so ago. After the tour I downloaded it to my Kindle and re-read it; a special sort of thing to be able to read a story in the place it depicts. (Unless you’re reading 1984 I suppose).
The last major work published in his lifetime, TOMatS, is probably Hemingway’s most well-known work, and while I have not read all his works (I confess to being more of a Steinbeck fan than Papa) it seems to my limited knowledge a typical example of his style.
The story of Santiago, the aging fisherman, and his ultimate struggle with a giant marlin of the Cuba coast is 27 thousand words – which makes it 179 thousand less than that other book about catching a big fish.
Which is the most accurate depiction of sea fishing? Well, I know less about piscary capture than I do about serious literary criticism, but despite Hemingway’s love of all things ultra ‘masculine’ – be it boxing, fishing or sticking things in big cows – it’s clear enough through his minimal, sinewy writing that there’s a lot going on in these sub-200 pages: dedication, passion, mortality, and status to name just a few.
Re-reading TOMatS in its’ native setting may have added a certain texture I took from the surroundings as well as the words themselves, but wherever you find yourself reading it, it remains a powerful and moving piece.
Flowers for Algernon– Daniel Keyes
progris riport 1-martch 5, 1965 Dr. Strauss says I shud rite down what I think and evrey thing that happins to me from now on, I dont know why but he says its importint so they will see if they will use me. I hope they use me. Miss Kinnian says maybe they can make me smart. I want to be smart. My name is Charlie Gordon. I am 37 years old. I have nuthing more to rite now so I will close for today.
A bit of a cheat, this one. Flowers for Algernon was originally published as a short story in a 1959 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. At that time the story ran to 11,745, so too short as a novella. Seven years later it was released as a 311 page novel. So, because it’s my blog and my rules (and I’ll take my ball home if that’s not acceptable), I’m splitting the difference and calling this.
Now to be completely transparent, I have not read the novel. I have read the short and seen a number of the adaptations it has inspired over the years, including the 1968 film, Charly, for which Cliff Robertson won an Academy Award for best actor, and the somewhat more scatological homage It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, episode “Flowers for Charlie“. I’ve also seen or read several of the more loosely based pieces such as the Bradley Cooper 2011 movie ‘Limitless‘ and, Stephen King‘s short story ‘The End of the Whole Mess‘ available in his Nightmare and Dreamscapes collection.
Flowers tells the story of a man with learning difficulties whose intelligence grows rapidly after a science experiment (and some of the terminology acceptable of the time of publication around issues of mental disability have made the piece somewhat problematic in school systems today).
The story is ahead of its’ time in many ways: not least the writing style. Written in journal format, Flowers is told from Charlie’s point of view: initially almost unintelligible in its’ spelling and style, but as the story progresses and the medication starts to take hold, becoming increasingly lucid and intellectual. Rather than any spoilers, I’ll not discuss what this means in the wider context of the tale, but those who have read it will appreciate exactly how cleverly Keyes writes using this concept throughout the piece.
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
“Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets three-wise silverflamed, and there by the door the timps rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder. Oh, it was wonder of wonders. And then, a bird of like rarest spun heavenmetal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now, came the violin solo above all the other strings, and those strings were like a cage of silk round my bed. Then flute and oboe bored, like worms of like platinum, into the thick thick toffee gold and silver. I was in such bliss, my brothers.”
Anthony Burgess‘ 1962 dystopian tale of Alex and his drooges has, in no small part thanks to Stanley Kubrick‘s 1971 adaptation, become one of those pieces of art that many will talk at length about in terms of its’ influence but many have never actually encountered first hand. (See also The Ramones in music, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in movies.) This is particularly true of hipster douche bag teens who think they’re really something special, unlike myself who loved the book when I was sixteen, and thought it was pretty good when I finally got round to reading it a year or so later…
The book, at a shade under 59 thousand words, has three parts, each with seven chapters. (Although during one of its’ banned/ censored phases the final chapter was withheld in the US). Burgess wrote the book in three weeks, drawing inspiration for it from the beating of his wife by a gang of drunken American servicemen while they were stationed in England during the second world war, which caused her to miscarriage.
The novel is hard going – both in subject matter, and in its’ use of a slang argot which Burgess invented for the book, and which has been subject to more intellectual studies than I could ever consider reading (i.e more than one.) so it’s particularly suited to its’ relatively short style.
I have to say, it is not a book I have read in many years, and it is overdue for a re-visitation, however in terms of stories which make an impression on a first read, it would have to be included in books that have affected, if not, influenced, writing I have tried to produce…(I play drastically with conventions of grammar and punctuation: apparently…)
The Body – Stephen King
I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, did you?”
Given that part 1 of this article I referred to Stephen King and his comments on the novella in his collection ‘Different Seasons‘ it seems fitting to make up this list of 5 with one of his. While any of the four stories in that collection would be worthy inclusions (‘The Breathing Method‘ is the weakest of the four, but its’ framing device is one of my favourite re-readable works) I have chosen The Body – later made into the hugely successful movie ‘Stand By Me‘ by Rob Reiner. The movie does a fine job of catching much of King’s story – and indeed, the sentiment and emotion of the piece, but it doesn’t fully capture it. Arguably only Frank Darabont with The Shawshank Redemption has ever really managed to do that.
The Body is the story of four pre-teen boys who go head out to find the dead body of a boy they have learned is as yet undiscovered some forty miles from where they live, with the aim of becoming famous. The Body is a complex work from a writing point of view – while much of it is straight forward narrative of the boy’s ‘adventure’ it is told from the protagonist’s perspective when he is an adult writer. Added to this the story is interspersed with passages from the fictional novel the protagonist has written which parallels the main story.
The Body, like Shawshank, is an ideal story for introducing non-King readers to his work who think they won’t like him ‘because he writes horror’. There are, certainly, elements of horror within the story: it’s difficult to imagine writing of the search for a dead 12-year-old without some, but there are more elements typical of King which, for me personally, show his strengths as an author: the dialogue is colloquial and real sounding. The world he builds (and Castle Rock is a world King fans have had the chance to visit in many, many of King’s work) is vivid and substantial. But for me, the thing that makes me come back to The Body again and again, is summarized by the quote above: I don’t believe there is an author writing today, be it high brow literature, or misunderstood and underappreciated genre pieces, who writes ‘childhood’ as well as King does. I first read Different Seasons when I was around thirteen or fourteen and the fact that I, a young teenager from a small village in 1980s North East of England could identify so exactly with the main characters in the 19560 small town America based tale, and to believe what they say, think and feel throughout despite having not had a brother die at war, a father in a mental asylum, a weight problem, or being misunderstood as a weirdo because of an interesting in writing fiction (Ok, 1 out of 4 ain’t bad, as Meatloaf didn’t say), says a lot to me about the quality of King’s writing, and of the story itself.
That’s my five choices for novellas worth checking out if you haven’t already read them, or revisiting if you have.
As I said last post – there aren’t any novellas in Basement Tales, but I do have a couple I’ve written (whether by accident or design…), which I am considering releasing as self standing pieces before Christmas. As Mr. King states however, they can be right little buggers to sell (those might not have been his exact words…)
Part 3, looking at short novels will be appearing in these virtual pages soon…