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The Art of the Novella (and thoughts on my first read)

August 1, 2011

Y’all, I know I’ve sworn off challenges. But last month I joined in the Orange July reading *and* Paris in July (although I didn’t actually get my Paris books read until yesterday evening, before midnight so it still counts! oh wait, I just remembered I read the Balzac last week, so actually I came out ahead: go me!) and had great fun with both. And I did the Dutch Lit event before that. So I’m thinking that the month-ish challenges are my friends. Which brings me to Frances’ Art of the Novella challenge. She’s going to spend August reading all forty-two of the novellas in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, and she’s invited other bloggers to participate at various levels. Then Melville House got in on it and is offering prizes (tote bags! who can resist their canvas goodness?) to participants.

Now, some of you might be wondering how someone like myself, too-ill-to-work-and-thus-on-permanent-book-buying-ban, can afford to join in the fun. But, um, they’re all classics! Most of them are by British or American authors, so no translation worries! And I happen to have a Nook…and you see where I’m going with this? I feel bad about this, and was going to keep my participation unofficial, but Frances told me on Twitter I should join in anyway. So here I am! ;) I haven’t yet decided on how many I’ll be reading. On the one hand, the list is all white (except, arguably, Pushkin whose great grandfather hailed from sub-Saharan Africa). I know, right? The Harlem Renaissance period alone offers so many rich, wonderful novellas! (Melville House, if you’re listening, my first nominee is Passing by Nella Larson.) It is also very, very male: seven of the titles are by women, which means about 83% of the authors have that pesky y chromsome. On the other hand, many of the (white, male) authors are ones that I’ve read in the past and loved! And they’re all dead, which is good since I’m trying to read more older books. So I’m still salivating over the prospects (I’ve only read four of them before: The Awakening, The Touchstone, The Dead, and The Hound of The Baskervilles). Officially, I’m signing up for the curious level, which only requires me to read three, but I reserve the right to upgrade as I see fit. ;)

So, what are my choices? Well I already read my first one this morning! We’ll get to that in a moment. I will definitely be reading Mathilda by Mary Shelley, along with Dolce Bellezza. I didn’t realise she’d written anything other than Frankenstein, and I’m very curious! I’m also highly likely to read Country of the Pointed Firs and/or Parnussas on Wheels, since both have already been on my wishlist for ages. If you look at the list and you know much about my reading tastes, you can probably guess all of the other ones clamouring for my attention! Who knows, I might reach the rare heights of Fanatical (twenty-seven) or Unstoppable (thirty-three). ;)

And so, to kick off the challenge I read the same novella Frances is beginning with: Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville. I loved, loved, loved Moby Dick, which I read about a year and a half ago, and have been wanting to picl up more Melville ever since. And Bartleby’s famous response, “I would prefer not to,” is referenced repeatedly in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s wonderful novel By the Sea. Not to mention it graces that tote bag! ;)

I was surprised to find it much shorter than I expected; after all, Moby Dick is gloriously longwinded and shamelessly discursive. It was also much more ‘everyday’; the narrator, a lawyer on Wall Street, describes himself thus:

I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best.

In my uninformed naivete, I imagined a scrivener to be some kind of nautical job; in fact, it is a clerk. But all of this, the humble, pedestrian telling of the story, is what really gives it its power. We stay with the lawyer’s point of view, which leaves Bartleby as much an enigma to us as to the people around him. What makes him decide to change his life so radically, to step out of tune with society? And ultimately, are we supposed to see him as hero or warning? What does all of this mean? Melville leaves it up to the reader, and I suspect each person will arrive at a different response. For myself, as someone who’s been forced by a chronic illness to look outside of ‘mainstream’ thought for philosophies of life (ok, I’ve always been like that, but fibro has certainly been sharpened my questioning), I obviously sympathised with Bartleby’s unwillingness to go along with things in the name of convention. I imagined what, in my own life, “I would prefer not to” do. And yet, my primary emotion was of sadness at his overwhelming loneliness and isolation. Not an easy read (despite its brevity) or a particularly happy one, but a very rich one. And one of the nice things about novellas is how easy it is to revisit them! I doubt I’ve had my last encounter with Bartleby, but as far as introductions go, this was a wonderful one. (P.S.: I think even if you hated Moby Dick you’d enjoy this! A very different style, without anything extraneous.)

22 Comments leave one →
  1. August 1, 2011 9:22 am

    Heh, I also thought a scrivener was some nautical job!

    I thought about joining this one. On one hand, my TBR pile is a mile long. On the other, they’re classics! They’re novellas! So maybe I’ll read a couple… ;)

  2. August 1, 2011 9:27 am

    I’ve always wanted to ask someone in the mental health profession about Bartleby. Just how would he be diagnosed, today. I also think it’s a bit short to be considered a novella, but that’s another issue.

    I just posted on How the Two Ivan Quarralled by Nicolai Gogol which is very funny. I’m hoping to find one or two more at my library, but many of the titles are so long out of print that my public library does not have them. So, I may have to buy one or two.

  3. August 1, 2011 9:41 am

    I listened to this one as an audiobook and enjoyed it. It really made me think. Maybe I should read Mathilda too.

  4. August 1, 2011 10:47 am

    An interesting potential project… I enjoyed Bartleby as well when I read it, but not enough to move Moby Dick up the pile..! (Too big and scary for me right now.)

    I will dig through my shelves to see what I can round up, novella-wise. Good suggestion!

  5. August 1, 2011 11:41 am

    I’ve put in a hold at my library for “The Lifted Veil.” I loved “Middlemarch” and haven’t read anything else be George Eliot. I agree that the list is very white & male – a disappointment.

  6. August 1, 2011 11:52 am

    This is one I’m planning to revisit for the Art of the Novella festivities as well, as I’ve very much enjoyed it in the past. The first time I read it I really sympathized with Bartleby, but the second time I read it he seemed surprisingly sinister to me, as did the boss’s inability to get rid of him (even after he moves office!). I’ll be curious what a third reading will reveal; as you say, one of the great things about novellas is that they’re so easy to revisit.

    I really enjoyed this longish entry, by the way—I hope your desk is continuing to help with your wrist/hand situation. Your conversational tone is so fun to read. :-)

  7. August 1, 2011 11:57 am

    I admit, when I first heard of this challenge, my thought was “but that’s so expensive.” So it’s good that people can participate without going to all the cost. There are a number on the list that I’m actually interested in (including Country of the Pointed Firs), but I don’t know that I’ll have time this month–August is a bit crowded this year! But who knows, maybe if I have the time, I’ll pick up one of the novellas already on my shelves…

  8. August 1, 2011 12:20 pm

    Have fun with the challenge Eva. Sounds like you have some good ones queued up and ready to go!

  9. August 1, 2011 12:56 pm

    I hardly think the term “uninformed naivete” applies to you, dear Eva! You are one of the most well read bloggers I know! Perhaps I only knew the term scrivener because of my once strong knowledge of French (where “to write” is “pour écrire”); somehow, those words are similar to me…

    At any rate, now you have me wanting to read Moby Dick, even though I realize this post is not about that novel. I just would like to complete that someday, and your praise is all the more encouraging.

    I’m so looking forward to Mathilda with you. Due to time constraints on my part, I suggested posting on the twentieth of August; does that work for you? Let me know if not. I already have it in my possession, it’s simply a matter of finding time. xoxo

  10. August 1, 2011 3:44 pm

    I’m chuckling at your little aside that you reserve the right to upgrade as you see fit. I’m guessing you’ll end up upgrading right to the top of the challenge. :-D

  11. August 1, 2011 7:02 pm

    I read Bartleby the Scrivener in high school and was awed by the fact that he kept saying no! It’s been years since I read Moby Dick though. It was a tough haul the first time through and I’m not sure I’d make it a second time.

  12. August 1, 2011 9:09 pm

    So glad to see you joining in the fun. And I hope a tote bag is in your future. I agree that this is a sad read in a few ways, but also like and agree with Emily’s point that there is something almost sinister about Bartleby. Or at least mentally unstable as C.B. James suggests. Can’t wait to see which novella you pick next!

  13. August 1, 2011 10:15 pm

    Hey I have Mathilda too! I’m head over heels in love with this series…aside from the fact that like you mentioned, it’s very “white male” oriented. I’d love to see some more diversity. But I’ve always had a special place for novellas and I just love the designs of this series too! The contemporary novella series is really good too! I read Shoplifting from American Apparel and really liked it.

  14. August 2, 2011 2:55 am

    Ah, novellas – wonderful to read, not so good to pay for :(

  15. August 2, 2011 8:11 am

    I remember reading Bartleby the Scrivener in a combo edition with Benito Cereno, but somehow I remember very little about Bartleby. Benito Cereno, though, has stayed with me for a long time. It’s one of those works that I would really, really like to know what the author’s intention was when he wrote it (was he pro- or anti-slavery?) I haven’t tackled Moby Dick yet… It’s still a little too intimidating for me. Someday…

  16. August 2, 2011 9:41 am

    I was planning on joining in on this, but it is so hard to commit to anything when my computer is broken… I still have the email you sent me about where you found all the books, so I may still read them, but everything is complicated when I don’t have a computer at the ready.

  17. August 3, 2011 5:00 am

    You are such a delight! I wish you much fun as you tackle your challenges. Go YOU! */*

  18. August 3, 2011 11:43 am

    This sounds like a fun challenge, great that so many of the works are easily accessible… but UGH to them being all (almost all) white and mostly male. Sad!!

  19. August 3, 2011 4:23 pm

    I ve yet to decide on a book for this challenge just depends if they ‘ve any at our library ,all the best stu

  20. August 3, 2011 9:03 pm

    Hey, who says there’s anything “extraneous” in Moby-Dick? ;)

    The last time I read this, which was a re-read, I was also drawn to a bit of a different interpretation than what I usually read, and sympathized much more with the narrator than with Bartleby. Perhaps Bartleby is standing up for what he believes in by not doing what he prefers not to do, but at the same time, he’s demanding accommodation from everyone around him so that he can be the one to get what he wants. You can’t run much of a law office (or a society) if everyone decides to be Bartleby.

    Glad you enjoyed your next voyage with Melville, even if it was a shorebound one!

  21. August 11, 2011 8:43 am

    I’ve been curious about Bartleby the Scrivener for a while and I think I’m more likely to pick it up than Moby Dick. However, hearing you loved the latter has somewhat changed my mind about the book. Maybe I may give it a try at some point;)


  1. Wine, tea, kindred spirits, and statistics… The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge begins… | Ebooks on Crack

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