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