The Shortest of the Short: Four Novellas of under 50 Pages

 

Outside Stamford Library.

It’s a tradition now in its third and last year: I spend one day at the New Networks for Nature conference with my husband, and then (to save money, and because I’ve usually had my fill of stimulating speakers by then) wander around Stamford and haunt the public library on the other day.

This past Saturday I browsed the charity shops and found a short story collection I’ve been interested in reading, but otherwise just spent hours in Stamford’s library looking through recent issues of the Times Literary Supplement and The Bookseller and reading from the stack of novellas I’d brought with me. I read four in one sitting because all were shorter than 50 pages long: two obscure classics and two nature books.

 

Fiction:

 

The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono (1953)

[Translated from the French by Barbara Bray; 46 pages]

Trees have been a surprise recurring theme in my 2018 reading. This spare allegory from a Provençal author is all about the difference one person can make. The narrator meets a shepherd and beekeeper named Elzéard Bouffier who plants as many acorns as he can;  “it struck him that this part of the country was dying for lack of trees, and having nothing much else to do he decided to put things right.” Decades pass and two world wars do their worst, but very little changes in the countryside. Old Bouffier has led an unassuming but worthwhile life.

There’s not very much to this story, though I appreciated the message about doing good even if you won’t get any recognition or even live to see the fruits of your labor. What’s most interesting about it is the publication history: it was commissioned by Reader’s Digest for a series on “The Most Extraordinary Character I Ever Met,” and though the magazine accepted it with rapture, there was belated outrage when they realized it was fiction. It was later included in a German anthology of biography, too! No one recognized it as a fable; this became a sort of literary in-joke, as Giono’s daughter Aline reveals in a short afterword.

 

Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville (1853)

[40 pages from my Penguin Classics copy of Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories]

You probably know the basic plot even if you’ve never read the story. Hired as the fourth scrivener in a Wall Street office of law-copyists, Bartleby seems quietly efficient until one day he mildly refuses to do the work requested of him. “I prefer not to” becomes his refrain. First he stops proofreading his copies, and then he declines to do any writing at all. (More and more these days, I find I have the same can’t-be-bothered attitude as Bartleby!) As the employer/narrator writes, “a certain unconscious air … of pallid haughtiness … positively awed me into my tame compliance with his eccentricities.” Farce ensues as he finds himself incapable of getting rid of Bartleby, even after he goes to the extreme of changing the premises of his office. Three times he even denies knowing Bartleby, but still the man is a thorn in his flesh, a nuisance turned inescapable responsibility. A glance at the introduction by Harold Beaver tells me I’m not the first to make such Christian parallels. (This was the first Melville I’ve read since an aborted attempt on Moby-Dick during college.)

 

Nonfiction:

 

The Company of Swans by Jim Crumley (1997)

[Illustrated by Harry Brockway, who also did the wood engravings for the Giono; 39 pages]

Crumley is an underappreciated Scottish nature writer. Here he tells the tale of a pair of mute swans on a loch in Highland Perthshire. He followed their relationship with great interest over a matter of years. First he noticed that their nest had been robbed, twice within a few weeks, and realized otters must be to blame. Then, although it’s a truism that swans mate for life, he observed the cob (male) leaving the pen (female) for another! Crumley was overtaken with sympathy for the abandoned swan and got to feed her by hand and watch her fall asleep. “To suggest there was true communication between us would be outrageous, but I believe she regarded me as benevolent, which was all I ever asked of her,” he writes. Two years later he learns the end of her story. A pleasant ode to fleeting moments of communion with nature.

Favorite passages:

“Swans this wild let you into only a certain portion of their lives. They give you intimate glimpses. But you can never have any part in the business of being a swan. You can offer them no more than the flung tribute of your admiring gaze.”

“I think there is nothing in all nature that outshines that lustrous lacing of curves [of swan necks], nothing in all theatre that outperforms its pivotal tension.”

 

Holloway by Robert Macfarlane (2013)

[Illustrated by Stanley Donwood; 39 pages]

In 2011 Macfarlane set out to recreate a journey through South Dorset that he’d first undertaken with the late Roger Deakin in 2005, targeting the sunken paths of former roadways. This is not your average nature or travel book, though; it’s much more fragmentary and poetic than you’d expect from a straightforward account of a journey through the natural world. I thought the stream-of-consciousness style overdone, and got more out of the song about the book by singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Sanderson. (Her Book Songs, Volume 1 EP, which has been one of my great discoveries of the year, is available to listen to and purchase on her Bandcamp page. It also includes songs inspired by Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Sarah Hall’s Haweswater, and Doris Lessing’s Mara and Dann.) The black-and-white illustrations are nicely evocative, though.

Lines I liked:

“paths run through people as surely as they run through places.”

“The holloway is absence; a wood-way worn away by buried feet.”

 


Have you read any of these super-short novellas? Which one takes your fancy?

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16 thoughts on “The Shortest of the Short: Four Novellas of under 50 Pages

    1. It’s true, none of these made a huge impression on me. Of the four, Bartleby was most worthwhile. I know what you mean about feeling unsatisfied at the end of a novella. That has happened to me sometimes, making me wish the author had stopped at a short story or kept going and written a full-length novel! But novellas can also be really polished and self-contained. I wish I could give some tips on knowing which is which before you open the cover…

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  1. I do know the Bartleby story but have never read the book. I should get myself a copy. I’ve read lots of novellas this year many of which have packed a powerful punch, although nothing under 50 pages. El Hacho weighs in at a mere 82 and I’d highly recommend that one. It’ll be on my books of the year list.

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    1. There seem to be some nature writing cliques. Macfarlane has never been invited to the New Networks for Nature conference as far as I know, even though there’s a keen interest there in literary/nature crossovers. (We chatted with Stephen Moss at the pub and he praised directness and simplicity; I could tell Macfarlane’s style would be the exact opposite of what he recommends.) I was underwhelmed by The Old Ways, but adored Landmarks, perhaps because of its focus on the language we use for landscapes.

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      1. I liked Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places, but for me his style has been devolving ever since (The Old Ways was pretty irritating). I haven’t read Landmarks, though.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Lately I’m feeling a lot like Bartleby when it comes to most of my work gigs. I don’t think I’m likely to read any more Melville, though it seems people like Benito Cereno, which is in the same volume I have.

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  2. Those are super novella-y! None of the ones in my stack are that short and I rather wish they were right now, as I’ve not read as many as I’d hoped to in this month. Oh, well, the next week is a much lighter one in many respects – I might well storm through a pile of them. As for which of these I’d choose, the swan story for sure. Sounds lovely! (But sad.)

    Liked by 1 person

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