Yesterday was my husband’s birthday. Baking him the world’s most complicated cake on Wednesday evening and taking Thursday off for a birthday outing to Salisbury for the Terry Pratchett exhibit at the town’s museum and the Christmas-decorated rooms at Mompesson House are my collective excuse for not writing up the last of November’s novellas until now.
For the most part I had a great time reading novellas last month. However, there were three I abandoned: Mornings in Mexico by D.H Lawrence (p. 11), whose random, repetitive observations lead to no bigger picture; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (p. 28), which is understated to the point of nothing really happening; and Jaguars and Electric Eels by Alexander von Humboldt (p. 6), which has that dry old style that’s hard to engage with. (I’ll plan to encounter snatches of his writing via Andrea Wulf’s biography instead.)
To my disappointment, I find I can’t make generalizations about the correlation between a book’s page count and its quality: a great book stands out no matter its length. But as Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son) said of his latest work, a set of four short novels, a novella should be “all killer, no filler.” Three of the five I review today definitely meet those criteria, impressing me with the literal and/or emotional ground covered.
Below are the novellas I didn’t manage to get to this past November. Perhaps they’ll hang around until next year, unless I get a burning urge to read one or more of them before then:
The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery
(translated from the French by Alison Anderson)
Pierre Arthens, France’s most formidable food critic, is on his deathbed reliving his most memorable meals and searching for one elusive flavor to experience again before he dies. He’s proud of his accomplishments – “I have covered the entire range of culinary art, for I am an encyclopedic esthete who is always one dish ahead of the game” – and expresses no remorse for his affairs and his coldness as a father. This takes place in the same apartment building as The Elegance of the Hedgehog and is in short first-person chapters narrated by various figures from Arthens’ life. His wife, his children and his doctor are expected, but we also hear from the building’s concierge, a homeless man he passed every day for ten years, and even a sculpture in his study. I liked Arthens’ grandiose style and the descriptions of over-the-top meals but, unlike the somewhat similar The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester, this doesn’t have much of a payoff.
A favorite passage:
“After decades of grub, deluges of wine and alcohol of every sort, after a life spent in butter, cream, sauce, and oil in constant, knowingly orchestrated and meticulously cajoled excess, my trustiest right-hand men, Sir Liver and his associate Stomach, are doing marvelously well and it is my heart that is giving out.”
Silk by Alessandro Baricco
(translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman)
The main action is set between 1861 and 1874, as married French merchant Hervé Joncour makes four journeys to and from Japan to acquire silkworms. “This place, Japan, where precisely is it?” he asks before his first trip. “Just keep going. Right to the end of the world,” Baldabiou, the silk mill owner, replies. On his first journey, Joncour is instantly captivated by his Japanese advisor’s concubine, though they haven’t exchanged a single word, and from that moment on nothing in his life can make up for the lack of her. At first I found the book slightly repetitive and fable-like, but as it went on I grew more impressed with the seeds Baricco has planted that lead to a couple of major surprises. At the end I went back and reread a number of chapters to pick up on the clues. I’d had this book recommended from a variety of quarters, first by Karen Shepard when I interviewed her for Bookkaholic in 2013, so I’m glad I finally found a copy in a charity shop.
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick
Hardwick’s 1979 work is composed of (autobiographical?) fragments about the people and places that make up a woman’s remembered past. Elizabeth shares a New York City apartment with a gay man; lovers come and go; she mourns for Billie Holiday; there are brief interludes in Amsterdam and other foreign destinations. She sends letters to “Dearest M.” and back home to Kentucky, where her mother raised nine children. (“My mother’s femaleness was absolute, ancient, and there was a peculiar, helpless assertiveness about it. … This fateful fertility kept her for most of her life under the dominion of nature.”) There’s some astonishingly good writing here, but as was the case for me with Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, I couldn’t quite see how it was all meant to fit together.
Some favorite passages:
“The stain of place hangs on not as a birthright but as a sort of artifice, a bit of cosmetic.”
“The bright morning sky that day had a rare and blue fluffiness, as if a vacuum cleaner had raced across the heavens as a weekly, clarifying duty.”
“On the battered calendar of the past, the back-glancing flow of numbers, I had imagined there would be felicitous notations of entrapments and escapes, days in the South with their insinuating feline accent, and nights in the East, showing a restlessness as beguiling as the winds of Aeolus. And myself there, marking the day with an I.”
Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
West was a contemporary of F. Scott Fitzgerald; in fact, the story goes that when he died in a car accident at age 37, he had been rushing to Fitzgerald’s wake, and the friends were given adjoining rooms in a Los Angeles funeral home. Like The Great Gatsby, this is a very American tragedy and state-of-the-nation novel. “Miss Lonelyhearts” (never given any other name) is a male advice columnist for the New York Post-Dispatch. His letters come from a pitiable cross section of humanity: the abused, the downtrodden, the unloved. Not surprisingly, the secondhand woes start to get him down (“his heart remained a congealed lump of icy fat”), and he turns to drink and womanizing for escape. Indeed, I was startled by how explicit the language and sexual situations are; this doesn’t feel like a book from 1933. West’s picture of how beleaguered compassion can turn to indifference really struck me, and the last few chapters, in which a drastic change of life is proffered but then cruelly denied, are masterfully plotted. The 2014 Daunt Books reissue has been given a cartoon cover and a puff from Jonathan Lethem to emphasize how contemporary it feels.
Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner
This was very nearly a one-sitting read for me: Clare gave me a copy at our Sunday Times Young Writer Award shadow panel decision meeting and I read all but a few pages on the train home from London. Famously, Matthew Weiner is the creator of Mad Men, but instead of 1960s stylishness this debut novella is full of all-too-believable creepiness and a crescendo of dubious decisions. Mark and Karen Breakstone have one beloved daughter, Heather. We follow them for years, getting little snapshots of a normal middle-class family. One summer, as their New York City apartment building is being renovated, the teenaged Heather catches the eye of a construction worker who has a criminal past – as we’ve learned through a parallel narrative about his life. I had no idea what I would conclude about this book until the last few pages; it was all going to be a matter of how Weiner brought things together. And he does so really satisfyingly, I think. It’s a subtle, Hitchcockian story, and that title is so sly: We never get the totality of anyone; we only see shards here and there – something the cover portrays very well – and make judgments we later have to rethink.
Have you read any of these novellas? Which one takes your fancy?
I had high hopes for all of these: long-awaited novels from Jonathan Safran Foer (10 years after his previous one), Maria Semple and Zadie Smith; a Project Gutenberg download from the reliably funny Jerome K. Jerome; a brand new psychological thriller from James Lasdun, whose memoir and poetry I’ve loved; and a horse racing epic that generated Great American Novel buzz. But they all failed to live up to expectations.
Here I Am
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Is it a simple account of the implosion of two Washington, D.C. fortysomethings’ marriage? Or is it a sweeping epic of Judaism from the biblical patriarchs to imagined all-out Middle Eastern warfare? Can it succeed in being both? I didn’t really think so. The dialogue between this couple as they face the fallout is all too real and cuts to the quick. I enjoyed the preparations for Sam’s bar mitzvah and I could admire Julia’s clear-eyed capability and Sam, Max and Benjy’s almost alarming intelligence and heart at the same time as I wondered to what extent she was Foer’s ex-wife Nicole Krauss and they were the authors’ kids. But about halfway through I thought the book got away from Foer, requiring him to throw in a death, a natural disaster, and a conflict with global implications. This feels more like a novel by Philip Roth or Howard Jacobson, what with frequent masturbation and sex talk on the one hand and constant quarreling about what Jewishness means on the other. The central message about being present for others’ suffering, and your own, got a little lost under the flood of events.
Three Men on the Bummel
By Jerome K. Jerome
Jerome’s digressive style can be amusing in small doses, but this book is almost nothing but asides. I did enjoy the parts that most closely resemble a travelogue of the cycle trip through Germany, but these are drowned under a bunch of irrelevant memories and anecdotes. I much preferred Diary of a Pilgrimage.
The Fall Guy
By James Lasdun
This is a capable psychological thriller about an out-of-work chef who becomes obsessed with the idea that his wealthy cousin’s alluring wife is cheating on him during a summer spent with them in their upstate New York bolthole. I liked hearing about Matthew’s cooking and Chloe’s photography, and it’s interesting how Lasdun draws in a bit about banking and the Occupy movement. However, the complicated Anglo-American family backstory between Matthew and Charlie feels belabored, and the fact that we only see things from Matthew’s perspective is limiting in a bad way. There’s a decent Hitchcock vibe in places, but overall this is somewhat lackluster.
The Sport of Kings
By C.E. Morgan
I found this Kentucky-based horse racing novel to be florid and overlong. The novel doesn’t achieve takeoff until Allmon comes on the scene at about page 180. Although there are good descriptions of horses, the main plot – training Hellsmouth to compete in the 2006 Derby – mostly passed me by. Meanwhile, the interpersonal relationships become surprisingly melodramatic, more fit for a late Victorian novel or maybe something by Faulkner. My favorite character was Maryleen, the no-nonsense black house servant. Henry himself, though, makes for pretty unpleasant company. Morgan delivers the occasional great one-liner (“Childhood is the country of question marks, and the streets are solid answers”), but her prose is on the whole incredibly overwritten. There’s a potent message in here somewhere about ambition, inheritance and race, but it’s buried under an overwhelming weight of words. (See my full Nudge review.)
Today Will Be Different
By Maria Semple
Bernadette fans, prepare for disappointment. There’s nothing that bad about the story of middle-aged animator Eleanor Flood, her hand-surgeon-to-the-stars husband Joe, and their precocious kid Timby, but nor is there anything very interesting about it. The novel is one of those rare ones that take place all in one day, a setup that enticed me, but all Eleanor manages to fit into her day – despite the title resolution – is an encounter with a pet poet who listens to her reciting memorized verse, another with a disgruntled former employee, some pondering of her husband’s strange behavior, and plenty of being downright mean to her son (as if his name wasn’t punishment enough). “In the past, I’d often been called crazy. But it was endearing-crazy, kooky-crazy, we’re-all-a-little-crazy-crazy,” Eleanor insists. I didn’t think so. I didn’t like being stuck in her head. In general, it seems like a bad sign if you’re eager to get away from a book’s narrator and her scatty behavior. Compared to Semple’s previous novel, it feels like quirkiness for quirkiness’ sake, with a sudden, contrived ending.
By Zadie Smith
Smith’s fifth novel spans 25 years and journeys from London to New York City and West Africa in tracing the different paths two black girls’ lives take. The narrator (who is never named) and Tracey, both biracial, meet through dance lessons at age seven in 1982 and soon become inseparable. The way this relationship shifts over time is the most potent element of the novel, and will appeal to fans of Elena Ferrante. The narrator alternates chapters about her friendship with Tracey with chapters about her work for pop star Aimee in Africa. Unfortunately, the Africa material is not very convincing or lively and I was impatient for these sections to finish. The Aimee subplot and the way Tracey turns out struck me as equally clichéd. Despite the geographical and chronological sprawl, the claustrophobic narration makes this feel insular, defusing its potential messages about how race, money and class still define and divide us. A new Zadie Smith novel is an event; this one is still worth reading, but it definitely disappointed me in comparison to White Teeth and On Beauty. (Releases Nov. 15th.)
Have you read any of these? What did you think?
What’s the last book that really let you down?
Tomorrow the Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced. I’d already read and reviewed four of the nominees (see my quick impressions here), and in the time since the longlist announcement I’ve managed to read another three and ruled out one more. Two were terrific; another was pretty good; the last I’ll never know because it’s clear to me I won’t read it.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
What a terrific, propulsive tale Burnet has woven out of a real-life (I think) nineteenth-century Scottish murder case. The seams between fact and fiction are so subtle you might forget you’re reading a novel, but it’s clear the author has taken great care in assembling his “documents”: witness testimonies, medical reports, a psychologist’s assessment, trial records, and – the heart of the book and the most fascinating section – a memoir written by the murderer himself. As you’re reading it you believe Roddy implicitly and feel deeply for his humiliation (the meeting with the factor and the rejection by Flora are especially agonizing scenes), but as soon as you move on to the more ‘objective’ pieces you question how he depicted things. I went back and read parts of his account two or three times, wondering how his memories squared with the facts of the case. A great one for fans of Alias Grace, though I liked this much better. This is my favorite from the Booker longlist so far.
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
“I often felt there was something wired weird in my brain, a problem so complicated only a lobotomy could solve it—I’d need a whole new mind or a whole new life.” This isn’t so much a book to enjoy as one to endure. Being in Eileen’s mind is profoundly unsettling. She’s simultaneously fascinated and disgusted by bodies; she longs for her alcoholic father’s approval even as she wonders whether she could get away with killing him. They live a life apart in their rundown home in X-ville, New England, and Eileen can’t wait to get out by whatever means necessary. When Rebecca St. John joins the staff of the boys’ prison where Eileen works, she hopes this alluring woman will be her ticket out of town.
There’s a creepy Hitchcock flavor to parts of the novel (I imagined Eileen played by Patricia Hitchcock as in Strangers on a Train, with Rebecca as Gene Tierney in Laura), and a nice late twist – but Moshfegh sure makes you wait for it. In the meantime you have to put up with the tedium and squalor of Eileen’s daily life, and there’s no escape from her mind. This is one of those rare novels I would have preferred to be in the third person: it would allow the reader to come to his/her own conclusions about Eileen’s psychology, and would have created more suspense because Eileen’s hindsight wouldn’t result in such heavy foreshadowing. I expected suspense but actually found this fairly slow and somewhat short of gripping.
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
This is a most unusual mother–daughter story, set on the southern coast of Spain. Twenty-five-year-old Sofia Papastergiadis has put off her anthropology PhD to accompany her mother, Rose, on a sort of pilgrimage to Dr. Gómez’s clinic to assess what’s wrong with Rose’s legs. What I loved about this novel is the uncertainty about who each character really is. Is Rose an invalid or a first-class hypochondriac? Is Dr. Gómez a miracle worker or a quack who’s fleeced them out of 25,000 euros? As a narrator, Sofia pretends to objective anthropological observation but is just as confused by her actions as we are: she seems to deliberately court jellyfish stings, is simultaneously jealous and contemptuous of her Greek father’s young second wife, and sleeps with both Juan and Ingrid.
Levy imbues the novel’s relationships with psychological and mythological significance, especially the Medusa story. I don’t think the ending quite fits the tone, but overall this is a quick and worthwhile read. At the same time, it’s such an odd story that it will keep you thinking about the characters. A great entry I’d be happy to see make the shortlist.
[One I won’t be reading: The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee. I opened up the prequel, The Childhood of Jesus, and could only manage the first chapter. I quickly skimmed the rest but found it unutterably dull. It would take me a lot of secondary source reading to try to understand what was going on here allegorically, and it’s not made me look forward to trying more from Coetzee.]
As for the rest: I have All That Man Is by David Szalay and Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy on my Kindle and will probably read them whether or not they’re shortlisted. The same goes for Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, for which I’m third in a library hold queue. I’d still like to get hold of The Many by Wyl Menmuir. That leaves just Hystopia by David Means, which I can’t say I have much interest in.
I rarely feel like I have enough of a base of experience to make accurate predictions, but if I had to guess which six books would make it through tomorrow, I would pick:
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
The North Water by Ian McGuire
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
That would be three men and three women, and a pretty good mix of countries and genres. I’d be happy with that list.