Sunday, January 31, 2010

My J. D. Salinger--Master of the Short Story

Like many others of the pre-baby-boomer generation, I was quite mad for the fiction of J. D. Salinger. I don’t remember how old I was when I first read that Signet paperback with the picture on the cover of the young guy with a suitcase, a long coat, a red scarf, and a red baseball cap, presciently and rebelliously worn backward. The cover claimed: “This unusual book may shock you, will make you laugh, and may break your heart—but you will never forget it.” And of course, I didn’t. I still have my tattered paperback copy of Catcher in the Rye, or rather I did until recently, when I bequeathed it to my daughter who is working on a Ph.D. in English (getting into the family business, as it were) at University of Arizona. The paperback came out in 1953, when I was twelve. I probably read it a few years later at fifteen. During high school, I also read Nine Stories and, like many other “literary types,” was hooked trying to hear the sound of one hand clapping.

When I got to college, I had “graduated,” as it were, to the Glass family-- Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, Walt, Waker, Franny and Zooey. In the short story class I had with the wonderful Kentucky writer James Still, we had to write a long “term” paper—about 20 pages—the longest paper I had ever attempted. Mr. Still did not like Salinger—thought he was too slick, too citified, too much a show-off. But, thanks to Holden, ever the rebel, I decided to do my paper on the short stories of Salinger. I had read his four books, but wanted more. In our modest Appalachian library at Morehead State College, I was able to find fifteen or so Salinger stories in Colliers, Saturday Evening Post, and Story—The late forties and early fifties were good times for short story writers. After the term ended, James Still sent me a brief note, written on stationary from a Louisville hotel, that he liked the paper and was willing to admit that where there was so much literary smoke there had to be some literary fire. I never got the paper back, but I did get an “A” in the course.

When I was in graduate school, the New Yorker published Salilnge's last story (took up almost the whole June 19, 1963 issue) entitled “Hapworth 17, 1924.” Introduced by Buddy, the story is a long, rambling letter from Seymour to his family when he was at Camp Simon Hapworth. Seymour, Buddy reminds us, committed suicide in 1948 when he was thirty-one in that great Bananafish story. As you might expect, it is a very precocious letter for a seven-year-old.

I did not teach many of Salinger’s stories during my forty-year stint at California State University, Long Beach. Salinger did not allow his stories to be anthologized in college texts. The only two that slipped by in trade paperback editions were “For Esme, with Love and Squalor” in Milton Crane’s Fifty Great Short Stories (1952) and “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” in Warren and Erskin’s Short Story Masterpieces (1954), both of which I taught. I remember when I taught “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” I picked up a copy of Howard Garis’ Uncle Wiggly Stories and read some of the to the class (At bedtime, I read them to my kids, who loved Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy, the Police Dog, and the Bad Chaps.” Their favorite bittersweet part came at the end of the stories with teasers like these:

“What happens next will be told in another story, if the star on top of the Christmas tree doesn’t twinkle so brightly that it shines in the face of the clock and stops the hands from playing tag.”
“And another story soon, if the eyes of the Christmas doll don’t wiggle around so fast she can’t see to play the piano.”
“Something is going to happen in the next story, if the egg beater doesn’t take the stopper out of the vinegar cruet and pour the stuff into the milk to make it so sour the goldfish won’t drink it.”

So, it was with a wry sad smile that I picked up the L.A. Times in the driveway this past Friday and read on the front page that J.D. Salinger had died at age 91. Of course, the first thing I did after reading the long obituary that filled almost one and a half pages of the L. A. Times was to go to my book shelf to find Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. And being the literary packrat I am, I searched through my filing cabinet and found the New Yorker copy of “Hapworth 16, 1924,” that, ever the Salinger fan, I rushed out to buy in 1965.

I have just finished reading Nine Stories and am happy to say they brought a gratified smile to my face. I was not startled this time when Seymour went back to his hotel room and blew his brains out, for I knew that he knew there would never be anything better than Sybil’s seeing the bananafish. I sympathized with Eloise’s desire to live in the world of Uncle Wiggly instead of the world of Connecticut. I understood why Billy Walsh cried when the Laughing Man’s last act was to pull off his mask before turning his face to the bloodstained ground. I felt for De Daumier-Smith’s desire to reach out to Sister Irma during his blue period. And I nodded in recognition when I read about Teddy’s first mystical experience, for I had used it many times in my classes as an example of the kind of epiphany the short story often made its own: “It was on a Sunday, I remember,” said Teddy. “My sister was only a very tiny child then, and she was drinking her milk, and all of a sudden I saw that she was God and the milk was God. I mean all she was going was pouring God into God, if you know what I mean.”

Nine Stories has always had a powerful influence on my theories of the short story’s unique thematic obsession. Salinger’s best stories—“A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” For Esme—with Love and Squalor,” and “Teddy”—all deal with the gap between “love”(in the basic religious sense of loving the other to such an extent that there seems no separation between the self and the other)-- and “squalor,” which derives from the Latin word “squalere,” which means “to be dirty from neglect.”

I have referred in an earlier blog to a presentation I made at the International Short Story Conference in June 2008, at Cork, Ireland, in which I argued that the basic theme of the short story as a form was the confrontation between the profane reality of separation and the longing for the sacred reality of union. If you read Salinger’s four greatest stories with this theme in mind, I think you will see where I must have got a significant impetus to my ideas. I quote a few paragraphs from my Cork presentation below:

I believe that the central focus of the short story as a genre is the basic primordial story that constitutes human beings existentially--their basic sense of aloneness. The human yearning that this would be otherwise is best expressed by Martin Buber. "In the beginning," says Buber, "is relation as category of being, readiness, grasping form, mould for the soul; it is the ”a priori of relation, the inborn Thou." Studies in anthropology and child psychology support Buber's assertion that both phylogenetically and ontogenetically the “Thou” relation precedes the “It” perception, but only in a primal undifferentiated universe from which the adult civilized human is excluded except by means of an aesthetic or religious "As if.” Buber describes the event phylogenetically in terms that suggest its metaphysical and moral implications. "This actual event is the separation of the human body, as the bearer of its perceptions, from the world round about it...whenever the sentence `I see the tree' is so uttered that it no longer tells of a relation between the man and the tree, but establishes the perception of the tree as object by the human consciousness, the barrier between subject and object has been set up. The primary word “I-It,” the word of separation, has been spoken." Thus arises, says Buber, the "melancholy of our fate" in the earliest history of the race and the individual.

If the “I-Thou” is inborn, as Buber says, it exists in that realm of the individual and the race that predates consciousness, and therefore can exist for conscious human beings only as an ideal, for which we yearn. Humans are continuously possessed by this desire for unity, which our very reason makes impossible, which is why the romantics, of course, decried the deification of reason in the eighteenth century and wished to substitute imagination in its place, imagination that transcended reason and made strange that which was so seemingly familiar. And since imagination is the leading aesthetic idea of the Romantics, love or sympathy became the leading moral idea—a basic yearning for the underlying unity of all things that springs forth in moments of what Abraham Maslow called peak experience, or what Wordsworth in the Prelude called "spots of time."

The human dilemma is that we are always caught between the demands of our deepest wish and the demands of our social self, which is the battle between the sacred and the profane, between union and separation. The unconscious is where "reality" resides, says Eliade. The human search to know it is equivalent to the desire of the religious man to live in the sacred, which is, "equivalent to his desire to take up his abode in objective reality… to live in a real and effective world, and not in an illusion."

The important distinction that must be made is between narratives that strive to make the realm of value seem temporal and graspable by experience and reason and narratives that strive to transform the temporal into the spiritual. What I wish to suggest is that the novel is a form dominated primarily by the first impulse, whereas the short story is dominated by the second. The first process requires temporal development, a slow process of "as if" lived experience in a world of objects, social relationships, and conceptual frameworks. It must have the bigness of the comprehensive theory of the whole man facing the whole world. The second process, on the other hand, requires only the moment, an instantaneous single experience that in its immediacy challenges social and conceptual frameworks.

There are therefore two basic modes of experience in prose fiction: the one that involves the development and acceptance of the everyday world of phenomenal, sensate, and logical relation--a realm that the novel has always taken for its own--and the other that involves single experiences that challenge reality as simply sensate and reasonable--a realm that has dominated the short story since its beginnings. The novel involves an active search for identity that is actually a reconciliation of the self with the social and experiential world—a reconciliation that is finally conceptually accepted, based on the experience one has undergone. The short story takes a character who has reached, or is in the process of reaching, for such a conceptual identity through reason, experience, or a combination of both, and confronts him or her with the world of yearning, which then challenges his conceptual framework of reason and experience.

All this perhaps explains why Sybil can see the bananafish, why Eloise prefers Uncle Wiggily to Connecticut, how Esme’s letter of love saves Sergeant X from squalor, and what Teddy means by saying you have to vomit up the Edenic apple of logic if you want to see things as they really are. It is what Sergeant X understands when he inscribes the Dostoevsky quotation on the flyleaf of the Goebbels book: “Fathers and Teachers, I ponder, ‘What is hell?’ I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”

J.D. Salinger: January 1, 1919—January 27, 2010-RIP

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Michelle Cliff, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Postcolonial Criticism

I recently read Everything is Now by Michelle Cliff, which includes stories from her first collection, Bodies of Water (1990), and her second, The Store of a Million Items (1998), as well as fourteen new ones, some of which deal with growing up in a colonial country, being torn between identifying with the white colonizer and the colored colonized, triangulating from Jamaica to England to America, and coping with issues of immigration. Cliff was born in Jamaica but grew up in the United States, receiving her education in New York City and London. She is the author of three novels, Abeng, No Telephone to Heaven, and Free Enterprise, which have been well received for their focus on growing up in a postcolonial culture and on the dehumanizing effect of the international slave trade. Because her short stories are more poetic and less focused on history, politics, and culture, they have received less attention.

As I have noted before in this blog, the short story seldom succeeds when it serves primarily as a vehicle for political ideas and social commentary—no matter how humane the ideas are. As a result, the current, but slowly waning, academic infatuation with all things multicultural and postcolonial, has not been kind to the short story form.
There are, of course, exceptions, such as the very fine stories of Jhumpa Lahiri, which academic critics have received warmly, but usually for the wrong reasons. The stories in Lahiri’s most recent collection, Unaccustomed Earth, focus on immigrants who “must strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.” However, Lahiri develops her theme more deeply than that, using geography not as a social message but as a metaphor for crossing borders.

The title story is paradigmatic. Ruma, a mother at age 38, has left her job in a New York law firm to follow her husband to Seattle to raise their child. Her father, at age 70, has retired after his wife’s death and now spends his time taking European tours. The story takes place during the father’s visit while Ruma’s husband is out of town. For sixty pages, nothing much seems to happen as Ruma tries to come to terms with her father’s newfound freedom and he comes to know and love his young grandson. Then in the last few pages, because Lahiri knows how to manage the rhythm of the short story almost as masterfully as her mentors William Trevor and Alice Munro, the story tightens as a secret is revealed and the daughter realizes her father is also a man. Because of their realistic detail and their casual narrative flow, many critics have erroneously called these stories “novelistic,” but make no mistake, when that flow tightens into a vortex at the end and the seemingly irrelevant details become transfigured into significance, you will know you are in the hands of a master of the short story.

In the spring semester of 2006, my last term as a teacher, I conducted a graduate seminar on the postcolonial short story. My students and I read stories from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Africa, and the Caribbean. As usual, my focus was on formal excellence and thematic complexity. However, my graduate students, who had been trained by my younger colleagues to value political and social subjects, did not read the stories closely and wanted to talk about social and cultural issues in general rather than the thematic and formal qualities of the particular stories we read. For them, the only important stories were those that lamented the plight of people of color in the third world and the history of political domination. For me, what made a story important was its truth about the human individual and its formal beauty. It was a battle every day. By the end of the term, I was weary of fighting for the power of art over politics.

I have three major objections to postcolonial and multicultural criticism—all of which, in my opinion, lie at the heart of the teaching of literature:

First, by focusing on the “what” of fiction, rather than the “how,” postcolonial critics and teachers often make facile generalizations about history and politics that ignore the qualities of the particular work they are considering and have little or nothing to do with literature as art. Thus, they encourage cursory reading calculated to elicit general concepts and polemical ideas, after which they discard the actual language and form of the work like an empty husk.

Second, postcolonial critics often create a jargon language and a convoluted syntax to make their often-simplistic ideas sound theoretically profound. Tagging on to the dense and oblique prose style of the now defunct deconstructionists, they try to make mere propaganda sound philosophically complex. Note the following from an essay on Cliff’s fiction by Jocelyn Fenton Stitt: “Contextualizing the work of Jamaican-American writer Michelle Cliff within this literary tradition demonstrates that many of the dominant forms of rhetoric used to establish authentic national subjects contain within them the gendered and raced legacies of Romantic nationalism.” Or this one from the same essay: “Referencing the (black) mother in Caribbean postcolonial discourse as the point of origin displaces more complex notions of national identity, which take into account racial, sexual, and cultural hybridity.”

Third, postcolonial critics, compelled to read third world literature as political allegories about the domination of the Empire and the revolution of those marginalized, drain the individual humanity out of the people that populate fiction, making them mere two-dimensional figures representing general qualities of poverty, ignorance, hunger, and deprivation. Francoise Lionnet calls Michelle Cliff an “autoethnographer,” arguing that her stories belong to a new genre of contemporary autobiography, “by writers whose interest and focus are not so much the retrieval of a repressed dimension of the private self, but the rewriting of their ethnic history, the re-creation of a collective identity through the performance of language.” Well, I for one believe that the truth and beauty of the short story derives from its emphasis on the “private self,” not a “collective identity,” whatever that might look like.

I liked many of the stories in Michelle Cliff’s Everything is Now, but not because they gave me allegories of “raced” populations. The best stories in this collection, as is true of all great stories, result when Cliff successfully controls the raw obsessive stuff of her life with the consummate care of her art. I recommend the book to you.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Colm Toibin's Brooklyn: A Novel To Be Read Like a Short Story

Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn was awarded the Costa Novel of the Year award a couple of weeks ago. Through no fault of Toibin, the novel will always evoke a sadness in me. It is the last novel that I listened to while walking my dog Shannon each morning in the neighborhood. As I have mentioned before, the only time I “read” novels is when I “listen” to them on my Ipod. Since I don’t think novels require the kind of close reading that fine short stories do, I usually get bored with them on the page, but enjoy listening to someone read them as Shannon and I stroll for a half hour each morning.

I am sad to say that Shannon died Saturday night, January 16, about 15 minutes before midnight—fifteen years to the day after we brought her home from the animal shelter and made her part of our family. My wife and I had been nursing her for the past couple of weeks while she grew weaker and weaker from kidney failure and a weak heart. She could not walk any more, and she refused to eat, except when I got some homemade chicken broth down her with a turkey baster. All we could do was make her comfortable, keep her hydrated, and watch over her. We were sitting with her when she died.

Different people have different attitudes toward their pets. I grew up on a farm where dogs were only as good as they were useful—for hunting, herding, and guarding the house. They were fed scraps, were not allowed indoors, and were not particularly mourned when they died. My wife, whose heart is so tender she would not step on a bug, has taught me different ways. Shannon, our second dog in our thirty years of marriage (Ollie, our first also died at age 15.) was indeed a member of the family and treated as such. I will miss my morning walks with her. I will continue walking, for the sake of my heart, and listening to novels, for the sake of my education, but it is just not the same on the treadmill or walking alone.

I have been thinking about my experience listening to Brooklyn. It is a relatively short novel, at 250 pages, but, as usual with novels, I got very impatient with it, damning it for the endless details and verisimilitude that I could have done without. It is a simple and formulaic story of Irish immigration—Ireland’s favorite story since the Potato Famine. The central character is Eilis, a young woman who lives in Enniscorthy, a fair sized town in county Wexford, south of Dublin. It is the 1950’s and Eilis lives with her mother and older sister. She has a poor-paying job in a store, but has goals of becoming an accountant. However, she cannot find a decent job and the young men of the town are not very interested in her. A priest who now lives in New York, but is visiting his hometown in Ireland, helps her immigrate to America and finds her a job and a place to live.

With the financial help of her sister, this is accomplished with a lot of detail about her preparations, her journey, her job, her housemates, her landlady. She meets a young man, Tony, of Italian descent, begins dating him, attends night school to study accounting, and generally begins to settle in. Then she gets word of her sister’s sudden death, but before she leaves for Ireland, Tony convinces her to secretly marry him in a civil ceremony. As with most things in Eilis’s life, she agrees to this more out of passivity than out of passion. When she returns to Enniscorthy, she slowly begins to settle in at home again. A young man who ignored her before now pays her much attention. An employer that turned her down before now offers her a better paying job as an accountant. Her mother seems to assume that she will settle down in Enniscorthy. She puts off her return to New York again and again, in spite of Tony’s letters urging her to come back.

This all seemed quite pedestrian and predictable to me as I listened to the plot details and character concerns. The major attractions of the novel as a form—a sympathetic character with which the reader can identify, a fully realized geographical and social world the reader can recognize and live in, a plot with enough unpredictability to keep one turning the page—all seemed to be lacking in this novel. Quite frankly, it bored me. Just another immigration story.

But then, suddenly, as the story concludes, everything seems to tighten and pull together—not like a novel, but like a short story—and I was thrown back to the whole of the story and made to see everything in a new light. I began to realize that I had been listening to Brooklyn like a novel, while I should have been reading it like a short story. What I had missed in the listening, I would have caught in the reading—the precise, poetic style of the work, the careful creation of a literary world with a rhythm of reality all its own. The story is not a realistic novel about a particular woman in a particular time and particular place, but rather a lyrical tale about the universal dilemma of anyone who is displaced, tries to go home again but cannot, returns to the displacement, and finds out that neither the old home nor the new home feels like “home.” Brooklyn is a classic story of homesickness, a story that does not simply give a particular example of homesickness, but rather explores and defines the complexity of what that kind of sickness. As such, it is in the tradition of one of the most famous Irish stories, George Moore’s “Home Sickness.”

Frank O. Connor, in his great little book The Lonely Vlice, singles out "Home Sickness" as representative of the direction that the Irish short story would take in the twentieth century, arguing that it has the "absolute purity of the short story as opposed to the tale.” Although O'Connor says that as a piece of artistic organization, "Home Sickness" is perfect, one's first impression of the story is of its structural simplicity. James Bryden, an Irish immigrant who works in a bar in the Bowery, goes back to Ireland "in search of health," and for a short time considers marrying a peasant girl and remaining there. What unifies the story beyond its simple narrative structure is the understated but sustained tone throughout of Bryden's detachment from the reality of Irish life and his preference to live within a sort of reverie of nostalgia that he is disappointed to find unrealized in reality. He takes no interest in the life of the people and does not so much decide to marry Margaret Dirken as he passively allows the impending marriage to be announced.

Although Bryden finds himself longing for the Bowery as he contrasts the "weakness and incompetence of the people around him with the modern restlessness and cold energy of the people he left behind him," and although he blames the ignorance and primitive nature of the folk who cling to religious authority as his reason to return to America; the conclusion of the story suggests a more subtle and universal theme by unifying the detached dream-like mood of reverie that has been counterpointed throughout against Irish village reality. For the story is truly about the unbridgeable gap between restless reality and dream-like memory.

The style of the story shifts in the penultimate paragraph from what at first seems like a straightforward realistic presentation of Bryden's detached disappointment with Irish life to a compressed summary account of his ordinary and uneventful life in America. After his wife has died and his children are married, he sits in front of the fire, an old man, and "a vague, tender reverie" of Margaret floats up to his consciousness. "His wife and children passed out of mind, and it seemed to him that a memory was the only real thing he possessed, and the desire to see Margaret again grew intense."

The final lyrical paragraph of the story seems in sharp contrast to the realistic style of what has preceded it, in a way that is very similar to the contrast between realism and concluding lyricism that characterizes Joyce's "The Dead": "There is an unchanging, silent life within every man that none knows but himself, and his unchanging, silent life was his memory of Margaret Dirken. The bar-room was forgotten and all that concerned it, and the things he saw most clearly were the green hillside, and the bog lake and the rushes around it, and the greater lake in the distance, and behind it the blue line of wandering hills."

However, as in "The Dead," the concluding lyrical style is not so much in contrast to the former style of the story as it first appears, for what Moore has accomplished is what characterizes the so-called "modern" style of Chekhov, Anderson, and Joyce. What seems to be mere verisimilitude in the story actually is a subtle development of a unified tone of reverie and memory that dominates the description of everyday reality. Although the story on the surface seems to focus on external reality, the real emphasis, as is so often the case with Chekhov and Joyce, is on inner life, for which the details of external reality are significant either only by contrast or as images of subjective reality. Although the concluding revelation of the "unchanging, silent life" of Bryden at first seems unprepared for, much as the lyrical evocation of Gabriel's life does in "The Dead," a closer look at the story reveals that the entire story is dominated by images that suggest the predominance of the subjective life of reverie and imagination over the ordinary life of the everyday.

Moore’s story is a classic of the short story as a genre, tightly wrought around a complex universal theme in which character and plot are in service of something larger than just “stuff that happens.” It is a talent that Colm Tóibín’s short stories seem to lack. His novel The Master won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and almost won the Booker in 2004, but his one collection of short stories, Mothers and Sons (2007) is comparatively flat and flaccid. He suggested in a London interview that it may be his last collection of stories, confessing, “I can’t write short stories.” Tóibín is not only a good novelist; he is also a good critic.

Although I was charmed by his restrained treatment of five challenging years in the life of Henry James, I was disappointed that Tóibín has not learned the “lesson of the master,” to wit, that the short story demands succinctness, that “it should be a little gem of bright, quick, vivid form.” With the exception of the final story, “A Long Winter,” a fine example of what James called his ideal, “the beautiful and blest nouvelle,” most of these stories suffer either from Tóibín’s underestimation or misunderstanding of the short story form. One problem may be the casual and calculated way the book originated. Tóibín has said that after the fluency of The Master he felt for a time that he had nothing; then some stories came to him: “A Song,” about a young man who hears his mother, who abandoned him as a child, sing, and “A Priest in the Family,” about an elderly mother whose son, a priest, is accused of abusing a young man.

Recovering a story he wrote in 1979, “A Journey,” about a mother driving her depressed son home from the hospital, he realized that the common theme of mother-son relationships might very well hold a book together. He then added the mother angle to two unfinished sketches--“The Name of the Game” and “The Use of Reason” to provide them with a conflict. All he needed now were a couple of new pieces: “Famous Blue Raincoat,” about a woman recalling her youthful experience singing in a band when her son discovers some of her old records, and “Three Friends,” about a young man who, after the death of his mother, attends a beach rave and has a homosexual experience with a friend.

In spite of the book’s overall intention, the individual stories fall short as individual stories. “The Song” focuses on a potentially powerful encounter, but since the reader cannot hear the song the mother sings and Tóibín’s prose here is too ordinary to capture the magic of that moment, the story lacks emotional impact. “The Name of the Game,” about a woman who has a gender and generational conflict with her son after salvaging a failing business left her by her husband, simply has no emotional core to sustain it. The issues at stake—the social pressures of a small Irish town—are too general and novelistic, and the story simply goes on too long about the specific steps the woman takes to make an economic success of the venture.

“Famous Blue Raincoat” tries to suggest the difference between old Ireland and the new economic Celtic Tiger—but lacks any compelling thematic or emotional connection between the past, which dominates most of the story, and the present, which serves as merely a convenient hook. “Three Friends,” another story about modern Ireland, also fails because it creates no compelling connection between the grief of the young man who has lost his mother and the sexual encounter he has with his friend. “A Priest in the Family is too obviously “ripped from the headlines,” featuring a thoroughly modern mother, age 80, who has learned to handled a VCR and email, but must find a way to face those who know that her son the priest is a pedophile.

“The Long Winter,” occupying one third of the book, is the best story here, and not just because of its length. Taking place in a rural village in the Pyrenees in Spain, it focuses on a young man whose mother has disappeared in a snowstorm. Based on a true story told to Tóibín by a man who sold him a house in Spain, the story has the formal control of folktale, ballad, myth. Tóibín, his own best critic, has called this his most powerful piece, recognizing that its purity of line and clarity of emotion places it in a different realm than the other stories. Tonally flawless and emotionally compelling, “The Long Winter,” a perfect example of James’s “beautiful and blest nouvelle,” alone is worth the price of Mothers and Sons.

If you have read Brooklyn, please let me know what you think.

A FOOTNOTE: Perhaps this is what bloggers with open blogs have to expect: I have received three or four "comments" that were links to porn sites and other such nonsense on some of my blogs. Consequently, you will see: "Comment deleted by moderator" on some of my recent blogs. Anyone have any advice on what else I can do to prevent this?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Novella: Some Tentative Suggestions

As a lifelong student of the short story, I have always been interested in its closest narrative neighbor, the novella, which began with Boccaccio’s innovative short form in The Decameron and became quite a different fictional form when it was expanded by Romantic German writers in the nineteenth century. Several years ago, I created and taught a seminar in the novella form, focusing on classic examples of the genre from Europe and America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the request of one of the readers of this blog, I have gone back to my notes about the novella and have developed the following tentative suggestions about the form that may or may not be helpful in situating the novella somewhere in between the short story and the novel.

In the Jan/Feb, 2010 issue of Poets and Writers, the editors note that there are precious few places writers can place a story that is too long for a literary magazine and too short for a traditional book publisher. They mention One Story and Melville House Publishing as two such places and then call attention to a new publisher, Madras Press (, founded last fall in Brookline, Mass. This nonprofit press publishes individually bound novellas in paperback originals, at about five or six dollars each, with proceeds going to a charity of the author’s choice.

The critical problem of the novella is that it is a genre with many names, but little or no description. Variously called the short novel, the novelette, the nouvelle, the novelle, and the novella, with no real distinction between these terms except perhaps country of origin or personal preference, its usual (not very helpful) definition is that it is longer than a short story and shorter than a novel. Those who dare a more prescriptive definition usually place its length between 20,000 and 50,000 words.

The most cogent comment on the form, often cited by critics with much agreement but little elaboration, is the famous remark made by Henry James in his Preface to The Lesson of the Master. Calling the novella, on the dimensional ground, for length and breadth, “our ideal,” James says that its “main merit and sign is the effort to do the complicated thing with a strong brevity and lucidity—to arrive, on behalf of the multiplicity, at a certain science of control.” The comment has led to the (also not very helpful) observation that the novella has the novel’s complexity and the short story’s control. But is the “complexity” of the novel the same kind of complexity in the novella? And is the “control” of the short story the same kind of control as the novella? Does the novella deal with a type of subject matter unique to it, or does it make use of a unique kind of control, or both, or neither?

Although generic criticism is distrusted by many readers who fear the critic will try to delimit the work and dictate the shape future works may hold, the fact of the matter is when a reader comes to a work of literary art he or she already has certain expectations based on past experience. A reader does not read a novel expecting the same kind of experience he or she has when reading a short story. When reading the hybrid form called the novella, the reader is not quite sure whether to bring to it the expectations he or she has always brought to the novel or the expectations he or she has always brought to the short story.

Without going into the convoluted and esoteric pros and cons of genre theory, which I have studied for years, I simply assert that I agree with C. S. Lewis, who once said, “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is – what it was intended to do, and how it is meant to be used!” If one does not formulate some means of knowing this, then one can say nothing to the purpose about it, and indeed may run the risk of misunderstanding it entirely. Furthermore, I simply assert that basically I agree with the great Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset that genres are “certain basic themes, mutually exclusive, true aesthetic categories.” For example, according to Ortega, the epic is not so much a poetic form, as it is a “basic poetic content that reaches fulfillment in the process of its expansion or manifestation.”

Based on my own inductive study of many of the classic nineteenth and twentieth century novellas, I have tentatively formulated the following hypotheses about the typical plot, character configuration, and setting of the novella form.

Plot: The basic action is that an ordered situation broken up by disorder. Dostoevsky’s ”Notes from Underground” illustrates this tension, as does Unamuno’s “Abel Sanchez” and Conrad’s “The Duel.” See also Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” D. H. Lawrence’s “The Fox,” Gide’s “Pastoral Symphony,” Wright Morris’s “Love Among the Cannibals,” Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” Carson McCuller’s “Ballad of the Sad Café.” In all these works, a character is leading a normal life, until one day something enters that life and breaks it up. A crisis is initiated; something has to be done; someone has to make a choice of nightmares. In initiation stories such as Conrad’s “The Shadow Line,” Alberto Moravia’s “Agostino,” and Turgenev’s “First Love,” one is introduced to the irrational. In James’ “The Pupil,” one is drawn into the irrational, but steps back. In James’ “Beast in the Jungle,” one realizes too late. In Conrad’s “Typhoon,” one confronts it and deals with it. In Katherine Ann Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,’ one wants to escape into an absolute of death/eternity.

What is this irrational invasion? In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” it is Bartleby himself. In Bellow’s “Seize the Day,” it is Tamkin the magician. In Mann’s “Mario and the Magician,” it is Cipolla. In Mann’s “Death in Venice,” it is Tadzio and Venice itself. In Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer, “ it is Legatt, the second self. In Faulkner’s “The Bear,” it is the bear. In Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” it is the great fish. In Porter’s “Noon Wine,” it is Hatch and Helton. In Joyce’s “The Dead,” it is Michael Furey.

Character: The number of characters in the novella is almost always limited to two or three. Additional characters usually function as choral response for the interactions of the two or three major characters. In many cases there is only one character caught in a dialectic with other aspects of the self. The action then is almost always an internal one, a lyric action in which emotional or psychological states are objectified in dramatic characters. Ivan Ilych is alone of course, for in facing death one is always ultimately alone. Gregory Samsa’s sister represents a side of himself that he fails to incorporate. The same can be said of Tolstoy’s “Master and Man” and Unamuno’s “Abel Sanchez,” both of which depend on the Cain/Abel “Am I my brother’s keeper motif?” Other dualities include: Lennie and George in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” Tommy and Tamkin in Bellow’s “Seize the Day; Nick and Gatsby in “The Great Gatsby”; the captain and his double Legatt in “The Secret Sharer”; Neil and Brenda in Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus,”

Triangular relationships are also common. In “Benito Cereno,” it is Delano, Babo, and Benito. In “The Fox,” it is March, Banford, and Henry. In “Ballad of the Sad Café,” it is Macey, Lyman, and Amelia. In Turgenev’s “First Love,” it is the son, the girl, the father. In Gide’s “Pastoral Symphony,” it is the pastor, the wife, and the girl. In “Billy Budd,” it is Vere, Billy, and Claggart. In “The Dead,” it is Gabriel, Gretta, and Furey.

Setting: The setting is usually a microcosmic, closed world, somehow cut off from the everyday world of normal reality. Or else no physical setting is actualized at all. For example in “Notes from Underground,” the first part simply asserts it is from a mouse hole, but no physical description from which the underground man speaks is given. In “Metamorphosis,” the only outside world there is a bleak view of a hospital and the lighted drawing room of the family to which Gregor is drawn o three significant excursions from his room.

A social or historical setting seldom plays a direct role in the novella. The physical setting of “The Shadow Line,” “Typhoon,” “Benito Cereno,” “The Secret Sharer,” “Billy Budd,” and “The Old Man and the Sea” is of course that shifting amorphous source of the primitive, the sea itself. Physical, social, and historical settings play little role in “The Pupil,” “Beast in the Jungle,” “Pastoral Symphony,” “Abel Sanchez,” “Death of Ivan Ilych.” Actual place settings play symbolic roles in “Heart of Darkness,” "Mario and the Magician,” “Love Among the Cannibals, and “Ballad of the Sad Café.” This is also true of the hotel in “Seize the Day,” Wall Street in “Bartleby,” Venice in “Death in Venice,” the party and the hotel room in “The Dead,” the prison camp in “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” East Egg, West Egg, and the Valley of Ashes in “The Great Gatsby.”

Tentative Conclusion: Based on my reading of hundreds of novels and novellas and thousands of short stories, I believe that the novella is closer to the short story both in theme and technique than it is to the novel. So, for me the question is not what makes the novella shorter than the novel, but what makes the novella longer than the short story. The central issue is what kind of “complexity” is involved in all three forms. To run the risk of oversimplification, I would hazard the following distinctions. The complexity of the novel is social, historical, and cultural. The complexity of the short story is psychological, mythical, and lyric. The complexity of the novella is psychological, mythical, and philosophical.