I’ve listed these alphabetically rather than any particular order, largely because I found, once I started getting down to the hard task of ranking my ten favorites, I just couldn’t quite decide. They’re all good—as are the few dozen I winnowed out to get to this list of ten (or rather this one goes to eleven, since I couldn’t quite trim it to ten)—and different ones seem better at particular moments and for particular moods….
Concrete, by Thomas Bernhard
This story about Rudolph, a middle-aged failed musicologist, his relation to his sister, and his obsession with a German widow he met in Palma, is the best of Bernhard’s novellas (with the possible exception of Watten, which I’m not recommending here since I wrote the introduction to the Bernhard book containing it). It’s obsessive, funny, and maddening; Bernhard’s voice gets lodged in your head and stays there for days.
By Night in Chile, by Roberto Bolaño
I hesitated between this sober nearly non-paragraphed novella, which is a confessional rant by a priest on his deathbed about Chilean politics, and his other, also brilliant novella, Distant Star. All of Bolaño’s books have been eclipsed by 2666 (which I think is one of the great books of our time), but this one still is very much worth the read.
Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, by Barbara Comyns
Comyns is better known for her The Vet’s Daughter, but this novella should be read for its title alone. It’s a pastoral tale except for the fact that it injects a flood and ergot poisoning into its bucolic setting. It strikes me as the best and most original of Comyns books (all of which are worth the time).
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
Conrad is an amazing writer—dense but incredibly precise—and here he’s beautifully obsessive as well.
The Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine, by Stanley Crawford
Dalkey Archive reissued this 1972 novella last year. It’s a wonderfully strange novella which reconfigures the world as a boat and which, despite its strangeness, still manages to say some very piercing things about relationships and marriage.
Great Work of Time, by John Crowley
It took me years to discover Crowley, since he exists in that space between literature and genre that I should have realized much sooner was where many interesting things were happening. A beautifully written and complex story about time, wonderfully done. Crowley’s prose is luminous and, at moments, almost revelatory.
The Pedersen Kid, by William H. Gass
This story strikes what for me seems an ideal balance between the innovative and the plot-driven. It’s haunting and mysterious, and beautifully done.
Ray, by Barry Hannah
Hannah is one of the greatest of contemporary American stylists. Ray is more stripped down than much of his work (due to his editor), but has all of Hannah’s strengths and a lightning-quick pace, leaping from section to section.
63: Dream Palace, by James Purdy
I’ve been re-reading Purdy, who died just a few weeks ago and who has long been one of my favorite underrated writers. 63: Dream Palace, the story of two hapless brothers who come to the big city and are done in by it, is one of my favorite books; it’s the kind of book that sneaks up on you. Nobody does brothers like Purdy does.
Nevermore, by Marie Redonnet
All of Redonnet’s novellas are great, but this one, about detective Willy Bost and his transfer to a border town, is a weird take on the detective genre and is my personal favorite. Jordan Stump’s translation is excellent.
Equal Danger, by Leonardo Sciascia
Sciascia writes mysteries that have a strange philosophical, metaphysical force to them and which are, in the end, unsolvable. This is one of the best. He takes advantage of the meditational qualities of the novella like nobody else.
Brian Evenson is the author of seven books of fiction, most recently The Open Curtain which was a finalist for an Edgar Award and an IHG Award and was among Time Out New York’s top books of 2006. He lives and works in Providence, RI, where he directs Brown University’s Literary Arts Program. Among many other honors, he’s won an O. Henry Prize as well as an NEA fellowship. A novel, Last Days, and a new collection of stories, Fugue State, are forthcoming in 2009. Find him HERE.