Ten of my favorite novellas, in no particular order. I know that most of them are not contemporary, and I guess I don’t have anything to say about that. Also, I got creative with what I called a novella. Short novel, novella, is there really much difference besides a label?
Notes from Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
“I am a sick man . . . a wicked man” is right there with unmistakable first lines like “Call me Ishmael” and “When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.” There are certain books whose attitude/ venom/ rebellion makes them particularly relevant for adolescent readers. For most young people that book seems to be The Catcher in the Rye. For me, it was Notes. I read it when I was about nineteen or twenty, and it broke something open for me. I was reading a lot of philosophy as well as fiction, and I had been wanting to find books that combined the two (I read The Stranger a couple years later), and Dostoevsky’s short but potent outburst touched that tangle of raw nerves I had laying exposed. It still amazes me that a 40 year old Dostoevsky could write a 20 year old person’s book. I read the Oxford World’s Classics edition the first time, which I think was translated by Jane Kentish, and it certainly got the job done. I read Notes again when the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation was published, and the book itself didn’t have the same electric touch for me. After I read it, I tried to write Notes again every time I wrote a story, and, of course, the results were awful. I know I’ll read it again; but even if it has lost its first power for me, I will always admire this book and wish I had written it.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy
A seminal text on the hypocrisy with which society attempts to deal with the reality of death. Naturally, my interest in Dostoevsky led me to Tolstoy, who, according to Nabokov, was far superior in artistic value. For me, the two were simply different. On the first read, Ilyich’s climb up the social ladder (to a comfortably median rung) and his obsession with remodeling his office might seem like fluff or filler instead of just getting on with where the title assures us things are headed. But after reading and thinking about the story and its implications, that seemingly fastidious opening takes on so much heavier meaning, where each detail does indeed mean everything: that Ilych is spending what little time he has on making sure he gets the exact shade of paint he wants, rather than spending it with his family. It’s a story about how loving things more than life itself will in the end cost that very life. Ilych falls while working on his room and injures himself, which he ignores and allows to fester into his death. Tolstoy is indeed a master chronicler of the effects of time, money, power, and death in human nature, mostly because of his first hand knowledge.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
(Yes, I had a Russian fetish in my early twenties.) A classic semi-fiction of life and death in Stalin’s labor camps for anyone who did not agree with his agenda and policies. I read this when I was eighteen or nineteen. Aside from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, no other book has made me so grateful for a simple piece of bread. I remember scenes when the prisoners had to fight over trowels and lay cement blocks in the bitter Russian winter. Obviously, I could never empathize with Denisovich, but I was working as a laborer for brick masons at the time, so I imagined the most grueling work day when every muscle cramped, when the hunger pulled from somewhere beyond the gut, and when the fatigue smothered all hope, and figured that life in the gulag was at least a thousand times worse. It made me sad knowing that human beings do these things to each other.
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
I avoided reading this for a long time, but when I finally just did it, I wished I had read it a long time ago. Yes, it’s definitely an exploration of the old “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” adage. Conrad’s steady journey into the jungle is also an indictment of the colonialization/enslavement of the Congo. If you haven’t slept in three days for whatever reason, I highly recommend a viewing the film adaptation of HoD, Apocalypse Now. I watched it in the middle of my third sleepless night with a raging sinus infection, and it was brilliant.
The Bear, by William Faulkner
A boy becoming-man listens to the old men tell tales of a legendary earth-old bear that terrorizes hunters and hunting camp, and then, yes, goes out hunting. I read this while sitting in the woods hunting, meaning I sat in the woods, leaned my rifle against my blind, and read books from dark to dark. I like any Faulkner any time, but this was an obvious if cheesy choice to take out into the woods. Every time I think of The Bear, I see the scene where the boy is following the bear tracks in the deep woods and eventually the massive paw prints are still filling with water.
Story of the Eye, by Georges Bataille
This is staple Bataille: fiction, philosophy, pornography. The narrator and his girlfriend go around seeking new and perverse sexual experiences. Drowning in excess, punishing the limits? Yes. Gratuitous? Yes. This is staple Bataille exploring through performance his theories about sex, death, and excess.
The Atrocity Exhibition, by J.G. Ballard
I don’t hear much about this one, but it is almost paradigmatic fiction prophesying the coming postmodern sensibility: schizophrenic blending/indiscernibility of the inner and outer worlds, deterritorialization of the image, the body, the mind, identity, etc; the fracture and disability of time as an orienting/explanatory concept in narrating experience; the unreliability of the senses to perceive and interpret “truth,” especially with the billboards showing vaguely familiar landscapes that are actually super close shots of body parts. Ballard gets twinned with Delillo in my mind, with their worldviews colored by a sooty apocalyptic lens, finding within capitalist social structure and technology the seeds and capability of its own destruction. TAE was the first fiction I had ever seen that was not structured in the way of traditional realist narrative, and another realm opened up for me in terms of how and what kind of stories/fictions could be expressed. The now classic blasted out landscapes are still haunting. I think a large part of what makes Ballard’s strange cold worlds so powerful and affecting is his uncanny knowledge of the dark corridors of the human psyche.
Child of God, by Cormac McCarthy
I’m not positive that this is a novella, but it’s short in any case. This was the first McCarthy for me, and definitely not the last. It’s a short book about Lester Ballard, a dispossessed man terrorizing the countryside after his house is auctioned out from under him. As indicated by the title, this is a story that begs the question, How far can someone go before they are no longer human, a ‘child of god’? Dark, disturbing, sharply written, this is an excellent introduction to McCarthy, along with The Road.
The Supermale, by Alfred Jarry
It’s difficult to fathom that this was published in 1902, about a “gentleman adventurer” who has sex with a woman 82 times before he is hooked up to a machine. Jarry manages satire on so many levels: mocking Nietzsche’s Superman (obviously taking the term quite literally), cold scientists who abuse people, animals, and science with irresponsible experiments just to see what will happen, and the male chauvinist with all of the seduce and conquer games. This book also explores Jarry’s theory of Pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions, which is very relevant to our time.
Waste, by Eugene Marten
This reminded me of McCarthy’s Child of God, except the main character lives the invisible life of a night janitor in a multi-story office building, wherein he can also go mostly unnoticed. The book is dark, lonely, funny, sad, detached, and disturbing. Marten creates a character that is both sympathetic and repulsive. Out of touch with any real human interaction, he finds the body of a young lady he had thought about asking out on a date, and has to decide whether he will call the authorities or take the situation into his own hands.
Josh Maday’s writing has been published or is forthcoming in Phoebe, Lamination Colony, Action Yes, Barrelhouse, Opium, Thieves Jargon, NANO Fiction, and elsewhere. His work has been nominated for Best Creative Nonfiction. He reviews books and literary magazines for NewPages. Find him HERE.