Lee Klein’s Top Novellas

I’m not really sure about ranking these books (the numbers just indicate that there are ten slots) or about referring to them all as “novellas,” either. The term could be debated forever, but here’s a list of nine “novellas,” plus a tenth slot filled with a few that could have made this list for me but really deserve mention lumped in with a few others:

10. I guess I could start with all those famous novellas I’ve read but can hardly remember that haven’t had a huge impact on me: Death in Venice (Mann), Notes from Underground (Fyodor D.), The Death of Ivan Illyich (Leo T.), The Bear (Faulkner), The Dead (Joyce–is it just a story?). And then some longer stories like The Metamorphosis (Kafka) or Good Old Neon (DFW) that have been influential etc but maybe don’t quite make this list except if bunched in with everything else in the #10 slot.

9. Seize the Day, by Saul Bellow
(Also, see Dangling Man, his first book, especially its last line.) Clear description of a human being involved in the world. I remember reading most of this at a booth at George’s in Iowa City. The perfect book to accompany you for a few beers and a cheap microwaved cheeseburger on a rainy afternoon.

8. Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson
It’s officially a story collection, but what is a novel but a collection of stories. These are consistent in character and (mostly) setting, so let’s call it a novella. A good one to read when you’ve got a knife jammed in your eye socket or a coat filled with bunnies.

7. The Beauty of the Husband, by Anne Carson
This is subtitled “a fictional tango in 29 tangos,” but it reads like a novella, it’s short, and its pages have more white space than text, so let’s call it a novella. A good one to read alone on Valentine’s Day, even if it’s not Valentine’s Day.

6. Letter to His Father, by Franz Kafka
This is an actual letter Kafka wrote to his pop, but it’s really no different from The Hunger Artist or most of the other stories, so let’s call it a novella. A key to understanding his stuff. Read this one when sitting poolside with enormous, domineering, male relatives nearby discussing how puny and worthless you are.

5. Of Walking in Ice, by Werner Herzog
This is a novella in that it’s a descriptive travelogue filled with flights of fancy and dreams etc the great director wrote as he walked from Munich to Paris over three weeks in 1974 to “save the life” of Lotte Eisner, a mentor/filmmaker, who was dying in bed. The best Herzog movie ever unmade. And therefore a damn good novella. Read this one while walking.

4. Too Loud a Solitude, by Bohumil Hrabal
Weighing in at 98 pages, this undebatably “novella-y” novella stars a loveable intellectual loser who sleeps beneath a top bunk loaded down with tons of books that are always about to crush him as he sleeps. In contrast, this book is like an unexpectedly heavy giant moth.

3. The Invention of Solitude, by Paul Auster
More solitude it seems . . . This one is about the death of Auster’s father. This is categorized as “autobiography” but it’s clear so far that I don’t really care for categorization other than “shortish book.”

2. Wittgenstein’s Nephew, by Thomas Bernhard
A eulogy in the form of one 100-page paragraph. The key to all of Bernhard’s stuff is on page 99.

1. Accountant, by Ethan Canin
This is the first novella in his collection of four novellas, The Palace Thief. I have a soft spot for baseball, and any story starring Willie Mays’ stirrup is going to rank pretty high with me. The most readable and conventional of this list, this novella weighs in at 53 pages . . . I remember starting this book one night and waking up the next day and not getting out of bed till I’d read the rest of it.

Lee Klein curates a ten-year-old, internationally accessible literary website known for rangy, discursive, high-blown smut. His writing has appeared in The Best American Non-Required Reading 2007, Agni Online, The Black Warrior Review, Canteen, No Colony, Barrelhouse, Hobart, Pindeldyboz, Pequin, The Barcelona Review, Konundrum Engine, Duck & Herring, Gut Cult, and others, including Eyeshot (often attributed to pseudonyms).

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