This year I’m joining in with Novellas in November, a long-running tag now sort of shepherded by Laura at Reading in Bed. I absolutely love novellas, that extra length over a short story, of say up to 150 pages, gives space for development of plot and characters, but still requires the author to move things along, unless they’re thought-pieces of course. Here are short reviews of my first three novella reads…
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
Translated by Hilda Rosner, Foreword by Paulo Coelho
This novella also qualifies for German Literature month, as hosted by Lizzie and Caroline. My only other experience of Hesse was reading Steppenwolf for book group the other year – a book that I appreciated rather than enjoyed at the time, but one that has stayed with me. I’m glad that we read Steppenwolf rather than Siddhartha for book group – as a group we had previously all bar one really disliked The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, and this novella – with Coelho’s 2008 intro – is so obviously source inspiration to the Brazilian author.
Siddhartha was published in 1922, and this English translation in 1954. The book became extremely popular in the 1960s as an archetype of the ‘finding oneself’ spiritual journey novel. It is narrated by the title character, a clever, young Brahmin, who is dissatisfied with his life. Against his father’s wishes, he sets out on his quest with his friend Govinda. First they join the ascetic holy men, the Samana, who live in the forest, fasting and meditating, trying to subjugate Self.
Siddhartha had one single goal – to become empty, to become empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure and sorrow – to let the Self die. No longer to be Self, to experience the peace of an emptied heart, to experience pure thought – that was his goal. When all the Self was conquered and dead, when all passions and desires were silent, than the last must awaken, the innermost of Being that is no longer Self – the great secret!
An encounter with new guru, the Buddha, makes Siddhartha realise that there is a point to life, he doesn’t entirely agree with the Buddha’s teachings, but Govinda stays with the monks. He enters a town, where he falls for a rich courtesan and becomes a rich man himself – but tragedy strikes, and he rejects this life heading back to the river he had crossed as a younger man where the ferryman recognises him. Siddhartha stays with the ferryman, becoming his successor, and learns to listen through the river (of life). However he still has lessons to learn, when he discovers he has a son.
The text is deceptively simple and wise, (the translation from the 1950s hasn’t dated at all), it was Govinda I warmed to finding Siddhartha’s agonising quite hard to bear. Despite being clever and good at making others happy, he turns inwards. Ultimately his resilience and resolve to discover the meaning of life for himself, rather than through others brings him some peace. While I can’t deny him that, I was frustrated by his selfishness at times, (a very 21st century concern, I know). He did, however, learn to listen and not to judge, and those qualities are something we should all aspire to. (7/10)
Herman Hesse, Siddhartha, 1922 (trans 1954), 120 pages including glossary. BUY at Amazon UK, (affiliate link)
You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames
Oh my! I love my noir dark and dirty; this novella is just as deep and twisted as Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me which has set the bar in that respect for me. I have previously only read Ames through his modern Wodehouse pastiche (see here, sequel now available!) and to discover that he can do noir superbly as well as humour is fab. Not that there’s any humour at all in his debut noir novella, (which was filmed starring Joaquin Phoenix in the main role).
Joe is a former Marine and had worked for the FBI, until he witnessed something that made him crack. He is also the victim of an abusive father which scarred him physically and mentally even before his career did too. Now he works freelance and lives quietly, hiding from the world as much as he can.
Many of the big security outfits and white-shoe law firms used McCleary as a middleman for the blacklist freelancers. This kept things off their books, showing only a payment to McCleary, who was clean. Jobs that called for illegal tactics were then farmed out by McCleary to men like Joe, who were paid in cash , and a very specific kind of job was almost always given only to Joe.
Joe’s speciality is rescuing girls who have been kidnapped to become sex slaves. This time, Joe is hired to rescue the thirteen-year-old daughter of a Senator from Albany. It’s been six months, the cops have done nothing, the senator’s wife has committed suicide, but now a lead has turned up. The girl is at a brothel in Manhattan, kept in the top floor ‘playground’ with a ‘Big Sister’ next door. Little does Joe know what he’s walking into – but despite having suicidal thoughts himself he is a survivor and, tooled up, he is a match for anyone who’d take him on…
Ames packs more into under 100 pages, than most modern thriller writers can do in 400. It’s ultra-violent, not for the faint-hearted, but we’re with Joe all the way. He tries not to kill those who come at him, using all his skills to deliver temporary unconsciousness where he can, but it doesn’t all go his way, The ending is a triumph and I sincerely hope that Ames will deliver more noir this good soon! (10/10)
Jonathan Ames, You Were Never Really Here (2013), Pushkin Vertigo paperback, (extended version) 2018, 97 pages. BUY at Amazon UK, (affiliate link)
Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster
Auster, as regular readers of this blog may know, is one of my favourite authors – I’ve read around half of his output but find myself spacing out those remaining so I have treats in store. I haven’t read one since 4 3 2 1 in April last year, so it was time for this novella.
Travels in the Scriptorium, published in 2006, and is typical of Auster’s novels of the previous decade. It plays metaphysical mind games with the reader who will find themselves trying to solve the puzzle – or not. I worked out the puzzle (due to having seen a similar device elsewhere), but can’t say I worked out what had necessarily happened to the story’s protagonist!
An old man wakes up in a room, he can’t remember what has happened to him, his past is a blur. He is being monitored by camera and microphones and objects in the room are labelled, ‘Wall, Table, Lamp’. A manuscript and a pile of photos sit on a desk – are these clues to his identity? He thinks he recognises a young woman in a photo – a woman he’d loved called Anna? A woman called Anna brings him his food – and pills. She is called Anna…
What’s wrong with me? Mr Blank asks. Am I sick?
No, not at all, Anna says. The pills are part of the treatment.
We can’t be sure whether the man, whom Auster calls ‘Mr Blank’ is in prison, in hospital, or incarcerated in some other way. He has a variety of visitors: a doctor, an ex-policeman, a lawyer, another woman bringing his food. They all tell him things, and encourage him to read the manuscript – which is the story of a Confederation who had been at war with the Primitives, now forced off their lands into the Alien Territories and an agent who must cross the closed border – all very allegorical as you might guess.
This wasn’t my favourite Auster, but it is elegantly written in its brevity – mind you it would be hard to stretch this story to a full-length novel. It can easily be read in one sitting, and on one hard, I’d say it’s one for Auster fans to fill in the gaps, I could also say that due to its shortness it could be a taster read for those unfamiliar with his work. Certainly, if you enjoy this novella, you’d want to read more by him – it’s both typical and atypical of his output though! (7.5/10)
Paul Auster, Travels in the Scriptorium, 2006. Faber paperback, 130 pages. BUY at Amazon UK, (affiliate link)