#NovNov – some classic novellas from my archives

The final week of Novellas in November (hosted by Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746 Books) turns its attention to classics (incl modern classics – pre 1980) and once more I’ve scoured my archives to find a selection to highlight from a few years ago for you. As in previous weeks, I’ve managed to combine with other tags and hence three of these classics are German as it is also German Lit Month, hosted by LIzzy and Caroline.

Three German novellas

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

Siddhartha was published in 1922, and this Penguin 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.

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, 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.  

The Jew’s Beech by Annette Von Droste-Hülshoff

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff was born into Westphalian aristocracy and given an excellent education. This 1842 novella was her only work of fiction and the central story is based on a real murder. It’s often been viewed as a prototype of the crime thriller and also has Gothic elements – you could say ‘Grimm’.

Although just a 100 pages long, it’s a busy story, following the life of Friedrich Mergel from birth to death. Friedrich lives in a village in the middle of a heavily forested area of Germany and the first half of the story concentrates on village life, including all the gossip and tittle-tattle that thrives therein, under the eye of the local barony.  It’s a hard life for these peasants and their living relies on forestry.  It’s not until a band of tree-poachers starts chopping into their livelihood that things take on a more sinister turn, when one of the village foresters is found in the wood with an axe through his skull. Did the ‘blue-cloaks’ as the poachers are called do it? No-one is sure. Cut to later on, and a wedding. Friedrich, who’s grown up to be a bit of a dandy for a forester makes a bit of a fool of himself, especially in front of Aaron, the Jew, who demands to be paid for the silver watch bought on tick that Friedrich is showing off. Aaron will later be found murdered in the forest, near a big beech tree, and suspicion falls on Friedrich, who promptly runs away, shadowed by Johannes…

Many of the big problems of the age, seen under the lens of village life are observed – poverty, poor Johannes steals a pound of butter at the wedding feast, and then stands in front of the fire; also bigotry and anti-Semitism. But there are also nods towards Gothic fantasy – the blue-cloaks seem to spirit themselves into and out of the woods, leaving no tracks; the dark forests themselves are foreboding and the stuff of fairy tales. The villagers are quite superstitious, and there is (to us) a bizarre episode where someone went to dig up a horse’s head that had been buried years before as a talisman against sorcery. An oddity that provoked a great discussion at our book group.

The Nutcracker & The Strange Child by ETA Hoffmann

If you’re only familiar with the ballet – it’s based upon a dumbed-down version written for children by Alexandre Dumas (père). Hoffmann’s original is much darker and interesting!

It is a family Christmas, and Fritz and Marie (Clara in the ballet) are enjoying the presents brought by their Godfather Drosselmeier who makes automata and clockwork toys. Tiring of the toys, Drosselmeier produces a nutcracker in the shape of a man who cracks nuts with his teeth. It is not a pretty toy, but Marie is drawn to it – Fritz grabs it and breaks it, and Marie nurses the toy.  Fritz had been taunting Marie earlier about mice in the skirting boards, and when she falls asleep the toys come to life and the toy soldiers fight the Mouse King who has seven heads. Her Godfather Drosselmeier appears as an evil owl on the mice’s side. Overwhelmed, the Nutcracker seems doomed so Marie throws her shoe at the Mouse King thus saving him. She awakes to find it all a dream – or was it?  Godfather Drosselmeier tells the children the story of Princess Pirlipat and the hardest nut to crack, which explains why nutcrackers are ugly. Marie loves the Nutcracker doll, and at night when the Mouse King returns, together they defeat him and the Nutcracker is revealed to be an enchanted Prince. He takes Marie to the Kingdom of Toys where all the lands are named after candies and they are betrothed in due course.

Hoffmann had an interest about mechanical toys and automata. Toys coming to life have long been the stuff of nightmares, especially in horror films. I liked that the toys in The Nutcracker’s case were on the side of good as in Toy Story, and the evil monsters came from the ‘real’ world. It makes for perfect Christmas reading.

Three very British novellas

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Set mainly between VE and VJ days in 1945 at the end of WWII, TGoSM follows the lives and loves of a group of young women who live in a hostel in Kensington. The story flits back and forth to before and after something big happens.

Jane is a publisher’s assistant who puts great store by her ‘brain-work’, not being as thin or attractive as the others. Joanna is a rector’s daughter, who has moved to London to avoid her propensity for falling for curates. Selina, is beautiful and, well, slender; qualities which give her many ardent admirers, whom she happily strings along and sleeps with, with ne’er a thought about morals going through her pretty head. And there’s Dorothy, who could emit, at any hour of the day or night, a waterfall of débutante chatter, which rightly gave the impression that on any occasion between talking, eating and sleeping, she did not think. The Club is very lively. There are boyfriends, suitors and colleagues, but only one is important to the story. Nicholas Farringdon, a self-styled anarchist intellectual and poet, is trying to get published. Jane is working on him, and brings him to the Club where he falls for Selina. The above is all told as flash-back. At the beginning of the book, Jane, who is now a journalist, is ringing round to tell everyone that Nicholas is dead, murdered in Haiti. No-one understands quite what he was doing there, as they all remember him rather differently from before ‘it’ happened. This foreshadowing brings a very dark edge to this comedy about frivolous young women trying to escape the privations enforced on them by the war.

Although full of descriptive passages and dialogue, Spark is sparing in what she tells us, meting out the story in small sections, flashing back between Jane’s later conversations. I didn’t really warm to any of the characters other than Jane who does have some gumption; Spark satirises all the silly girls perfectly. Having stayed in a YWCA hostel myself when I started my first job, I could understand the goings-on in the club perfectly, (’twas ever thus!). I enjoyed but couldn’t quite love this book with its sombre undertones.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

This quietly brilliantly novella is a little gem. Published in 1978, it tells of a time, not so long ago that was pre-Waterstones, books were mainly sold in WH Smiths, small localised chains of bookstores or independents. So, when Florence Green decides to open a bookshop in a small East Anglian town on the coast, there is every possibility that it could be a success. She buys a property, old, damp and with a resident poltergeist (so they say) and sets about transforming it into her little shop. Many of the locals are delighted, and she recruits a ten-year-old afterschool assistant, starts a library subscription club, sells shedloads of copies of the controversial Lolita, which she stocks on the advice of the only real friend she makes, old Mr Brundish, who urges her to trust her own judgement. Although you support Florence from the start, I wondered why she had chosen a bookshop for her emporium, as for her, books are primarily a commodity. However, she will soon have other battles to fight for it turns out that the local landowner Violet Gamart had had her eye on the Old House for an Arts Centre – and she is used to getting what she wants.

This short novel is a superb character study, all the local inhabitants we encounter are clearly drawn, their personalities incisively dissected – apart from the more worldly Milo, an author between works, who is harder to read…  Being the second Fitzgerald novel I’ve read I expected the wry humour, but there is a despondency that emerges as Florence’s clashes with Violet play out, presaging things to come in the book trade. There is one really sad moment too – you’ll know what I mean if you’ve read the book.

Pastors and Masters by Ivy Compton-Burnett

Published in 1925 at the age of 41, Pastors and Masters is set in a minor prep school of which Nicholas Herrick is the nominal headmaster. However apart from taking prayers in the morning he leaves everything to Mr Merry (who, gasp! is not a qualified teacher), plus Mrs Merry, Mr Burgess (who, phew! is qualified), and Matron Miss Basden. Herrick and his younger sister Emily, prefer more intellectual pursuits such as engaging his friends in debate, and bragging about the book he is writing – will it ever get finished and be published? This is the basis of the plot, on which I’ll expound no further to save the twist in tail for you.

ICB’s style takes a bit of getting used to. There’s little descriptive prose, it’s mostly dialogue and that is really clipped, and the characters never shut up! They’re constantly talking at each other, in engagements of verbal sparring, scoring points off each other. This was a group stuck in an old Victorian way of doing things, full of fake gentility. It was impossible to find a single likeable character who actually had anything interesting to say or did anything of merit whatsoever – something I suspect was a deliberate ploy of ICB. An interesting introduction to ICB’s work, but just as I really got into it, it was over. 

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