Art of the Novella Challenge: Part 1

I started the Art of the Novella challenge this past Monday, and this will be my first update. I must say though that I’m greatly enjoying the commentary over at NonSuch Book. I’m finding everything I’ve chosen so far to be incredibly challenging, because they’re written by the greats. I should also say that I’ve already read a few of the novellas in high school and college, and I’m only going to go back to them once I’ve read the things I haven’t yet read. Those include Herman Melville‘s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Leo Tolstoy‘s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Rudyard Kipling‘s “The Man Who Would Be King,” Kate Chopin‘s “The Awakening,” and Virginia Woolf‘s “Jacob’s Room.”

1. “The Dead” by James Joyce — This was my first selection for the challenge because I’ve never read anything by Joyce. I thought the writing was incredible, but I wasn’t drawn in by the story of a young man at a dinner party. As a matter of fact, I didn’t find anything to connect to until the very last section where Gabriel starts thinking about all the ghosts that surround the living without our knowing it. I was grateful that the prose was relatively straightforward, not as experimental as I’d heard Joyce was and seen from various excerpts of “Ulysses.”

2. “My Life” by Anton Chekhov — I’d read other short stories of Chekhov’s in class, so I was prepared for his style. I found this story of a young man who gives up a life of comfort to live with the working class to be exhausting though. It could be that I don’t have enough enlightenment about the political and social history of Russia, and I can see how a story like this would cause a fuss when it was written, but his story didn’t interest me. I would’ve almost rather read a story from the point of view of the main character’s wife who follows her husband in his idealism and then easily becomes disillusioned with the life he’s chosen. I actually just read a current memoir by Melissa Coleman called “This Life Is in Your Hands” that deals with these same themes of returning to the land and the subsequent loss of idealism. It’s a universal struggle and one that we haven’t solved yet clearly.

3. “The Touchstone” by Edith Wharton — This was by far my favorite of the week. I’ve actually never read anything by Wharton, which is odd since I majored in English with a specialty in 19th-century British literature. This story was published in 1900 —  she’s a little on the bubble of what I studied — but I loved every minute of the young man grasping for redemption after he betrays his unrequited dead love. It’s amazing to me how some stories can pass right over my head, while others, even though written over a hundred years ago, feel like they were written for me today. I also loved how Wharton’s style took in elements of Victorian literature while predicting the severe uptick in psychological analysis of a character that would come in 20th century writing. Really beautiful stuff.

4. “The Girl with Golden Eyes” by Honore de Balzac — I’ve also read Balzac because my other major was French, and I must say that he is probably my least favorite French author of the 19th century. In this story about a depraved man who falls in love with a mysterious woman who cannot see him, Balzac doesn’t even get to the story until about halfway in. He spends almost the first half ranting against Parisian society; in here, he’s not quite the sociologist he claims to be in his novel. Once the story got going, however, I enjoyed the suspense and eroticism Balzac injects into the tale. It’s quite risque for this time period which made me like it. I can see though why it has never been published as a stand-alone book; it lacks the necessary forward propulsion of Balzac’s stories, instead choosing to dwell and meander and stick in certain parts.

All Images courtesy of mhpbooks.com

5. “The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl” by Italo Svevo — Svevo is the only author I’d never heard of of the novellas I’ve read so far. I found this one to be difficult to read, as it is not really a story, but a psychological study of an elderly man’s obsession with youth and life. The psychological vacillations were fascinating, but exhausting, and I can’t say I really took anything out of the story for myself.

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