In Praise of Brevity

I’ve just added a new reading list of novellas. They’re undoubtedly the unsung heroes of fiction, cursed by numerical fence-sitting, neither a short story or a big fat novel. In a bookshop your eye glances over them to the inch-thick tomes on either side, and if you do summon the energy to prize them out of their squeezed position on the shelf, you often balk at spending eight quid on two hundred pages when the same outlay could get you a thousand pages of words all carefully chosen and arranged by the same author. It doesn’t seem to represent value for money.

As pointed out over at this great site, there is a modern tendency towards bulk – films are getting longer (too long, in my opinion), and books and people fatter. Sometimes it is wonderful to wallow in a long, slow evolution of characters and plot, to get to know the people inside out, to track them across a great historical sweep. As you may have noticed I certainly enjoyed this with Banffy’s The Writing on the Wall trilogy.

But, for all that, novellas have something that doorstops always lack – a sort of sparkle. The sparse beauty of things left unsaid. They are glimpses through a lamplit window at night into an unknown world – rather than invitations to trample through the entire house. They tantalise, but yet they are often ultimately as satisfying as long books.

Some novels come across as being novellas that have been stretched and padded out – that would have been better for having left unsaid what they spell out to the reader. In novellas those spaces in between – the unknowns – are the spaces left for the imagination.

My list contains Chekhov’s My Life. This may seem an odd choice to some who would choose another Chekhov, but this has personal associations for me, as I read it during the course of a very fun near-death experience on the island of Mljet in Croatia, the story of which I will relate some other time.


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