Book Talk: Praise for the novella

It’s too long for a short story and too short for a novel, but the novella is gaining in popularity

Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, now translated into English prose, is a mini-masterpiece in its own right, demonstrating the power of the novella. (Vintage Publishing book cover)

Peter Critchley

For The Morning Star

It’s too long for a short story and too short for a novel. But the novella, long regarded in the literary world as a form that does not quite make the grade, is gaining in popularity. It is ironically even now being touted as a renegade art form in North America, despite long being one of the most popular literary forms in Russia.

The Beach of Falesa (1892) by Robert Louis Stevenson is a classic novella that succeeds on more than one level. It is an adventure romance fused with realism that depicts a man’s struggle to maintain his decency in the face of uncivilized hostility. It is also a scathing critique of colonialism and economic imperialism that courageously attacks many of the 19th century’s strongest taboos, including economic exploitation and miscegenation.

John Wiltshire, the story’s narrator and protagonist, is a white trader on the island of Falsa in the South Seas. Case, a fellow trader, convinces him to marry the islander Uma. But when Wiltshire does so, the couple is ostracized. Over the course of the narrative, Wiltshire learns that Case has subdued the islanders by manipulating their supernatural fears. And when Wiltshire exposes Case as a fraud, he kills him in self-defence.

The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886) by Leo Tolstoy is a mini-masterpiece and one of the most moving novellas ever written. A vibrant new translation, by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear, tells the tale of a judge who gradually begins to understand that his illness is fatal.

The tale is inspired by Tolstoy’s observation at his local train station of hundreds of shackled prisoners being sent to Siberia, many for petty crimes. He began to write the story when he learned the sentencing judge had died. The death of this man roused him to consider the judge’s final thoughts during his final days and the result is both chilling and beguiling.

The Baron in the Trees (1959) by Italo Calvino is a simply marvelous and somewhat bizarre novella about Cosimo, the eldest son of a noble family who, in a momentary pique of rebellion, vows to live his life in the trees — and does exactly that. And he discovers that life in the trees is not limiting at all. Branch ways connect him with orchards, villa gardens and dense forests and his domestic arrangements are comparable to the Swiss Family Robinson and Tarzan.

The unique perspective of the world he enjoys, and a series of remarkable adventures, including fighting with wolves and seducing women into the treetops, transforms his intellect and appreciation of nature and he eventually grows into a kind of hero.

Tales of Belkin (1830) by Aleksandr Pushkin contains the first prose the Russian author ever published. It begins with an introduction about five linked stories ostensibly collected by the scholar Ivan Belkin. The stories focus on military figures, the wealthy, and businessmen and beautifully paints a vivid portrait of nineteenth century Russian life.

It is one of the most beloved books in Russian literary history and symbolizes the popularity of the novella form in Russia. It is also the namesake for that country’s most prestigious annual literary prize, the Belkin Prize, awarded each year to the best novella as voted by a panel of judges.

These titles, and other novellas, are available through your Okanagan Regional Library www.orl.bc.ca.

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