Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Just Great Novellas, In Any Language

The other day on Twitter, I saw a tweet with a link to a certain book-related site, where a contributor was promising to tell us what the top ten novellas of all time were.  I'm a fan of the not-so-long, not-so-short form of fiction (as long as I don't have to pay full price for it!), so I clicked through to have a look, and (as usual) wished I hadn't bothered.  Would you believe that of the top ten novellas ever, nine were originally written in English, five by Americans?  No, me neither ;)

So, instead of swearing and sulking - I've done that already -, I thought that I'd come up with a slightly wider, non-Anglophone selection (links go to my reviews).  I make absolutely no claim to their being the best of all time - these are just ten great novellas...

Gabriel García Márquez - Chronicle of a Death Foretold
A wonderful story where we know from the start exactly what will happen - the writer spends the rest of the book telling us how and why.  A man is going to die in a small village even though nobody, even the killer himself, really wants him to.  This would be an excellent first step into the Colombian master's magical fictional world for any reader curious about his work.

Albert Camus - L'étranger (The Stranger/The Outsider)
One of the few foreign books which don't really need the translated title.  Even people who have never read Camus will have heard of his bleak tale of a man who finds himself on a hot beach in North Africa facing a man with a knife.  An absolute classic of world literature.

Yasunari Kawabata - Snow Country
From the heat of Africa, we turn to the snowy mountains of winter Japan, as a Tokyo businessman takes a trip to a mountain resort to visit an attractive entertainer.  It's very much style over substance, with much of the action hidden beneath the surface - like much Japanese fiction, it's what is not said that is important...

Eça De Queiroz - Alves & Co.
While north-European classics of infidelity like Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and Effi Briest are fated to end in disaster, these matters are not taken quite as seriously on the Iberian Peninsula if you believe Eça de Queiroz.  This classic Portuguese novella shows us that it's best to take your time when you suspect that your partner has been less than faithful.

Theodor Storm - Der Schimmelreiter (The Rider on the White Horse)
19th-century German writer Theodor Storm is well known for his short stories and novellas, and this is his masterpiece.  A frame-narrative story set on his home turf on the coast of the North Sea, Der Schimmelreiter combines bleak landscapes, impending tragedy and supernatural elements to create a memorable story about a headstrong man who tries to control both his fellow villagers and the tides.

Juan Pablo Villalobos - Down the Rabbit Hole
Once upon a time, there was a little boy who lived in a big, big house, somewhere far, far away.  Lots of fascinating people lived there, and the boy used his imagination to entertain himself when he was unable to go out.  Oh, did I mention that he is the son of a Mexican drug dealer?  And that he wants a pygmy hippopotamus?  Exactly as mad as it sounds (and a good deal darker...). 

Heðin Brú - The Old Man and his Sons
Next it's off to the Faroe Islands, where an old man tries his best to look after his half-wit son and pay off a debt he has incurred for whale meat.  A beautifully-written story of life on the edges of civilisation in a time of change, showing us that young and old both have a lot to learn from each other. 

Ivan Turgenev - First Love
I could have chosen any number of classic Russian novellas, but Turgenev is generally acknowledged as an expert in the form.  First Love is one of his most famous works, and it looks back at an early love in the life of its narrator.  While this may not be the most original premise for a novella, the writing ensures that the story is a memorable one. 

Andrzej Stasiuk - Dukla
Less a novella than an outpouring of emotions and sensations onto a cool, white page, Dukla is a description of several visits a writer pays to a country town in eastern Europe.  This is another novella where the plot takes a back seat to the prose, although the writing is at times more poetical than prosaic.  A paean to light in remembrance of past times :) 

Sjón - The Blue Fox
Another fable from the frozen north, a story with a hint of magic mixed in with the smell of blood, coffee and other less fragrant substances.  An arrogant priest hunts the rare blue fox across the Icelandic countryside, unaware that he is pursuing no ordinary animal.  This was the first of Sjón's books to appear in English, and it's a real treat.

So there you have it: ten great novellas, books I'd recommend to anyone.  I make no claims to their being the best ever, but I certainly enjoyed them :)

A short advisory note to finish this piece - I am well aware that my selections are just as arbitrary as the original post that sparked my decisions.  There are hundreds of books out there that could have been chosen, and there are areas of the world that aren't represented here (Africa is a big omission).  Of course, there is one other point that some readers might take issue with.  Both my ten and the original list fail to mention even one novella written by a woman...

Over to you!  What are your favourite non-Anglophone novellas?  I'd love to hear what you've enjoyed reading :)