Little books that pack a punch
By JANET TAY
This month’s literary focus looks back at some classic novellas that have had a huge impact on literature
WHEN IAN McEWAN’S NOVELLA, On Chesil Beach, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007, there was some controversy about whether it was too short to qualify for the prestigious international British book award. But then, even the definition of the novella itself is often subject to speculation.
However, when immersed in a book, I often do not notice its length, just as one might not notice the length of a pleasurable journey on a train. One of my favourite books, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, always feels like it ends too soon even though it’s a hefty size.
There have been many novella-length books in the 20th century that have made their mark in the history of literature. The four contemporary classics introduced and celebrated here are only a few of many more that ought not to be overlooked or forgotten.
I hope that revisiting these books will remind readers who have read and enjoyed them of their enduring appeal, as well as introduce new readers to books that have changed lives and how we perceive the world.
Below, in chronological order of publication, are short descriptions of four great novellas.
The Metamorphosis and Other Stories (1915) by Franz Kafka
Who can forget the story of a man who turns into a cockroach (or an insect, depending on the translation) one fine morning? The famous first line, “When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed”, marks the beginning of an intriguing and seemingly improbable story of a young man stuck in a job he hates, only to find his situation has worsened after his transformation into a hideous creature.
From being a financial contributor to the household, Samsa suddenly becomes redundant and repellent to his family, and even a burden: “... In spite of his current sorry and loathsome form, Gregor remained a member of the family, and must not be treated like an enemy, but as someone whom—all revulsion to the contrary—family duty compelled one to choke down, and who must be tolerated, simply tolerated.”
The uniqueness of this story is not only in its plot but also Kafka’s ability to humanise a cockroach—of all creatures!—and elicit sympathy for the unfortunate Samsa.
And he does so even without sparing the reader from the various descriptions of Samsa adjusting to his new body—fluids, excretions and injured body parts, repulsive images that disturb and disgust.
Despite the natural revulsion you might feel when confronted by a giant cockroach, you’re just as likely to feel great pity for Samsa, as Kafka presents the true ugliness that lies in human beings and that is demonstrated by the selfishness of Samsa’s family and their neglect of him.
Of Mice and Men (1937) by John Steinbeck
George and his big friend Lennie work odd jobs and dream of owning a “couple of acres” one day when they have saved enough money so that they can “live off the fatta the lan”.
Lennie is mentally limited and child-like, an endearing character. But George has to act as his protector because Lennie can be dangerous in his ignorance of his own strength—he loves to pet soft, furry animals, for instance, but often ends up accidentally killing them.
The child-like man and his behaviour often gets them into trouble, yet, despite George’s gruffness with Lennie, Steinbeck makes it clear that George has a great love for his friend even though the latter is a difficult responsibility.
Steinbeck, the master of description, renders these characters and story unforgettable with his impeccable skill in dialogue and pacing. Its tenderness enfolds the reader, and its ending is all the more painful for that.
The Old Man and the Sea (1952) by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway’s last major work of fiction before his death in 1961 and winner of the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Literature, The Old Man and the Sea depicts Santiago, an old fisherman who has gone for 84 days without catching any fish. Manolin, a boy who has fished with Santiago ever since he was a toddler, takes care of the old man, ensuring that the old man does not go hungry or become sick.
But Santiago’s bad luck has Manolin’s parents refusing to allow the boy to keep going out to sea on Santiago’s boat. But Santiago carries on despite his age and fatigue, braving journeys out to the unpredictable sea, and eventually becoming embroiled in a battle for a marlin that would be the greatest catch of his life. With tenacity, the old man pursues his aim to the very end.
Santiago is Hemingway at his best, and his portrayal would render even the most cynical among us to take a moment to reflect on the nobility of the human spirit in its refusal to yield to weakness and despair.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) by Truman Capote
It is likely that more people may have watched the movie than read the book, but the movie is certainly no substitute for Capote’s words that have created one of the most memorable characters in literature and film.
From his descriptions of something as incidental as furniture—“fat chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train”—to his main character, Holly Golightly—“the ragbag colours of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino-blond and yellow, caught the hall light ... she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks. ...”—Capote demonstrates his richness in analogy and precision in description here.
The dialogue in this novella, especially Golightly’s speeches, stick in the memory once they are read, and Capote’s deft and delicate weaving of Golightly’s character brings her to life. Far beyond actress Audrey Hepburn’s commendable portrayal of the role, Capote’s Holly Golightly is a woman that has more depth, who exudes more charm and an intelligence that evokes poignancy and amusement in a way that only lovingly handpicked words can.
JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, and is now an editor with MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya. Her short story, ‘Callus,’ was highly commended in the 2004 Commonwealth Broadcasting Association Short Story Competition and has also been adapted for the Oxford Bookworms World Stories collection published in 2008. Another story, ‘Transience,’ was published in the August 2007 issue of Off The Edge, a leading Malaysian arts and culture monthly. She writes for The Star and Quill, a Malaysian magazine on books and the reading life.
Reproduced from the Sunday Star of December 28, 2008