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Marlon and cat

At the vet’s recently, because Cat the Ripper has had a stroke, his back-end’s gone skew-whiff, he’s old so apparently these things can be expected, I saw on the counter a brochure from an animal-health company.  ‘Is your dog missing out on playtime?’ it asked.  Of course there was an accompanying picture: a white pooch, its head softly resting on the carpet and eyes looking glumly into the distance (impersonating a writer perhaps), an abandoned chew-toy on the other side.  ‘They could be suffering from osteoarthritis,’ was the answer provided.

Being a writer, and a pedant, which is a dangerous combination, I noticed that clunky they.  In my old-fashioned opinion, a singular dog cannot be a they.  So as I waited with Cat the Ripper in his carry-box for us to be called into the consultation room, I silently rearranged the sentence: ‘He or she could be suffering from osteoarthritis.’  Still clunky, plus the sentence should be more precise.  ‘Osteoarthritis could be the cause.’  But we need that suffering word; at least the animal-health company does.  It forces us to relate to and empathise with the four-legged members of the family.  We need to know they might be in pain, or uncomfortable, or just plain unhappy.  Then we can act.

Artists, writers especially, are besotted with the idea of suffering.  They (and I’m using that they to hypocritically distance myself from the others of my ilk, or ink) explore it, try to resolve it; some even wallow in it, creatively, or personally, or both.  Thankfully we (ah now I’m back amongst the fold!) have the ability to analyse and order and communicate.  We use words to make sense of it all; sometimes we can make it all go way.  Think of a novel and its heart will be suffering.  Gillian Mears’ extraordinary but distressing Foal’s Bread (2011) is an example.  So is Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886).  Even amongst the articles of this newspaper, every story, the sports ones too, and the latest weather report, there is that thing: suffering, or the potential for it.

Needless to say, dogs aren’t that interested in this philosophical stuff – they just be – and Cat the Ripper has other things on his mind.  So we have vets to act as our intermediaries, and we have animal-health companies with their questionable grammar.  In the end, everything hinges on language, doesn’t it.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 15 December 2012.)

A certain Ernest Hemingway

There’s this problem child I know.  We all have someone in our lives who could fit this definition – a rebel, a wild one, a lost soul, or all three at once, which would be quite something – but mine is less conventional, in every possible way.  The problem child I know isn’t made of flesh and blood and bone, it doesn’t have a heart (at least not in the usual sense), and for some – for many, it seems – it doesn’t actually exist, or they know it does but wish it wouldn’t.

What on earth am I talking about?  The novella, of course.  That little book of power and pummel, the miniature of in-between.

A quick survey of literary history reveals that the novella has well and truly punched above its weight.  Stories like Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice (1912), George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952) have had an immeasurable impact on Western writing and reading – mini revolutionaries, the bunch of them – and each has firmly found its place in the canon.

But the crunch is this: what is their true identity and purpose?

Jonathan Cape’s hard-cover edition (1972) of The Old Man and the Sea describes it as “shorter than the conventional novel, longer than the longest short story, Hemingway’s new work of fiction eludes classification.”  My 1993 Arrow Classic edition of the same tale contains references to it being a short story, a long short story, and a novel.  In other words, we haven’t a clue what we’ve just published.

The fact is there is a great suspicion about the novella, because it’s next to impossible to categorise.  Down through the ages there have been times when no one wants to even talk about the thing, as if worried that it is going to lead to incarceration, or a long, slow death from The Plague.

But let’s be brave.

The word itself, novella, comes from the Latin, novus, which means new and was originally applied to plants and animals.  In the sixth century, novella meant a newly planted tree, which is rather delightful; I’ll be using it the next time I’m at the nursery.  Yet this doesn’t really get us anywhere.  And definitions that rely solely on word-count – somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 words seems to be the rule of thumb – completely under-estimate the devious ways of the novella.

In his introduction to The Granta Book of the American Long Story (1998), Richard Ford tries to capture a definition of our little friend (or perhaps that should be foe) but even he can’t get one to stick, despite interviewing his comrades in academia, who appear knowledgeable about the subject but ultimately brush him off.  Interesting that for this story I approached two respected academics in the creative-writing field and neither returned my emails – as if I was enquiring about a missing person they might just know something about.

The history of the novella goes back further than the efforts of Tolstoy and co.  Five hundred years earlier one Giovanni Boccaccio authored (or may have simply collected) the first cycle of novellas that comprise The Decameron.  A hop and a skip from there, the Germans, who have never shied away from a bit of cheeky experimentation, took a particular shine to the form, primarily in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to the point that the critic Theodore Mundt, in 1823, called the novella ‘the German house pet’.  (I shudder to think what Australia might nominate as a ‘house pet’.  Kylie Minogue?  Actually, could she be described as a pop-music novella?)

However, despite the novella having a long and illustrious history of contribution, it really does seem to be the literary problem child.  But why?  Why is it so hard for people to get their heads around what is essentially a short work of fiction?  Then again, a short story is also ‘a short work of fiction’.  And therein lies the apparently insurmountable difficulty: the novella is the slipperiest of beasts, refusing to fit neatly into boxes that appeal to writers, readers, and publishers.  And if history has shown us anything, we are sceptical about what doesn’t fit neatly into boxes.  Ask your nearest bisexual.

But still novellas are written, and sometimes they’re even published.

John Clanchy, the Canberra-based award-winning writer of short stories, novellas and novels, says that despite being a fan of the shorter story the novella really is cause for heart palpitations.  “The concept,” he says, “is suss for many in the Anglo word, which has tended to see the novella as just one more European conspiracy: first they foist the novella on us, and when that doesn’t work they go and invest post-modernism.”

How would Clanchy define the novella?

“Whatever we call it,” he says, “the novella isn’t a novel that’s run out of puff; it isn’t a short story that’s meandered beyond its natural length and lost its way.  I like working with the novella because it shares some of the most attractive features of the novel – its expansiveness, its multiple layers of theme and plot – at the same time constraining them with features normally associated with the short story: intensity of focus, singularity of narrative voice and architecture, discipline of length.  But all the while remaining a distinct species, not a hybrid.”

Despite his own success with shorter works – His Father’s Daughter (UQP, 2008) contains five stories ranging from 9,000 to 30,000 words – Clanchy agrees that one of the biggest challenges with novellas is getting the bloody things into print.  “Editors and publishers don’t seem to know what to do with this ‘intermediate’ form,” he says.  “Show a novella to an editor – the adventurous Madonna Duffy at UQP excepted – and she’s just as likely to pull a mouth and say, ‘A novella?  It’s kind of…um…long, isn’t it?’  To which the only sensible reply is, ‘Yes, but so is a goanna.’”

Mandy Brett, Senior Editor at one of Australia’s most respected mid-sized presses, Text Publishing in Melbourne, believes that it goes without saying that novellas are difficult to publish.  “There are a couple of reasons for this and the first is brutally economic.  On the bookshelf, a novella is just a very skinny book.  We can’t expect people to pay nearly as much for it as for a novel.  But in fact it doesn’t cost all that much less to produce.  This makes the small book a highly dodgy proposition in terms of turning a dollar.”

The second difficulty is cultural, says Brett, but ends up being economic.  “There is not a broad readership for the novella.  It is not widely appreciated as a form, being perceived as a stingy novel or a bloated short story.”

Brett certainly has a point.  Inspired by Richard Ford undertaking an ‘informal poll’ of his academic mates, I posted on my humble home in the blogosphere a request for thoughts on the novella.  Comments came back along the lines of “most writers like writing them and reading them, but readers don’t, because they generally want more of a meal when they sit down to eat” and “I prefer the traditional novel format – it’s not so much a more-bang-for-your-buck kinda thing (though I have found myself standing in a bookshop thinking, there’s no way I’m paying $32 for 120 pages) it’s that I find short stories just too damn short!”

However, according to Mandy Brett it’s not as grim as all this might suggest.

“There’s a small subset of literary readers who will buy an outstanding novella because they appreciate wonderful writing, or hear enough good things about it to give it a go.”  Brett cites A Love Letter from a Stray Moon by Jay Griffiths, which was published by Text earlier this year, as an example of a contemporary novella.  It is 20,000 words in length and she describes it as “exquisite”.

John Clanchy, too, is optimistic about the future of the novella.  “As a committed reader in the Age of Obesity,” he says, “I’ve cut the contemporary fat novel right out of my diet – too many carbs and too little nutrition at too large a price.”

What about this brave new world of digital publishing and e-readers?

Mandy Brett sees fertile ground.  “As the ebook starts to take over and book pricing comes adrift from the traditional restrictions imposed by print technology and the physical distribution of books, it will become much easier to play around with format and form.  I expect to see more poetry, more novellas, more short stories, and more experimental literary forms accessible in mainstream outlets in the future.”  And that’s a ray of sunshine for those writers who want to muck up and those readers who hunger for more than the bulging literary block-buster.

So, it seems, the novella, despite its inherently shifty business, is here to stay.  It may well be lurking behind that wall over there, ready to frighten the living daylights out of an unsuspecting public.  Perhaps the revolution will – again – come in the form of a little book, one that might pop up on a computer screen and say this: There’s something that you really should know about.

*

First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 20 August 2011.  With thanks to John Clanchy and Mandy Brett.  Thanks also to Alec and Agnes, who commented on an earlier Under the Counter post about the novella and are quoted above.

The last time I was on a residency, a year ago at Bundanon in New South Wales, I put up an A4-sized sign above my desk – BE BRAVE.  A high-end publisher had given me that advice a week before and I made sure to take it with me down to the Shoalhaven.  Whenever I struggled, I looked up, saw the sign, and then I was brave.  At least, I tried to be.  I have the same sign with me here at Cataract Gorge: it’s just there, on the wall, a metre away from where I’m writing this post (still by hand, would you believe; I’m sticking to my guns).

Bravery seems to be the theme of the week.

Most days in this place young boys or men strap themselves high up to the Gorge cliffs and abseil their lives away.  Sometimes they stop mid-fall, steady themselves, put out their arms and have a photo taken by their friends back up the cliff – should the rope break, or the equipment fail, they’d smash their bodies open on the rocks below.

Every evening, Launceston joggers – men and women – plug themselves into their i-Pods and send their bodies up one side of the Gorge and down the other, across and through and around and over the duckboards, boardwalks, catwalks, even along a suspension bridge that makes you feel drunk just by looking at it.  I scared the living crap out of one of these folk last night, when, wearing my black jeans and black hoodie and black jacket, I rounded a corner and almost ran into a guy.  He stopped, put his hand to his heart, and said, ‘Bloody hell, it’s a bit dark here, eh?’  He meant, of course, I’m sure you were about to stab me with a flick-knife, you bastard.

In summer, apparently, Lonnie boys throw themselves off the Kings Bridge (pictured above, at dawn) and dive or drop or flop or crash into the liquid, silty mud that makes for water at this the Gorge end of the river.

I think I’d rather listen to The Smiths.

As hoity and literary and – quite frankly – wanky as it may sound, I’m having a Grim As Buggery Short Fiction Festival while I’m here in Launceston.  The head-lining acts are the Grand Reapers of Grim-ness, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, and Australia’s own Nam Le (who can actually be very funny, but that’s beside the point).

In Tolstoy’s short story ‘The Raid’, his main character, a civilian who’s curious about war, says, ‘I remembered that Plato had defined bravery as the knowledge of what should and what should not be feared ‘ [and] wanted to explain my idea to the captain.  ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it seems to me that to every danger there is a choice, and the choice that springs from a sense of duty, for example, is courage, while a choice made under the influence of base feelings is cowardice.  Henceforth, the man who risks his life from vanity, curiosity or greed cannot be called brave.  Conversely, the man who avoids danger from an honest sense of responsibility to his family, or simply out of conviction, cannot be called a coward.’’

Today, am I brave or cowardly?

Would I dive off the Kings Bridge?  No.

Would I run around Cataract Gorge at night?  No, I wouldn’t.

Would I abseil down the rocks and stop to pose for a photo?  No, is the answer to that as well.

But good characters must do all these things, and more.

In art as in life there’s something about beginnings and middles, but endings are what get this humble scribe really going. Not long ago I came home from an extended time away, and after giving Cat the Ripper a quick cuddle I wandered through the house as if expecting to find it turned inside out. Realising that nothing at all had changed, I unzipped my backpack and put on three loads of washing. With the machine sloshing away nicely, I found the twenty Polaroid photos I’d taken of my travels and Blue-tacked them up in the loungeroom and the kitchen, stuck one to the bedside table, and then scattered the rest around my study. I wanted reminders of where I’d been and what I’d done. But I also wanted to reclaim my home, to let it know that I was back, that we were together again.

It got me thinking about one of my desert-island films, Bill Forsyth’s completely wonderful Local Hero. The story follows a Porsche-driving North American oil executive whose boss instructs him to go to Scotland to purchase a seaside village and replace it with a refinery. As he negotiates with the suitably eclectic – and eccentric – characters of Furness, Mac finds himself falling for the village, and a certain happily married woman. Needless to say he returns to Houston a changed man.

The film’s final moments are spellbinding. Mac opens the door of his high-rise apartment, turns on the lights, walks past his hi-fi equipment, his fine paintings on the walls, his slim-line timber furniture (the film was made and set in the early 1980s), and pins to a noticeboard photographs of the place and people he’d gotten to know so well back in Scotland. Then, as if he doesn’t really want to but feels compelled, he steps onto his balcony and watches the blue light of dusk spread insidiously across the skyline, the wail of sirens in his ears. The sense of anonymity is overwhelming, and it collides with the deep knowingness Mac had experienced abroad. For the penultimate shot the filmmaker takes us back to Ferness with a still of the little village, our eyes coming to rest on a bright red phone booth. And then the phone booth begins ringing out across the sea…

Literature too, of course, has provided us with endings that pack a punch. One of the best occurs in Tolstoy’s short work The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The story, which we are told is ‘of the simplest, most ordinary and therefore most terrible’, concerns a bright and likeable member of the Supreme Court in St Petersburg who endures a painful illness which ultimately consumes him. After navigating his memories, and achieving a level of understanding about how he’d lived, as well as enduring days of screaming agony, Ilyich arrives at a critical moment: ‘And all at once it became clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not go away was suddenly dropping away on one side, on two sides, on ten sides, on all sides.’

As the final sentence, Tolstoy so precisely, so devastatingly, but so beautifully, gives us this: ‘He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out and died.’

Endings – and homecomings – don’t get much better than this.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, July 26 2008)

Recently, while reading a review of a famous ex-pat Australian novelist’s latest masterwork, I came across a reference to Henry James’ What Maisie Knew. Now, I haven’t read James’ novel, which may well be a crime, but it did get me thinking.  If there was a novel called What Nigel Knew, what exactly would be in it?  I considered the question, but after an hour of pacing up and down, all I had was a six-foot high pile of notes on things that I might know but couldn’t be absolutely sure.  So I set myself a challenge: by the end of the day I was to identify just three pieces of knowledge in which I have complete and utter confidence.

Thankfully, I came up with the goods.

1. When feeling blue, plant something.  If you find yourself in a bit of a funk, go outside, get a pot, terracotta’s the best, get some soil, put the soil in the pot, get a plant, put the plant in the pot, pat the soil down, then give the plant some water.  When all is done I guarantee you’ll feel better, everything with the world – and I do mean everything – will be alright.  And just so you know that I walk the talk, I did this last Tuesday, when I found myself concluding that I may never be as good a writer as, say, a certain famous ex-pat Australian novelist.

2. The first cold day of winter is always a treat.  This is true.  When you’ve woken to the great, still sky, when you’ve put on your ugg boots and gone to get the paper, your breath’s ghosting in front of you, and the paper is dusted with frost.  Then, back in the house, you switch on the heater and fill the loungeroom with the smell of burning dust.  Despite the heater staying on for hours, you still have to get out your grandmother’s mohair throw so you can do your usual weekend thing of spending hours on the couch, beside you a plunger of coffee and a packet of Caramel Crèmes, and you get lost in, well, a famous ex-pat Australian novelist’s latest master work.  It’s just bliss.  (Special Note: should they occur on the same day, Knowledge Item No. 2 is outweighed by Knowledge Item No. 3, which is below.)

3. Sunday afternoons are melancholic.  This is an irrefutable fact.  As soon as 3pm Sunday hits, the glums start rolling in.  Now, for me, I’m happy to report that the Late Sabbath Day Sadness hasn’t anything to do with the proximity to five consecutive days of work – I get to spend my days in the arts and you won’t find me complaining about that.  It’s just that this time of the week makes me feel as if I’m the lovechild of Winston Churchill and Leo Tolstoy, which isn’t a good thing.  No amount of dog walking, lap swimming and/or Tai chi yogalates will get rid of the feeling.  Tomorrow I’ll just have to remember Knowledge Item No. 1, and put it into practice.  Again.

At the ripe old age of thirty-nine and a half, this is what Nigel knows.  It’s not much, certainly not enough to fill a novel.

In fact, it’s barely enough for a column in a newspaper.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, February 16 2008)

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