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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.

One of the best things about hitting the Roaring Forties is becoming more and more comfortable about the things that I don’t like, or don’t understand, and being completely and utterly open about it.  Whilst I’ll defend to the hilt for these things to exist, I’m no fan of opera, I don’t like traditional country music (Johnny Cash is as far as I can get in that direction, and even then it’s only when he’s covering contemporary songs), and, well, uncooked celery is just plain wrong.  However, one part of the arts that I’ve never liked or understood is dear old William Shakespeare, which is a little problematic for someone who loves putting words together to make sentences and paragraphs, to tell stories in the written form.

Every year or so I take myself to see some Shakespeare production or other, thinking it will be this time that I’ll get it, a light will come on, and, as if I was blind but could now see, I’d get what all the fuss is about.  And there is a heck of a lot of fuss about this bloke – can anyone think of a more revered writer in the English language?  Except, for me, no lights come on; I don’t discover any kind of insight.  Five minutes into the production I’m lost: I can’t follow which character is trying to screw over which other character, and quite frankly I don’t care who’s about to kick the bucket.  And all the supposedly brilliant words rush from the stage as if trying to escape from the actors’ mouths.  I can do nothing but hurriedly retreat to my happy place, which is either sitting on the couch with He Who Also Can’t Stand The Bard and knocking off a bottle of Verdelho, or recalling sepia-toned images of a village in the Blue Mountains that’s so special to me I won’t even share its name.

Not long ago, after yet another disastrous Shakespeare sojourn, a friend emailed me an article titled ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’ written by George Orwell in 1947.  Orwell tries to develop an argument against a ‘pamphlet’ (which I’m assuming is some kind of prehistoric blog post) written by Leo Tolstoy in 1903 in which the Russian literary giant quite summarily heaps so much scorn on Shakespeare that it makes for hilarious reading.

Here are some of the tastiest bits.

Tolstoy begins by saying that throughout life Shakespeare has aroused in him ‘an irresistible repulsion and tedium’.  Conscious that the opinion of the civilised world is against him, he has made one attempt after another on Shakespeare’s works, reading and re-reading them in Russian, English and German, but ‘I invariably underwent the same feelings: repulsion, weariness and bewilderment’.  Now at the age of seventy-five, he has once again re-read the entire works of Shakespeare, including the historical plays and ‘I have felt with an even greater force, the same feelings – this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits – thereby distorting their aesthetic and ethical understanding – is a great evil, as is every untruth.

In case you’re wondering when Tolstoy will actually form an opinion on the matter, Orwell goes on to report, Tolstoy then makes a sort of exposition of the plot of King Lear, finding it at every step to be stupid, verbose, unnatural, unintelligible, bombastic, vulgar, tedious and full of incredible events, ‘wild ravings’, ‘mirthless jokes’, anachronisms, irrelevancies, obscenities, worn-out stage conventions and other faults both moral and aesthetic.

Leo Tolstoy: possibly not the most easy-going chap that's ever existed.

Although Orwell tries his hardest to pick a fight with Tolstoy, he does find points of agreement.  For example, Orwell states that Shakespeare was not a systematic thinker, his most serious thoughts are uttered irrelevantly or indirectly, and we do not know to what extent he wrote with ‘a purpose’…It is perfectly possible that he looked on at least half of his plays as mere pot-boilers and hardly bothered about purpose or probability so as he could patch up something, usually from stolen material, which would more or less hang together on stage. Furthermore – and I really like this bit – [Shakespeare] was noticeably cautious, not to say cowardly, in his manner of uttering unpopular opinions.  Almost never does he put a subversive or sceptical remark into the mouth of a character likely to be identified with himself.  Throughout his plays the acute social critics, the people who are not taken in by accepted fallacies, are buffoons, villains, lunatics or persons who are shamming insanity or in a state of violent hysteria.

Orwell, however, still concludes, [The] most striking thing is how little difference it all [meaning Tolstoy’s bloody brilliant tirade] makes.  One cannot answer Tolstoy’s pamphlet, at least on its main counts.  There is no argument by which one can defend a poem.  It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible.  And if this test is valid, I think the verdict in Shakespeare’s case must by ‘not guilty’.  Like every other writer, Shakespeare will be forgotten sooner or later, but it is unlikely that a heavier indictment will ever be brought against him.  Tolstoy was perhaps the most admired literary man of his age, and he was certainly not its least pamphleteer.  He turned all his powers of denunciation against Shakespeare, like all the guns of a battleship roaring simultaneously.  And with what result?  Forty years later Shakespeare is still there completely unaffected, and of the attempt to demolish him nothing remains except the yellowing pages of a pamphlet which hardly any has read.

Except, thanks to the internet and a learned friend, Tolstoy’s pamphlet has informed at least this humble little blogger and made him very, very happy indeed.  All I can say is, thank God for Leo Tolstoy, for being the great big literary punk that he is, and for making me feel so damn good about not getting the Old Bard, for not liking what the man wrote, for wanting to run a mile whenever a Shakespeare play starts.

Of course, I say again that I’ll fervently defend the right for anyone to put on a Shakespeare play, but, for me, in terms of actually sitting in the audience, I’d rather spend the evening hacking out my eyeballs with a rusty nail.

Or read The Death of Ivan Ilyich over and over.

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)

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