The Novella Form
At present I am transfixed by thoughts about contemporary fiction in the form of a novella, although buried under the optimistic label of a novel,
The reading has been interesting. ‘Novels’ by Henry James, Truman Capote, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Mann – all have won great praise for books which have been labelled ‘novels’ but which in their length (30 to 50 thousand words) and form (focused, singular, obsessive) clearly meet criteria for the novella – or what is now being called more neutrally, ‘short fiction’.
The novella form has been something of a Sleeping Beauty up till now but has been kissed into visibility by the widespread emergence of eBooks where length is an invisible factor.
A Month in the Country
Knowing my present obsession my friend Pat steered me in the direction of A Month in the Country by J. L Carr. This is a real treasure - an outstanding 'novel' which won the Guardian Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, as was another of H.L. Carr’s novels.
The Small Tale
In his forward Carr quotes a definition by Dr Johnson. ‘A novel - a small tale, generally of love.'
The year is 1920. Recovering from shell shock which persists as a facial twitch, Tom Birkin arrives in a sleepy Yorkshire village to restore ancient murals in its tiny church. As he slowly uncovers the medieval images of heaven and hell he is imbued by a sense of the medieval painter who first laid paint on these walls. Outside the church he meets the archaeologist Moon who is digging a portentous hole outside the church. Moon another man constructing his own survival after savage war experiences. Further into the shadows are the sour vicar and his beautiful wife both shell shocked by the exigencies of daily life. On the lighter edge are Mossop the stationmaster – the voices of kindness and reason - and his daughter.
This complex work with its elaborate over-weaving of character and story and under-weaving of universal themes is told in clean prose which extends to a powerful evocation of weather and landscape that binds man to the world and can make a man’s spirit whole.
In the introduction in my edition Penelope Fitzgerald says, ‘Carr is by no means a lavish writer but he has the magic touch to enter a re-imagined past.’
Size Isn’t Everything
A Month in the Country is only thirty five thousand words long. But there is nothing small about this tale where Tom Birkin uncovers the painting on the wall and intuits some deep truths about the man who painted them, at the same time waking from the long nightmare of fighting in the trenches,
Seen through Tom Birkin’s eyes, structurally near perfect, very readable and drenched with powerful meaning, this tale even has an intriguing revelation towards the end which, on examination, has been bedded into the story so far.
Some writers might need a hundred thousand words to weave this amount of meaning and literary magic into a story. H.L Carr managed it on thirty five thousand words. That is the potential power of the novella. No small thing.
H L Carr was a stubborn anti-establishment autodidact who disliked London ways. He was a teacher, traveller, small publisher and writer who knowingly and sometimes mischievously wove his own life right through his fiction and published novels right into his late seventies. His own life - find out from Byron Rogers' insightful, affectionate biography The Last Englishman - has the slightly manic tone of a picaresque novel.
Thank you Pat for pointing me in the direction of A Month in the Country - no small thing but a very fine – I now insist - novella! Having read this great story I now have a brilliant benchmark for what may be adjudged a fine novella.
We will be discussing all this and approaches to writing your own novells at our Novella Workshop in Durham City on 25 October.
Perhaps you might like to join us?
Perhaps you might like to join us?