still lures me is the sense, probably an illusion, that just ahead of me,
always just out of my reach and completely without definition, is the perfect
and beautiful thing, probably a novella, that unwraps everything around it, the
ultimate human story that illuminates our brilliance and stupidity.
novella, Ian McEwan has said, is ‘the perfect form of prose fiction.’ What is a
novella? First of all, a novella is something no one wants. Publishers live in
dread of them because no one much will buy them. There is no prize for the best
novella of the year; there never will be. If you are engaged in writing a
novella, it is with a lonely feeling that no one is waiting for you to finish
it. No one is ever going to say: I am so looking forward to your next novella.
is stuck between a short story and a novel. Please don’t ask me what a short
story is. It is short, it seems, and a story, but it must contain something
both mysterious and telling. This is often contained in a single phrase or
sentence on which everything hinges. So, it is like a poem. It somehow rises
above its own content, like bread, or the consecration in the mass.
is much plainer. It can have just one plot-line, one protagonist, and its
meaning can unfold or be revealed without any recourse to transcendence. Claire
Keegan’s ‘Foster’ is a novella, but her ‘Small Things Like These’ is a novel
because Furlong’s own life story is dramatized as much as the actual events
that occur in the novel’s time-span. If we didn’t have the story of his
upbringing, then the book would be a novella.
What are the best novellas? Maybe: ‘Heart of
Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad, ‘Hadji Murat’ and ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ by
Tolstoy, ‘The Dead’ by James Joyce, ‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James, ‘The
Late Bourgeois World’ by Nadine Gordimer, ‘The Blind Rider’ by Juan Goytisolo, ‘The
Valley of the Lagoons’ by David Malouf, ‘On Chesil Beach’ by Ian McEwan,
‘Heritage’ by Eugene McCabe.
Some of these
books were lucky enough to be published as the title story of a collection or
as a single volume, but there are other novellas that never got the same chance.
John McGahern’s novella ‘The Country Funeral’, which may be his best piece of
fiction, was turned down by a number of magazines. McGahern then held it back
until he was publishing his Collected Stories and he placed it at the end the
book. Very few readers noticed it. In France, however, he published it in a
single volume and it was recognized as the masterpiece that it is.
‘The Country Funeral’ shows that there is
something pure and defenceless about the form itself. Plot does not have to
grow or twist, as in a novel; characters do not have to change. The form does
not depend on a single poetic or ironic moment (often letting us know how sad
or how strange life is), as a short story does.
McGahern’s story, the bachelor uncle dies and the three nephews travel from
Dublin for the funeral in Leitrim. In the narrative, we are given the past as much
as the present, but the novella will not move beyond the funeral itself. We
have been given scenes in such rich detail, with no pressure to be concise or
succinct, that a whole world has
been created rather than developed or brought towards conclusion. We will have
to imagine a future for the characters.
fifteen years ago I wrote a novella, my first, called ‘A Long Winter’. I showed
it to a few publishers, but no one was interested in publishing it as a single
volume in English. (Later, it did come out as a single volume in a few foreign
languages.) What to do? I really did believe that I would never write anything
as good as it again. Somehow, the form had matched the subject. Not a story, no
pressure to find a hidden moment of truth; not a novel, just a single thread in
the narrative, no development. I put it at the end of a book of stories
‘Mothers and Sons’ and it lingers there still. I don’t think many people have
read it. And maybe that’s good. That’s what a novella is: except for the really
famous ones, something that not many people have read.
novella-writers should rise up. Or maybe the name itself – novella – should
change, just as Windscale, which had a bad reputation, became Sellafield, or
Facebook became Meta. Or maybe these categories – short story, novella, novel –
really make no sense and have no clear borders.
Who or what,
in this context, is César Aira? He was born in 1949 in Argentina in a place
with the wonderful name of Coronel Pringles. He has published more than a
hundred books, many of them could be novellas, they are each about a hundred
pages long. Sometimes, he publishes a few a year. (In 1992, he published five
hard to keep up with him; it seems that he finds it hard also to keep up with
himself. He lets the plot or story go where it will, he follows it, but does
not revise much or change much. Sometimes, this looks like perfection.
one of those rare writers who at his worst is often at his most interesting. He
will let a novella move from sharp realism to pure weirdness. He will play with
genre; he will improvise; he will lose the plot. Or it will be pure open-endedness
from the start. Or it will be a story told in full, vigorous, po-faced
nineteenth century style.
Aira can write the Argentine past and its
present with equal conviction, but more than that, he is in the constant
process of creating excitement. Maybe the
novella is a good form for creating excitement without feeling any
responsibility to show what has to happen next. Maybe a novella is the best bit
of the narrative, left there in a hundred pages without any surrounding
offers many gifts to a writer. One of them is that there is not a pebble
between the Andes and the Atlantic Ocean and there is nine feet of topsoil. If
lightning strikes, you have nowhere to hide. In that vast flatness - the
Argentine pampa - it really will get you.
hesitate to say that ‘An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter’ (2000) is
Aira’s best book because I have not read all of them. But it is a superb piece
of work, displaying total command over a tone that is direct, factual, sober,
created to convince. Chris Andrews’ translation captures this solidity which
could, in another translation, appear as dry, but here has a sort of rhythmic
energy and sense of excitement.
the excitement of fiction is its willingness to create illusions and to
deceive. One aspect of Aira’s genius is that he can start with a tone – in ‘An
Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter’ it is the tone of the chronicler –
and then begin to play with it, or fool the reader into believing it even when it
begins to shift.
Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter’, this happens on the ninth page as
the two nineteenth century landscape painters are crossing the Andes from Chile
into Argentina: ‘It was not really rain so much as a benign drizzle, enveloping
the landscape in gentle tides of humidity all afternoon. The clouds came down
so low they almost landed, but the slightest breeze would whisk them away…and
produce others from bewildering corridors which seemed to give the sky access
to the center of the earth. In the middle of these magical alternations, the
artists were briefly granted dreamlike visions, each more sweeping than the
last. Although their journey traced a zigzag on the map, they were heading
straight as an arrow towards openness.
like slowly and subtly changing weather, two tones doing battle, the precise
description of rain and the reference to the map versus the magic and the
dreamlike, ending with ‘an arrow towards openness’ as though ‘openness’ will
not be the nemesis of these painters.
As we read
on, we discover what their nemesis will be. For some reason, there is extra
excitement because we know that all this has to happen in a mere ninety pages
that seems like an ideal form, no matter what we call it.
Colm Tóibín (November 2022)