let’s hear it for lean and intense

my novella, Inishbream, in Helene Francoeur's beautiful turbot-skin bound edition
my novella, Inishbream, in Helene Francoeur’s beautiful turbot-skin bound edition

It occurred to me, talking to John as we walked over for the mail today (ask me about community mail boxes! I honestly can’t take the fuss about them, the suggestion that it’s the end of civilization as we know it, the end of safety for seniors – there are seniors in our neighbhourhood, John included, and like us, they’ve never had home mail delivery; if they can’t collect their own mail, a neighbour will do it for them…), that my reading lately has been largely novellas. I’ve written two posts about them – Hetty Dorval and Deep Hollow Creek are, to my mind, both novellas – and I’ve spent quite a bit of time (for desperate reasons) perusing publishing websites to see who on earth might consider a manuscript comprised of two novellas. (Yes, mine!)

And once I realized that I was reading novellas, and thinking about novellas, I began to see them everywhere. Last night I read David Gilmour’s new book, Extraordinary. I hadn’t meant to. I liked his book about watching films with his teen-aged son but I haven’t much liked his fiction. I did read his interview in Hazlitt last September (http://www.randomhouse.ca/hazlitt/blog/gilmour-transcript) and found it utterly distasteful. He’s entitled to his opinion(s) of course but nothing he said about writing and reading made me think I’d enjoy his latest book. But when I saw it at the library yesterday, I picked it up, read the jacket copy, and checked it out. It took me an hour and a half to read it last night and I don’t regret the time spent at all. It’s good. It moves along so well and the writing is crisp and clean. And you know what? I think it’s a novella. It’s brief – perhaps 50,000 words – and is essentially a conversation between a brother and a sister. Each character is vividly drawn and the dialogue is convincing. It has a novella’s sense of time and place, that contained and concise elegance.

One of my favourite novellas is Joyce’s The Dead. It’s perfect. I read it once a year and each time I’m both moved and inspired. And more. Surprised to find a sentence I hadn’t remembered and how its perfect fit within the narrative made it so organic to the piece as a whole that it took a fifth or tenth reading to actually see it. I love what Ian McEwan said about The Dead in his wonderful piece on the novella in the New Yorker magazine (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/10/some-notes-on-the-novella.html):

I’d swap “The Dead”’s concluding pages for any fifteen from “Ulysses.” The young Joyce surpassed himself. I sometimes fantasize that on my deathbed, celebrated phrases from this novella will see me out: “I think he died for me”; “one by one they were all becoming shades”; “the time had come for him to set out on his journey westward”; snow “softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves”; “snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.’ There could be worse final moments.

I’m looking forward to reading the Canadian poet Gillian Wigmore’s recently-published novella, Grayling. I think highly of her poetry.She writes deeply and beautifully from her northern landscape –

4. fraser (fort george)

meet the clang and stink of the black train bridge

dripping the rain into the broad brown river

can trees be proud?

the cottonwood aren’t quitters

they draw the river up their roots

reach high towards sky

travellers in metal cars untouched

by river life, rife and humming

down below (from “Five Rivers: Under Bridges” in Soft Geography, Caitlin Press, 2007)

– and I anticipate that she will bring that attentive eye and ear to prose as well. And I am full of admiration for Gillian’s publisher, Mona Fertig at Mother Tongue Publishing, who unapologetically advertises this new book as a novella. (From the catalogue copy: “A lean and intense tale that takes the reader to haunting depths.  A seminal and brilliant addition to a neglected genre.”)

4 thoughts on “let’s hear it for lean and intense”

  1. Your beautiful Inishbream! How did it end up being bound in turbot skin? Did you only receive one copy like that? Who did the binding? And you now have me thinking about novellas. I don’t know that I’m cut out for writing full length novels, but I think a novella could be a good fit for what I want to expand into next. Is size/length a mental game? Did you find it easier, overall, to write your novellas vs. your novels? Curious, I am.

    1. Jan and Crispin Elsted at the Barbarian Press first published Inishbream, in three states, in 1999. I went out to their place to watch Helene Francoeur bind the Deluxe edition — one of the highlights of my life, I have to say. And she also bound a Design edition but she did that (I think) in her studio in Quebec City. This is how it’s described: “15 lettered copies with ten for sale, printed on Twinrocker Simon’s Green handmade paper, bound by Helene Francoeur in goat and fish leathers with rope tooling, and housed in a clamshell box of leather and vellum with a portfolio containing all twenty-one of the engravings.” I haven’t seen it (though the late Richard Landon showed one of my sons the copy held at the Thomas Fisher Library at the University of Toronto. He wore gloves!). I have one copy of the Deluxe edition and was also given a generous quantity (considering the cost!) of the Regular editions (which are gorgeous) and several of John DePol’s wood-engravings. Goose Lane Editions published a trade edition two years later, also a lovely object. It’s not easier to write a novella, exactly, because everything about it is sort of condensed — the time-frame, the language, etc. But it’s a wonderful genre and I hope to write more of them. And maybe if more of us write them, publishers will feel more congenial towards taking them on…

      1. How amazing is that binding/packaging? Exalted into an even higher art form, if that’s possible. I can understand why watching the binding happen would be a highlight of your life. How fortunate.

      2. Yeah, the bindings on the regular and deluxe editions used Japanese silk (a sort of sage green colour) and John DePol’s papers and dark green leather. I remember coming home from walks or whatever and hearing Crispin’s voice on the phone machine, telling me the Irish linen thread had arrived, the silk…I thought then (and still think this) that every writer should have a text treated like this in his or her lifetime. Such care and attention: wonderful and somehow soul-affirming!

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