life lists

My son Forrest keeps a life list of water bodies he’s been swimming in — written down? I’m not sure. But certainly remembered, and recited when asked… Rivers, lakes, various oceans and seas. Ponds. I know people keep life lists of birds, species ticked off, trips taken to far-flung backyards where something unexpected has shown up, attracting twitchers with their binoculars and field guides. Maybe we all do this — keep lists of beloved things. Lately, for me, it’s been novellas. I recently read Kent Haruf’s last book, Our Souls At Night, and even though it’s advertised as a novel, I’d argue that it’s a fine example of a novella. It’s brief, very self-contained, and even its physical presentation is ideally suited to the novella form. Calling it a novella doesn’t diminish it in my eyes. It elevates it. I love novels and read at least two a week. But novellas appeal to the poet in my heart and mind. I’m drawn to the good ones for similar reasons to those so intelligently articulated by Ian McEwan in the New Yorker a few years ago:

The tradition is long and glorious. I could go even further: the demands of economy push writers to polish their sentences to precision and clarity, to bring off their effects with unusual intensity, to remain focussed on the point of their creation and drive it forward with functional single-mindedness, and to end it with a mind to its unity.

My novella, Patrin, is on its way to me now. Maybe it’ll arrive in today’s mail. I’m eager to see if it looks the way I hope it will look. I spent a lot of time working with the finished copy in a pdf and I love how the designer Setareh Ashfologhalai echoed some of the book’s themes in her page design. Dropped caps and little graphic elements. And I am so grateful to the publisher Mona Fertig at Mother Tongue Publishing for devoting time and attention to every detail of the book’s editing, copy-editing, proof-reading, and design.

Mother Tongue also published one of the titles I’d include on my life list of novellas. It’s Grayling, by Gillian Wigmore. I have it on my desk right now. I reviewed it last year for the Malahat Review and here’s what I said about it.

Gillian Wigmore, Grayling (Salt Spring Island: Mother Tongue, 2014). Paperbound, 114 pp., $16.95.

Consider the novella. For decades the form enjoyed respectability, a place of honourGrayling on the lists of many publishers. No one apologized for the brevity of, oh, Death in Venice or The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. Few lamented that a novella wasn’t as lengthy and complicated as War and Peace, that the printed volume didn’t include a family tree spanning centuries. The contemporary European literary tradition includes the novella as a matter of common sense: I think of the Peirene Press and Sylph Editions with their devotion to the marriage between text and design. There’s been a fair amount of spirited debate about the parameters of the novella. It’s generally agreed that the optimum length is somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 words, but there are exceptions. I’d argue that James Joyce’s The Dead is a novella, though at roughly 15,000 words, it’s short. Still, it has the dramatic tension, the scope, the unity of place and subject, and its language is beautifully condensed and elliptical—all qualities I associate with the form. In 2012, Ian McEwan wrote (in The New Yorker), “I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant (but a giant who’s a genius on his best days).” Thirteen years ago I published a novella with a small Canadian publisher willing to include it on a list with several other novellas, printed as small books and priced accordingly. Recently I was told that, alas, a novella is no longer a viable form to market in today’s economic climate. So I was delighted to receive a copy of Gillian Wigmore’s Grayling, with its gorgeous cover (by Annerose Georgeson) and French flaps enclosing a book perfectly sized to suit its contents. The publisher makes no apologies (and honestly, why should she? Do presses make excuses for slim collections of poetry?), but instead celebrates the form.

Graylings narrative is closely located within a specific landscape—northern British Columbia, near the Yukon border. The protagonist, Jay, has driven to a remote area along the Cassiar Highway in order to put his canoe into the Dease River; he is planning to paddle for several days to Lower Post where his truck will be waiting. With some hastily assembled gear and a single lesson on a parking lot, he hopes to fly-fish for grayling, a species of freshwater fish belonging to the salmon family, and native to the Arctic and Pacific drainages. Tiny graphic images of these fish swim along the lower pages of the novella, to remind us where we are and what we should be alert to.

The Dease is liminal space for Jay. Having recently undergone surgery for a testicular tumour, he is also recovering from a broken relationship. He has given up his job and his home. His journey down the river is intended to bring him not only to Lower Post but also to a new way of living. The river is a threshold, a crossing. He experiences it in his body as a pulse, a rhythm. “His mind went ahead, trying to imagine the current and the obstacles and the rapids he would encounter. His heart felt raw, beating harder than it should for the effort he exerted pulling the water and pushing the paddle forward through the air.”

When Julie pulls Jay from the canoe at a primitive campsite and warms his hypothermic body, the reader is as surprised as Jay. Who is she and how did she arrive in such a far-flung place? When she joins him on the river, she unsettles his balance. As she pulls one prize after another from her pack—wine, cheese, basil, fresh noodles, and even a bottle of single-malt—and engages Jay in discussions of Leonard Cohen’s song “Suzanne,” it becomes increasingly clear that she is as mythic as the woman in that song. No tea and oranges, but coffee and croissants, and a perfectly ripe cantaloupe are brought from the bottom of her packsack. (“She lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover….”) And of course there are the grayling, which Julie, who has never fished before, keeps pulling from the river and which Jay ties to the painter for a future dinner. “They’re beautiful—silver and blue and iridescent—and they have a tall dorsal fin that stretches out like a sail.”

Grayling begs for a map, perhaps printed on the endpapers, so that the reader wouldn’t have to balance a road atlas on a lap while reading. You want to follow the journey, tracing your finger across the blue scribble of river, pausing at certain turns. Here’s the Dease River Resort; this must be French Creek. This novella is riparian: “the hum of cicadas in the heat…red-winged blackbirds in the marsh,” and that small scribble of grayling swimming along the bottom of each page. And Grayling is a poet’s novella, written with the care and attention a fine writer brings to language, to timing, and to the unfolding of story across a wild terrain. Even its cryptic conclusion—those wolf-tracks mingling with human footprints; Julie’s packsack emptied of its surprises—is satisfying, in the way a poem can continue to play in the mind long after one puts it aside: a grayling on a hook, spinning the river’s length.

An argument for the novella

As a writer who loves the novella, I am always interested to read what others have to say about the possibilities of this strange and lovely form. Most recently there’s this:

http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/PWxyz/2013/12/09/what-is-this-thing-called-novella/

Although I wonder why the default suggestion seems to be that they are a perfect size for ebooks, I am glad to know that novellas inspire panels at literary festivals, debates online and off, and much discussion about length and the parameters of plot. I wish publishers weren’t so afraid of them. I have two out now, as a single manuscript, making the rounds. How would we market these, seems to be the lament — and although I understand it in some ways (a small book in a culture driven by excess and hype), I have to wonder where that old bold spirit went, the one that motivated publishers to take on unlikely titles and market them in the same way they would market anything: as necessary and vital books, not as something to apologize for. Years ago Jan and Crispin Elsted made a beautiful book of my novella, Inishbream, with wonderful wood-engravings by John DePol:

inish2

 

And Goose Lane Editions published a lovely trade edition of the book a couple of years later. I never felt that the manuscript was treated with anything less than respect as a work of literature rather than a abbreviated version of a real book. And for the New Year, my wish is that I find an equally congenial home for Winter Wren and Patrin.

It’s a perfect time of year to re-read James Joyce’s elegant example of the novella, The Dead. In his essay on the novella in the New Yorker last year, Ian McEwan wrote about The Dead: “A simple binary structure (a party, a hotel room) supports the evocation of an entire social milieu (decorous and fractious by turns) with extraordinary warmth. They seem to play out in real time, the dancing and singing at the aunts’ annual dinner, the family tensions, the barbed exchange about national identity.”

the novella

I’ve always loved the novella, even before I knew what it was, how it differed from a full-length novel, a short story. So it was marvellous to find this piece by Ian McEwan in the New Yorker.

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/10/some-notes-on-the-novella.html#entry-more

This is so right, so true: “Let’s take, as an arbitrary measure, something that is between twenty and forty thousand words, long enough for a reader to inhabit a world or a consciousness and be kept there, short enough to be read in a sitting or two and for the whole structure to be held in mind at first encounter—the architecture of the novella is one of its immediate pleasures.”

As a reader, I appreciate the entry into that world, so complete and contained somehow. And as a writer, I treasure the making of that world. It seems to me that the writing of a novella is a bit like musical composition, developing a theme and modulating it over time, space, keeping the language concise and taut, then introducing lyrical variations on the main theme.

The first long piece of fiction I wrote was a novella called Inishbream. I wrote it when I was 23, trying to find a form to contain the music, the landscape, the weather, and the human interactions of the period I lived on a small island off the west coast of Ireland. The Barbarian Press published it in three states — all of them gorgeous —  in 1999, illustrated by the great American wood-engraver John DePol. Here’s one image from the book:

And then in 2001, Goose Lane Editions published it as a lovely small trade edition, with John DePol’s images on the cover and the titlepage.

Last week I began a new novella and have been immersed, again, in the pleasures of the form. I see it as a companion piece to Winter Wren, a novella I finished last year. I don’t have any illusions about their “marketability”.  But I wouldn’t trade the daily exhilaration of sitting at my desk and finding my way into a cosmos contained in less than 100 pages for anything.