Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Six Novellas

The other day I bought Seven Contemporary Short Novels, a collection of seven well-known mid-twentieth-century American novellas, at a local used bookstore. The novellas come complete with essay questions for the college English students who would presumably be the book's main readers.

Unfortunately, at some point in the book's existence somebody took a sharp implement and excised Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. Fortunately, the structural integrity of the book is still holding together pretty well. So I got six novels for the price of seven, but the price was only about two US dollars so I can't complain too much.

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers

Although the story made enough of an impact to inspire a play by Edward Albee and a movie starring Vanessa Redgrave, I found it artificial. It exists solely as a Work of Literature to be discussed and written about. McCullers infuses her characters with Meaning and Symbolism, but I never felt Miss Amelia and Cousin Lymon and Marvin Macy to be real, living, flesh-and-blood people. But McCullers' writing is engaging and it drew me in, and I had no trouble finishing the story in one sitting.

Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth

Sometimes I wonder what I missed by growing up in America as a lily-white Western European with no discernible "ethnic" background. The thoroughly Yiddish Aunt Gladys strikes me as the epitome of the Jewish mother stereotype, but I have no doubt that there are many real women just like her, and Roth grew up surrounded by them.

Mid-twentieth-century American literature was much franker about sexual issues than movies or TV from that time. I found this novel (published in 1959) to be an interesting time capsule. Neil and Brenda become lovers almost casually. If either of them is having sex for the first time, it wasn't indicated overtly enough for me to notice. Brenda's mother's over-the-top reaction when she realizes her daughter has been having sex seems like it's from a wholly different culture. Goodbye, Columbus was written before the years we think of as comprising the "Sexual Revolution", but if the novel is any indication the generational shift in values was already well underway before Eisenhower ever left office.

I was also intrigued by the issue of birth control. There is one method of protection mentioned in the novel - the all-important DIAPHRAGM. I realize there were great strides in contraception yet to be made when the novel was written, but the world of Goodbye, Columbus is apparently a world without condoms. I thought that was odd.

Noon Wine by Katherine Anne Porter

A Southern farmer hires a taciturn, hard-working foreigner to help out on the farm. He becomes an accepted if enigmatic member of the household, but years later a stranger's arrival triggers a scene of violence that leaves two dead and the farmer's mental stability in tatters. A haunting little story.

Seize the Day by Saul Bellows

I must admit I never felt drawn in by this story of a middle-aged man with an estranged wife and children, an acquaintance who may have just swindled him out of money, and a general train wreck of a life. Maybe if I manage to re-read it all in one sitting it will cast its spell on me, but I read it in bits and pieces and that just didn't do the trick.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

By far the best-known piece in the anthology, Of Mice and Men probably holds the dubious distinction of being the work of serious American literature that gets made fun of most frequently. I suppose it was inevitable. For some reason we're wired to laugh when we a short, clever guy teamed with a big, stupid guy.

I'm intrigued by how Of Mice and Men is written. As Wikipedia explains:
Of Mice and Men was Steinbeck's first attempt at writing in the form of novel-play termed a "play-novelette" by one critic. Structured in three acts of two chapters each, it is intended to be both a novella and a script for a play. He wanted to write a novel that could be played from its lines, or a play that could be read like a novel.
I was halfway through when I realized I was reading a stage play in novel form. It's easy to see how the novel can be divided into scenes, and everything is communicated either through dialogue or action. There's hardly any introspection. Change the formatting, and you've got a script without having to alter a word.

The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor was not a prolific author and she did not write big bloated novels. If you add up every bit of fiction she ever published, it probably won't come to one thousand pages. But think of the respect her works receive in American literature.

I find her fiction extremely compelling. Part of it is just her ability to tell a story, but there's also the impact of her religious beliefs. O'Connor was devoutly Catholic, and the Catholic perspective with which she viewed the world permeates every aspect of her fiction.

I grew up in a nonreligious family. I've got a thoroughly secular outlook on life. Reading Flannery O'Connor's work gives me a look at the universe and human beings through eyes that are very different from my own. And I think that's one of the most valuable benefits that reading fiction can give a person.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am currently studying Of Mice and Men with my eighth grade Pre-AP students. I had not thought about the format of the writing until I read your comments about being written like a script.