Very Short Classics

One of the most surprising aspects of the development of the eBook market is that it has largely competed with physical books on their own terms as an ‘alternative’. While this highlights some advantages – eBooks are easier to store and carry, and often cheaper – there has been little attempt to do anything that physical books are not already doing, or even cannot do. And yet there are (at least) two obvious market gaps: one is in bonus content (something physical books have only occasionally flirted with in a rather perfunctory way with, for example, book club questions; eBooks, on the other hand, can include audio and video extras); and the other is out of print books. Even with print on demand, there is always going to be a limited number of books physically available – a much wider range can easily be ready to access in electronic format. Very Short Classics is a new venture which seeks to return to print some long lost texts, releasing eBook only novellas at the very reasonable price of 99p.

Two of their first three releases are translated texts: The Four Devils by Herman Bang, and Childless by Ignat Herrmann. Danish writer Bang’s only other representation in English is two novels published Dedalus; Czech author Herrmann is nowhere to be found – his Wikipedia page suggests only this and one other story have ever been translated, adding rather pointedly, “There are also a handful of Esperanto translations.”

The Four Devils  (translated by Marie Ottilie Heyl) is a tragic love story. The Four Devils – brothers Fritz and Adolf, sisters Aimee and Louise – are trapeze artists. It is clear from the beginning that Aimee’s affection for Fritz has developed beyond friendship. She lies awake at night worrying that his affection for her, on the other hand, is waning:

“One thing kept going through her mind: that Fritz’s eyes never met hers any more when he powdered her arms.”

In fact, Fritz’s eyes are elsewhere, on a wealthy, married woman who is regularly to be found in the audience, as can be observed when they are performing:

“…his eyes were glued on the tier of boxes that glowed and swayed far below them like the border of a many-coloured flower bed.”

Fritz waits night after night for this rich woman to acknowledge him, but, though he is sure her slow departure is “all for his benefit”, he pretends not to see her. When she eventually speaks to him, she asks, “Are you afraid of me?” and he vows not to see her again. The intensity of his feelings is reminiscent of Stefan Zweig:

“At night he lay for hours in silent wrath. And his desire took root during those first sleepless nights, took root in his despair, that he had never lain sleepless before.”

At the moment Aimee realises that Fritz has fallen in love with another, Bang takes us back to their first meeting, as children, when Fritz and Adolf, orphaned, are ‘adopted’ by the circus. The story may be based on a very traditional love triangle, but the circus setting adds a layer of danger: Aimee and Fritz’s lives are literally in each other’s hands. When Fritz finally spends the night with his rich admirer he finds his strength sapped the next day, feeing “the impotence of his weakened muscles.” Aimee is similarly weakened from her sleepless night. There emotions find release on the trapeze:

“Simultaneously the same rage flared up in both. Screaming they clutched each other, embracing wildly… They no longer met, grasped, embraced; they wrestled rather, and seized one another like animals.”

While the tragic denouement may be inevitable, the story burns with the intensity of Fritz and Aimee’s emotions. Bang is also convincing on circus life, from the adrenalin of performance to the boredom of waiting.

If The Four Devils is like a hot coal of rage and desire, then Childless (translated by Marie Busch and Otto Pick) takes a softer tone. It tells the story of Ivan Hron who, despite a political ‘indiscretion’ leading to a curtailment of his time at university and estrangement from his father, finds success through hard work:

“He had his carriage, he was rarely seen on foot; his wife was still a beautiful woman, his salary increased from year to year; he lived in his own handsome villa, travelled for six weeks in the year, and had no children.”

He, however, does not count his childlessness as being part of his good fortune, being unable to “get rid of the old fashioned feeling that that life is perfect only when it is blessed with children.”

Hron’s relationship with his wife Magda, we learn, was at first entirely one-sided. He meets her on a holiday in Dresden, but when he later visits her at home to request her hand in marriage he is refused. Only a change in her father’s fortunes, which encourages him to renew his entreaties, leads to his proposal being accepted. This is important later, both in establishing the sincerity of his love and in relation to a revelation midway through the story. Apart from the absence of a child, husband and wife now seem quite contented; until, that is, Hron arrives home early to find Magda with a letter: “Every drop of blood ebbed from her face…”

As the story progresses, its events are somewhat sign-posted, and some of the drama has been lost over time as our definition of ‘morality’ has changed, but that doesn’t prevent Childless from being a pleasurable read. Both of these Very Short Classics are well worth your (limited) investment of time and money and I am eager to discover what which neglected authors will next be returned to print.

Tags: , ,

6 Responses to “Very Short Classics”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Both of these sound really interesting, Grant – and I actually can accept that there might be a case for ebooks after all…..

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I hadn’t heard of this venture before so thanks for the heads-up. The Four Devils does sound quite Zweig-like (Beware of Pity, Letter from an Unknown Woman etc.) – I can see why you’ve made that comparison.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I came here from a link at David’s, having somehow missed this review. I’ve picked up Four Devils and may well try Childless too, though I suspect I can already guess the story. Still, that’s not too terrible when the story is at least short…

    There’s been a renaissance of out of print crime on ebooks as well, much of it actually pretty good. It’s definitely one of the advantages of the form.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I thought there would be more of it by now. Crime is the one genre which seems to have embraced the ability to bring older writer back into print. Even other genres, such as science fiction, don’t seem to have done as much, never mind what is known as ‘literature’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: