Novellas in Translation

How long is a novella? And does anybody really care? Texts, of course, can only really be measured in words, but, with the average reader unable to access the word count of every book they take from the shelf, we are left with the less exact maximum of pages. Which, particularly during a month when the reading of novellas is encouraged, can often stretch lycra-like to accommodate the beefier book. Usually we can keep below 200 pages, but, even that barrier is sometimes broken in an attempt to remove a long-standing obligation from the piles of the unread. So, in an effort to obtain certainty, here are eight translated novellas short enough not to feel like novels, coming in at 100 pages or less.

Well, I say 100 pages or less, but Daniel Kehlmann’s You Should Have Left (translated by Ross Benjamin) is officially 111 pages, though those pages are all an inch smaller than normal making this a novella in every dimension. Speaking of dimensions, You Should Have Left is a haunted house story where the narrator is haunted by the (very modern) house itself which does seems to resist being contained by the physical laws of space and time as we understand them. Isolated setting (the Alps) – check. Small child (four-year-old daughter) – check. Warnings from locals (“Get away, quickly”) – check. Everything needed, in fact, for a particularly modern take on the ghost story.

Jean Echenoz’s 1914 (translated by Linda Coverdale) comes next in the page count at 109 – but adopts the format where, if a chapter finishes on the right-hand page, the next page is blank. Echenoz’s work has always tended to be short, so much so that his trilogy of biographical novels – Ravel, Running, Lightning – have been published in one volume. 1914 is, unsurprisingly, a story of World War One. Luckily Echenoz shares a tip on how to make sure your novella doesn’t creep into novel territory: “All this has been described a thousand times, so perhaps it’s not worthwhile to linger any longer over that sordid stinking opera.” Instead the focus is mainly on a love triangle between brothers Charles and Anthime and the woman they both love, Blanche. It’s the effect the war has on relationships which interests Echenoz the most.

Peirene Press should, of course, be represented in every list of novellas, as the imprint began with the intention to provide something that can be read in two hours or less. Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast (translated by Jamie Bulloch), at 105 pages, is one of their shorter books, and also one of their most popular (so much so that Vanderbeke became the first author they published twice). The entire novella takes place over one meal as the mother and two teenage children wait for the father’s return. Slowly we come to realise the tyrannical character of the father, which in turn exemplifies tyranny itself (Vanderbeke is East German). It is a masterclass in how much can be done with so little.

Tommy Wieringa’s The Death of Murat Idrissi is another novella which just creeps over the hundred page mark (102). Translated by Sam Garnett, it made the International Booker long list in 2019. It’s a timely examination of immigration from North Africa into Europe which features both second generation, European passport holding children of immigrants alongside those who are now desperately trying to make the journey. This allows Wieringa to examine immigration from a number of different angles: Alham, whose parents are Moroccan, is repulsed by the poverty and heat of Morocco, however, at the same time, she does not feel fully Dutch; yet, of another child of immigrants she senses: “He would beat them at their own game and be Dutcher than the Dutch.” It’s complex story which offers no easy answers.

Nina Berberova’s The Accompanist (translated by Marion Schwartz) is the first of our novellas to fall below 100 pages. It’s a classic example of how the brevity of a novella can be used to present the intensity of a relationship, here between the pianist Maria and her accompanist, Sonechka. Sonechka idolises Maria but her sense of inferiority leads her to develop a longing to discover a weakness, a secret which she can keep to show her loyalty, but also to gain some power over Maria in a relationship which seems entirely one-sided. (At one point Maria dismisses Sonechka’s boyfriend as “silly” so she ends the relationship). We increasingly sense that to be more than the accompanist, Sonechka will need to betray Maria.

Goncalo M Tavares’ A Man: Klaus Klump (translated by Rhett McNeil) is one page shorter at 93 pages but just as powerful. Here, we have not only love, but war. Klump is a writer, and a lover rather than a fighter, until one event changes both his life and that of the woman he loves, Johanna. When Klump is out, a group of soldiers rape Johanna and this terribel act of violence drives them in opposite directions: he becomes a fighter with the resistance and she a collaborator with the occupying army. Tavares’ examines the way in which war changes people – in fact, how it is impossible to remain untouched – in a detached, one might even say tongue-in-cheek, style that highlights rather than hides the horror.

Now we begin to reach a page count where some might argue what we have is a long a short story, starting with Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole (all 70 pages translated by Rosalind Harvey). It is narrated by a young boy, Tochtli, who wants for nothing, even if it is a Liberian pygmy hippo. It soon becomes clear that the reason for this is that his father has made a lot of money selling drugs. Villalobos exposes the macho culture of criminality though the voice of the child and the ‘lessons’ he has learned, for example that “people who cry are faggots.” As the novella progresses, we see the damage that Tochtli’s upbringing has done to him in what is a wonderful example of how a child narrator can bring a fresh perspective to an old story.

Another 70 page novella is Kornel Filipowicz’s The Memoir of an Anti-Hero, originally published in 1961 but only recently translated into English by Anna Zaranko. The ‘anti-hero’, who is also our narrator, experiences the German occupation of Poland with acceptance – as far as he is concerned “I belong to the side of the losers and I have to succumb to those who now run the country.” His ability to speak German allows him to adopt the ‘neutrality’ of moving between the two nationalities when necessary. Above all, his credo is self-preservation, probably not an unusual sentiment at the time. Though there is little to admire in our ‘anti-hero’, it is difficult not to sympathise such is the skill of the narrative.

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18 Responses to “Novellas in Translation”

  1. heavenali Says:

    I have only read The Mussel Feast of these, but I really like the sound of 1914. I have been enjoying reading some shorter things this month.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I tend to think a novella shouldn’t be a lot over 100 pages though some have suggested getting closer to 200 pages. Not sure there… Some interesting titles in your list though, and the two I’ve read are comfortably under 100 pages yet completely satisfying!

  3. kimbofo Says:

    I tend to class a novella as less than 200 pages. I’ve read several on your excellent list, including The Mussel Feast (agree that all Peirene books are novellas), The Death of Murat Idrissi, and Down the Rabbit Hole. I like the sound of The Anti-Hero.

    • 1streading Says:

      The Anti-Hero is worth picking up – a writer who I believe is quite well known in Poland but had not being translated into English before. (Though I think that ‘less than 200 pages’ is a bit generous!)

  4. JacquiWine Says:

    So many interesting choices, Grant! The Berberova is brilliant, so much depth and intensity for such a slim novella – it’s lovely to see it highlighted here.

  5. Tony Says:

    I’ve read a few of these, and one even made it onto a similar list I knocked up back in 2012 😉

    https://tonysreadinglist.wordpress.com/2012/12/04/just-great-novellas-in-any-language/

  6. Novellas in November Begins! | Bookish Beck Says:

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  7. Cathy746books Says:

    Great list Grant! A lot of these really appeal to me. I enjoyed You Should Have Left a lot. So much so that I can’t bring myself to watch the movie adaptation!

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  9. lizzysiddal Says:

    I once heard Allan Massie give a description of a novella – on a day I had no pen and paper, alas. So I’m summarising from a very faulty memory here. It was something along the lines of one plot (i.e no sub-plots) and one POV.

  10. Emma Says:

    Great list! I’ve only read the Berberova.

    The page limit depends on the layout (as you know when you have to write a paper!) and the language. With the same layout, a text that makes 100 pages in English will have more pages in French.

    So who has the final decision about the novella / novel sticker?

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