Novellas in November, short non-fiction and non-novellas: #NovNov, a brief recap

Quick reviews of all the short-form books I read in 2021 for Novellas in November. 9 finished and 6 half-read, ranging from obscure biographies, lots in Dutch, a ‘lost’ German novella, a wonderful children’s book set on the Dutch coast and a Dutch author who was a castaway for a week. November isn’t over yet for me!

In the age of climate change deniers, Covid deniers and conspiracy theorists, I have decided not to believe the rumour that it is the last day of November. I am now an end-of-November denier. Tomorrow, on 31 November, I will continue to finish the half-read novella-length books I started and continue to post blogposts about them. Ever the optimist! After all, the naming and of numbering of months is just a conspiracy theory to make people feel that time is slipping away from them. If I’ve counted correctly, I read 9 novella-length books this November and half-read another 6.

#NovNov My novels in November 2021; not pictured, The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (ebook)

Read in full

The Theft (1989) – Saul Bellow. Clara Velde and Ithiel Regler (or Teddy, as she calls him) were once engaged. They are still best friends, years later, but they meet to discuss the world and relationships. The emerald ring he gave her is still her most prized possession, until it is stolen, recovered, then stolen again. This felt like a collection of notes for a longer novel and the second half went nowhere. I suspect most people will end their review with the words, “I should have thrown this book out of the window”, just like the picture on the front cover.

O, How the Wheel Becomes It (1993) – Anthony Powell. This is a fantastic satire of the publishing industry. Geoffrey Shadbold, an author with modernist literary pretensions, earns his living as a literary critic. He also has a sideline as a contestant on panel shows and his wife is also a successful author. When he is asked to assess a diary written by a contemporary of his who died during the war, he initially relishes the idea of deciphering it and realises that the author, Winterwade, had been a gifted diarist. Much to his annoyance, he discovers that Winterwade had managed to sleep with a woman he had been pursuing himself. To add insult to injury, he had taken her to Paris to a hotel recommended to him by Shadbold. In a fit of pique, he tells the literary agent that the diary is unsuitable for publication, banking on the fact that the handwritten diary is virtually illegible. Unfortunately for him, he is about to be interviewed on television by a sadistic chat show host who loves to spring surprises on his interviewees in the shape of people from their pasts. Shadbold’s life is about to turn into a farce. It is delicious! I really must find more by Anthony Powell.

Winterbloei [Winter flowering] (2019) – Jan Wolkers. I have always actively avoided Jan Wolkers’ work because his most famous novel and the film made of it, Turks fruit (Turkish Fruit), is one of those overly-sexed Dutch novels I love to hate. This collection of writings is quite different and I’m sold! The excerpts are from various books and letters, all with the theme of nature, by one of the Netherlands’ most prominent authors. They were issued as an introduction to his work in 2019 for a Dutch reading campaign, Nederland Leest, when the book was given out free by libraries; I read it in the run up to this year’s edition, when De wandelaar [The Walker] by Adriaan van Dis was given away.

I thoroughly enjoyed Wolkers’ letters to his adult son describing what was going on in his garden. The most rewarding, however, was the central section, his diary of a single week in 1971 when he was dropped off alone at the deserted island Rottumerplaat, little more than a glorified sandbank off the Dutch coast. His only contact with the world was a brief daily call with a radio show to talk about his day. He thoroughly embraced the experience, enjoying swimming, eating shellfish, shrimps and sea lettuce and walking around naked where no one could see him. He also rescued and hand fed an oyster catcher (a bird) with a broken leg and rescued an abandoned seal pup. This was all in contrast with the previous week’s castaway, the author Godfried Bomans, who was renowned for writing fables featuring animals, but was a real townie who couldn’t wait to get back to his city life.

Erik of het klein insectenboek (1949) – Godfried Bomans. Coincidentally the next book I had picked to read, before I discovered the island castaway connection, was by the aforementioned Bomans. Again, it was a Nederland Leest reissue of his novella-length fable of a young boy who shrinks and is pulled into the world of the insects, snails, spiders and the like. This isn’t really designed as an instructional tale about small creatures, but the creatures all have distinct personalities and philosophies depending on their characteristics. Erik has a bad habit of putting his foot in it and insulting his hosts, for instance complaining a snail is too slow and making admiring comments about an insect which is considered inferior by his hosts. Although I enjoyed this book, it hasn’t inspired me to read any more of his work. It was also highly reminiscent of another Dutch classic I read recently, Frederik van Eeden’s De kleine Johannes (The Quest) (1887) and I wondered if it was a tribute or an attempt to emulate Alice in Wonderland and the like.

Wat bedoel je dat je de man bent (= Dagboek van een vrouwelijke arts) (Memoirs of a Woman Doctor) (1960) – Nawal al Saadawi. This is an Egyptian woman’s account of her life, based on al-Saadawi’s own life, concentrating on her childhood and personal journey to independence. As a child, she was free to play outside like her brother, but with puberty came unwanted attention from men. She withdrew into her room and her studies, shutting herself off from her mother’s limited expectations. Once she was a doctor, she took the initiative to find herself a husband who would allow her independence. After a failed marriage, she moved to the country to reset her life, but feels guilty because she is paid by people who can little afford her medicines. She feels emotionally aloof until she meets a man who shows her how to reconnect with her emotions. Al-Saadawi gave up her medical career to become an author and political activist on behalf of women. None of this is included in this early memoir, though it comments extensively on the role of women in Egyptian society, In her introduction she mentions that because her writing was constantly edited in Egypt, it felt like an amputation, so she used a publisher in Lebanon. Verdict: interesting as an insight into traditional expectations of women, but I suspect her later books were better written.

The Wheel on the School (1954) – Meindert de Jong. This was a real palate-cleanser after the heavy topics in Memoirs of a Woman Doctor. This is an absolutely delightful story about the children from a tiny Dutch village school who decide to attract storks to their village rooftops. However, they discover its not as easy as you would think to find a spare wagon wheel, nor to transport it once you’ve found it. Along the way they meet and make friends with villagers who they had always feared or ignored, strengthening their community. They have some pretty hair-raising adventures on the way. I remember listening enthralled to this on BBC school radio when I was about ten and have never forgotten the title and the storks in the roofs, but I hadn’t remembered any of the rest. Now I wonder if they just broadcast an excerpt. I also discovered that it hadn’t been translated from Dutch as I expected, but was written by a Dutch man who emigrated to the USA at the age of eight and based it on his childhood memories. I suspect he may have still thought in Dutch after all those years because Dutch phrases shone through in his English. The book was translated into Dutch in the 1950s, but is virtually unknown here. I am so glad I got the chance to read it; a kind American BookCrosser sent it to me when she mentioned it in a forum post. I think I will keep this forever in my personal collection.

East Wind, West Wind (1930) – Pearl S. Buck. Brought up to be a subservient Chinese wife, with bound feet and deep knowledge of traditional manners, subtle flavours and how to please her husband by her meekness, Kwei-lan has been betrothed since childhood to a man who studied in America to become a doctor and believes in Western ways. When they marry, he takes her to live in a Western-style house. She finds Western manners, food and dress barbaric. Her ailing mother is relying on her to produce a male heir so she can honour the ancestors. When this doesn’t happen, she tells her daughter that she will have to compromise. Only when she asks her husband to explain scientific principles to her do they finally form a bond. But there are more upsets in store for her traditional family with her absent father, several concubines and a brother who also goes to America. I really enjoyed this story, especially the explanations about a traditional world that seems very similar to that of traditional geishas in Japan. For fans of Geisha, The Snow Fan and The Last Emperor.

The Little Man from Archangel (Le petit homme d’Arkhangelsk, translated from French by Nigel Ryan) (1956) – Georges Simenon. This is my first ever Simenon and I thoroughly enjoyed it, though it wasn’t a detective novel as I’d expected. Jonas Milk is an unassuming secondhand bookseller, the son of Russian émigrés who used to run the nearby fishmongers on the market square where he lives and works. He has lived there all his life, except when he went to school elsewhere. He has always felt completely accepted, though he is aware that they always refer to him as Monsieur Jonas instead of just using his first name like everyone else. His only worry is his much younger wife, Gina. She didn’t come home last night. It’s not the first time, so he’s not too worried; she’ll come back and he won’t ask any questions. But people keep asking where she is, including her parents who also live on the square and her brother, who had always been against the marriage. Jonas makes the mistake of telling a little white lie to save face. He says Gina has gone to visit a friend in Bourges, but gradually people realise it’s a lie, and suspicion falls on him. All of a sudden, they make him feel a real outsider and start to accuse and ostracise him. Where is Gina? Did he really kill her? How can he prove he didn’t? Why did he tell so many lies and half-truths? Verdict: excellent. I’m now keen to read more by Georges Simenon.

De reiziger (Der Reisende/The Passenger) (1939) – Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, translated from German to Dutch by Izaak Hilhorst and Irene Dirkes. This novella was a firsthand account that bore witness to the overt arrest and internment of Jews in Germany during and immediately following Kristallnacht. It was ‘lost’ for many years, reissued in German, then translated to Dutch in 2018. I hoped to read and review it before the English-speaking world caught up in 2021, but I delayed too long and forgot it was on my Kobo app. The combination of #GermanLitMonth and #NovNov finally reminded me. It was worth it. The non-practising Jew Silbermann is married to a gentile, he served in the German army in the First World War with Becker, who is now his business partner. To all intents and purposes, he considers himself German. He has the infinite advantage that he doesn’t look Jewish, but Hitler’s anti-Semitic forces are gaining ground. He is cautious and trying to convince his son in Paris of the urgency of obtaining a visa. Soon it comes to a head with an ominous knock on the door. Leaving a business associate and his wife to answer, Silbermann leaves by the back door and so begins a life of flight, in constant fear of capture, moving from one place to another, crisscross through Germany. So far only men have been arrested, so his sister is safe for now. To complicate the issue, he cannot contact his wife so is wracked by indecision; she’s not Jewish, surely she’s safe? And so the situation spirals, as he realises that even his closest friends feel unable to help, that his presence comprises the safety of others. He blames them for their treachery, but later realises that even he is not prepared to sacrifice himself to help someone else who is more obviously Jewish. Knowing what we know, in retrospect, this was a timely warning, written when the writing was in the wall for the Jews, but Hitler hadn’t yet fully implemented his evil plan. Chillingly prescient.

Still reading

One of the disadvantages of reading novella-length books that I personally come up against is that, if I am struggling with one because I’m tired or just want to read for five minutes before bedtime, I have the bad habit of picking up something new. Then I get hooked and want to continue with the new book. I find this especially tempting if I’m reading a book with clear sections or discrete stories. And so it is that I find myself at the beginning of my extended November reading several half-read novellas or collections.

Cannery Row (1945) – John Steinbeck. This was a last-minute attempt to fit in at least one classic novella this month that anyone else might have heard of and tick off another book on the 1001 book list. I don’t know what I expected, but this isn’t it. It almost perfectly fits the dictionary definition of picaresque (according to that venerable old reference tool, Wikipedia. The only rule it breaks is that it is not about a single renegade, it seems to be made up of a loosely connected series of anecdotes about a down-at-heel community on the coast at Monterey before WWII. Somehow it vaguely reminds me of my sons’ Grand Theft Auto game in terms of scenery and seediness. As I haven’t finished yet, I don’t know if the book extends into the war period; I could Google to find out, but I shan’t because, as it’s so enjoyable, I will have finished it in no time. I have already read Of Mice and Men and was equally impressed. One thing that strikes me is that they both include young men with learning difficulties. Is this a recurring theme for Steinbeck, and if so, is there some personal reason he did this?

Under the Eye of the Clock (1987) – Christopher Nolan. The author was born profoundly handicapped by cerebral palsy, having little control over his body and unable to speak. Fortunately for him, his parents gave him unconditional love, included him in all they did, talked to him and his father told unlimited stories and recited poetry to him from an early age. They realised that he was intelligent and could understand what he wanted by a system of empathy, close observation and nods from the boy. He was sent to a special school where he learnt to read and write, then they managed to find a secondary school which was equally open-minded and inclusive. His mother initially helped him to write, supporting his head while he typed, letter by painstaking letter. When he was 14, he won a literary award from was then called the British Spastics Society, his case was publicised and IT specialists started working with him to find ways for him to communicate using a computer. This book is his autobiography, but he renames himself and his parents. In the book, he calls himself Joseph, perhaps in reference to a moment of supreme happiness when he took part in his school’s performance of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. In parts the language in this book is extraordinary, with unusual word uses and imagined words, with passages that jump from the page with originality. In other parts the language is more pedestrian. Whether this is a result of different parts being written when he was younger, of joining more poetic parts together with narrative prose, or whether his mother edited or even wrote the rest to make it into a coherent book and speed the process up, I wouldn’t like to speculate. What is certain is that Christopher Nolan’s life was both extraordinary and extraordinarily difficult and the less fanciful passages are a necessary respite from the sheer flights of fancy of the rest. Verdict: Due to the concentration required to read parts of this book, it took far longer than anticipated, but I shall certainly make the effort to read the rest to find out what happened to him up to the age of 22 when this was published.

Rebel voor het leger [Rebel for the army] (1985) – Eva den Hartog. Memoirs of a Dutch Salvation Army officer who spent her life working abroad, particularly during the decolonisation of the Belgian Congo, but later in Bangladesh, briefly in Vietnam during the withdrawal of American troops and even in the USA. She started work as a nurse, but was such an excellent organiser that she was soon in charge of setting up and running aid camps for refugees in various places, running medical centres and training local staff. She seemed to have the knack of persuasion which she put to good use when negotiating with government and other officials. Her own charisma also came in handy when she was interviewed on television and radio programmes about her work; her campaigns raised vast amounts of money. This is a fascinating account, though I suspect she was quite a taskmaster and didn’t suffer fools gladly. In fact, that was one of the things that brought her into conflict with the officers above her in the hierarchical organisation she worked for. A fascinating life.

Chuapi punchapi tutayaca: verhalen over Indianen [… stories about Indians] (1984), translated from Spanish and Portuguese into Dutch by Hermien Gaikhorst, Emmy Kwant, Mariolein Sabarte-Belacortu, Mieke Westra. This is one of those books that has been making me feel guilty ever since I got it because it’s only short stories so why can’t I wrestle my way through it? The ‘Indians’ in question live in South and Central America: Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Peru. They almost all come from the Latin-American indigenismo movement. Many bemoan the fate of the native peoples after colonisation, but some stories actively celebrate indigenous culture. Nevertheless, I find them hard going. Never fear, I shall persevere!

Twee weken in Holland (Quinze jours en Hollande [A fortnight in Holland] (1892), translated from French to Dutch by Frank de Zwager) (1985). The majority of this short book contains a report of a trip the French Symbolist poet took to the Netherlands in 1892, written as if it were a letter to a friend. He was there at the invitation of a prominent group of young artists, there to give a series of lectures in The Hague and Leiden. Only one I have definitely heard of: Jan Toorop, and that only because he has a street named after him in Nijmegen. I have discovered he also lived there for a time, designed some stained glass in a church I have passed hundreds of times and was of Indonesian descent, born in Java. Much of his later work incorporated his heritage and ushered in the Dutch style of Art Nouveau that was humorously referred to as slaoliestijl (salad oil style) because of Toorop’s famous poster for a Delft salad oil. It was also interesting to realise that Verlaine’s host, the artist Zilcken, was married to a Javan lady and that, at least in their artistic circles, this was accepted. Some of the authors he met were part of the Tachtiger Movement (the Eightiers) whose writing was too radical for the mainstream literary magazine De gids (The Guide). One of the men Verlaine met was the poet and critic Willem Kloos who, together with Frederik van Eeden, set up a rival literary magazine with the ironic name De nieuwe gids (The new Guide). Van Eeden you may recall, wrote De kleine Johannes (The Quest), which I mentioned earlier. For me, the main interest in reading this is the snippets of information about Dutch society at the end of the 19th century and connecting dots between Dutch artists and authors, realising that they moved in such a small circle in a social whirl of concerts, dinner parties and soirées. Somehow I think I will never really learn who was who, but the information is interesting as long as I can remember it.

Finding a Voice (1978) – Amrit Wilson. Essays by Asian immigrants in the UK in the 1970s. A new edition of this appeared in 2018 with a new chapter about what the book meant to South Asian women in Britain and comparing their lives to the women in the original interviews, but this is a slightly revised edition from the 1980s, which is presumably when I bought it from a secondhand bookshop. Although this is fascinating, there is a lot of information included and I’m taking notes, so progress is slow. Once again, this is a book I intend to return to, read and digest, sooner rather than later.