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.

Dublin 4 (1982) by Maeve Binchy for Novellas in November #NovNov

In the expectation of a taster of the Maeve Binchy magic in novella form, I was surprised to find four unlinked stories, all set in Dublin.

When I started reading this book, I had no idea it contained a quartet of unrelated short stories. I would have known if I had read the first part of the back cover text, but as it started with ‘From the bestselling author of’, I skipped that bit. In fact, I was well into the second story before I realised it was never going to have any connection with the first. The only connection is that they are all set in Dublin.

Themes

The main protagonists in all four of the stories are starting afresh in one way or another. The demon drink or drunkenness is also mentioned in every story, with the final one being about a recovering alcoholic. Another odd link between two of the stories is that there are characters who use their master bedroom for another purpose, either an office or an artist’s studio. I wonder if that was Maeve Binchy’s own dream. She definitely made use of her own experience as she moved to a Dublin bedsit in 1971.


Dinner in Donnybrook

A woman who has been wronged and retreated into depression finally takes control and uses her intelligence to get what she wants, rediscovering her enjoyment of life in the process, much to the confusion of all around, who are used to the dowdy, passive, middle-aged version.


Carmel is uncharacteristically arranging a dinner party on October 8th, the day of the opening of Ruth O’Donnell’s exhibition and has invited Ruth. The problem is, Ruth has been having an affair with Carmel’s husband Dermot, though they are having a two-week trial separation. The affair seems to be general knowledge, but nobody wants to tell Carmel. Everyone is tiptoeing around her because she has had some unspecified mental health issues: depression or a nervous breakdown.


Dermot “laughed wryly to himself. It was most people’s idea of a married man’s dream: an unquestioning wife and an unquestioning mistress. But it was a bad dream, he could write a book on what a bad dream it was. You were happy in neither place, you were guilty in both places. The very fact that nobody was making any move made it all the more insoluble. If Carmel had threatened and pleaded, perhaps, if Ruth had issued ultimatums, perhaps. Perhaps it might have been better. But nothing ever happened. Until now. Until Ruth had been invited to dinner.”

Dermot thinks he is keeping both women happy, but really he’s manipulating both of them. Ruth, on the other hand, feels guilty that she is cheating, that she is not showing solidarity as a woman.


Not only does nobody else know for sure if Carmel knows, but we don’t either for a long time. Carmel is the only one who doesn’t seem worried about what’s going to happen. She has everything planned out, everything under control, as we soon find out when she talks to her old friend Joe, who has returned from London to help her carry out her plan. The fact that he is gay plays a pivotal role in the backstory of how Carmel resolves the problem of her husband’s mistress.


This story is classic Binchy, with conversations that feel real, sharing with the reader the inner thoughts and doubts of all the characters. Sadly, she left the story open-ended, without describing what happened after the dinner party so carefully arranged, but in retrospect, that was the right decision as I suspect it would have been a perfectly civilised affair, thanks to Carmel’s cunning plan.

Flat in Ringsend

Jo, a girl just at moved to Dublin from ‘up country’ finds herself a flat with two other girls, but is upset to find they will not provide the friendship and social life she enjoyed at home. She regrets moving out of the hostel run by nuns where she first stayed; then she could go to the cinema with the other girls or play card games or talk. Now she sits alone in her room or feels out of place when she bumps into the other two girls in the shared kitchen. Binchy has a good feel for the loneliness and sense of dislocation when you first move and know nobody, especially in a big city. Jo, however, is a true innocent abroad and is too timid for her own good. Working at the post office, she imagines she will get to know the customers, but
“She had never expected the miles and miles of streets where nobody knew anyone, the endless bus journeys, the having to get up two hours before she was meant to be at work in case she got lost or the bus was cancelled.”


It reminds me of how I felt the first Saturday at university when everyone else had gone out to the Freshers’ disco and I was left alone. I soon decided that, much as discos ‘weren’t my thing’, I would join them. I was wrong about the disco; I loved it and… that was the night I met my husband! Jo also realises that she has to be proactive, so goes to a pub where a well-known band, the Great Gaels – fictional, I assume – is playing. But then two men start buying her drinks and she is too naive to deal with the situation. This could turn very, very bad…

Decision in Belfield

The story begins with Pat, a university student who has fallen pregnant and is feeling desperate in an Ireland where having a child out of wedlock is a scandal and abortion is illegal. “She had been reading the Problem Pages for years. One or two of them always said things about having done grievous wrong in the eyes of God and now the only thing to do was to Make Restitution. Most of them said that your parents would be very understanding. […] Not in Pat’s home. There would be no support, no understanding. […] She knew that Mum and Dad would not be a bundle of support and two big rocks of strength. Because they hadn’t been any of that five years ago when her elder sister Cathy had been pregnant. There was no reason why their attitude should have changed as time went by.”


The majority of the story is about what happened after Cathy went off to England after breaking with the family. Pat, still a young teenager at the time, desperately tried to find out what had actually happened; had she had an abortion or given the baby up for adoption? Her parents were bitter, she couldn’t ask her eldest sister who was a nun in Australia and the father of the child seemed oblivious. Gradually she found out more and, by talking to her parents, discovered their side of the story, which was more nuanced than we are at first led to believe.“People were really behaving more and more peculiarly, Pat decided. The older they got the vaguer they became. […] once people got any way settled they seemed to lose touch with reality and built themselves a comfortable little world like a Wendy House entirely of their own creation.”


Now, Pat is pregnant herself and it’s time for her to take control. There’s a tiny twist in the tail about how she got pregnant and the slightest doubt about what she’s going to do about it, but the point of the story is more about families assuming things about each other and not talking about their feelings.

Murmurs in Montrose

Gerry, a notorious drunk, formerly a successful advertising photographer, is about to leave the nursing home where he has spent the last six weeks ‘taking the cure’. His wife and children are apprehensive, as is the parish priest, who has always supported the family when he came home drunk. Only his mother thinks the drinking was due to stress; she is the only one who doesn’t understand that he needs to stay away from alcohol. We’re privy to everyone’s feelings about his return. It’s a huge strain on everybody. Can his wife Emma support them all until he manages to find some commissions? Will he stay dry? How will they all adjust?


This was the least successful of the four stories, although it does reveal the stresses and strains put on a family in this situation and the feeling of stepping on egg shells. We’re left in limbo, knowing it will probably go spectacularly wrong. It’s all rather unsettling and feels an odd way to leave a book. It’s almost as if it’s a challenge to write your own ending. I dare say Binchy covered the same ground in one of her novels, but the ones I have read, I read so long ago that I can’t be sure. In any case, it has reminded me how well she wrote, so I may return to one of her doorstopper novels in the future.


An excellent start to Novellas in November, even though it was really Not a Novellas in November!

Run by Rebecca at Bookish Beck
and Cathy at 746 Books

Novellas in November #NovNov

When I read about the Novellas in November challenge, I knew immediately that this was one challenge that I couldn’t miss out on. As you’ll soon see, I seem to have rather a lot of short novels on my shelves, most of them unread.

I even have a few half-read novellas, if you can believe it. It seems I am capable of giving up before the end of a 150-page novel, which doesn’t show much staying power, now, does it? In my defence, that’s usually because I picked up a novella to put in my bag on a short journey or trip to somewhere I expected to wait for a while, but didn’t have to travel or wait long enough to finish. Once I get home, there’s usually another half-read book on the go that has priority for a book club meeting or because it’s on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, so that makes it more ‘worthy’. So that poor novella gets put to one side and overlooked between all the beefier tomes.

How long is a novella anyway?

The two bloggers running the challenge, Rebecca at Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746books, say that a novella is defined by a word count (17,500 – 39,999 or 7,500 to 16,999 for a novelette according to Wikipedia, but who’s going to count?). They suggest a length of around 150 pages, with an absolute upper limit of 200 pages. That rules out a number of the books I added to my list, but sometimes it just depends on the edition.

Size doesn’t matter, but age does!

Sometimes it’s all down to the white space and the font. Good quality and older editions often have an inordinate amount of that. For instance, I have an old edition of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair that is 237 pages long, but more modern Penguin and Vintage editions are listed on Goodreads with only 192 or even 160 pages. Some of the more ‘utility’ versions published after WWII have tiny writing, crammed on to thin paper with narrow margins. Likewise, some of my classics are printed on extremely thin paper, just like the Bibles and prayer books of my youth. So, in general, the older the book, the thinner the book. So page count isn’t always helpful, but if I can find a different edition on Goodreads below 200 pages, that’s good enough for me.

How many novellas by women writers can you fit on a shelf?

I’m sure I recently read a quote by a feminist writer – Fay Weldon? Virginia Woolf? Margaret Atwood? – that said that women tend to feel they aren’t entitled to take up space and that women are appreciated for being small, so they tend to write short, thin novels, as opposed to men who tend to be boastful of their accomplishments and write thick, macho doorstoppers. It was certainly my immediate thought that I have a number of remarkably thin books written by women, many of them called Penelope for some obscure reason: Penelope Fitzgerald, Penelope Lively, Penelope Mortimer. Penelope Lively’s City of the Mind is just too long, at 220 pages, as is The Photograph at a whopping 236 pages. I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to find the source of that idea, but while I was searching, I came across a fascinating article by Mary Beard in which she refers to Penelope as being the first woman in the Western literary canon to be silenced by a man, her son Telemachus. Ironically, all three of those authorial Penelopes are best known or only wrote under their married names. Incidentally, Sally Rooney also wrote a great article about the pitfalls of ‘writing whilst female’.

Do women write more novellas?

I’m not sure if it was this little collection of female writers that I bought at the same time and were initially shelved together that made me think that women might be more inclined to write novellas or shorter novels. If I kept a list of my books on a spreadsheet, I could run some stats, but I don’t, so I will resist the temptation to find out. On my bookshelves, I have the impression that this is the case, put it that way. After all, some male authors are renowned for their succinct style, notably Ernest Hemingway, but also Graham Greene and (I suspect) crime writers like Ian Fleming and Erle Stanley Gardner. Likewise, women crime writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Historical novelists also tip the balance in the opposite direction, notably Philippa Gregory and Jean M. Auel and, latterly, Hilary Mantel, all of whom can give the Game of Thrones series a run for its money, not to mention Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind and A.S. Byatt’s Possession and The Children’s Book.

Conversely, male authors have a tendency to be over-bloated. I haven’t done a scientific study, but authors like Jonathan Franzen, Stephen King, James Joyce and David Mitchell tend not to be brief. And we won’t even mention the ‘serial offenders’ like George R.R. Martin, J.R.R. Tolkien and Neal Stephenson. I suspect they may be matched by the women who are also prolific series writers such as Patricia Cornwell and, Elizabeth George (whose books are invariably chunky).

On my TBR shelves (if I counted correctly):

  • 47 novellas by men (46 individual authors)
  • 18 novellas by women (17 individual authors)

I’m not going to draw any conclusions from that; it just happens to be what I have at the moment. It is undoubtedly skewed towards male authors by the predominantly male 1001 List and the fact that many of my novellas are Dutch Book Week freebies and the vast majority of those are by men, make of that what you will.

Novellas in Dutch

As I live in the Netherlands and am a Dutch-English translator, I also read in Dutch, though I prefer to read books originally published in English in English, if I can, because the literary merit of a book is often in the language itself. I have to say, I don’t get on well with Dutch literature, but that’s a topic for another day.

Novella’s en boekenweekgeschenken
Dutch novellas TBR

As I said above, I have so many novellas in Dutch because they are given away as free gifts by the Dutch national book marketing association, CPNB (literally Collective Propaganda for Dutch Books; they prefer the word ‘promotion’ in their Wikipedia entry in English). These tend to be written by top authors and, if I look at the ones I own, they are predominantly men. This is partly because I have already read and passed on those written by women that I have come across.

Dutch novellas available in translation – by women

  • De glazen brug by Marga Minco [translated as The glass bridge by S. Knecht]
  • Transit by Hella S. Haasse [translated as En Transit (Fr.) by Anne-Marie de Both-Diez, Di Passagio (It.) by Laura Pignatti]
  • Oeroeg by Hella S. Haasse [translated as The Black Lake by Ina Rilke (Eng.), Le Lac noir (Fr.) by Marie-Noëlle Fontenat, Der schwarze See (Ger.) by Gregor Seferens, L’amico perduto (It.) by Fulvio Ferrari]
  • De ijsdragers by Anna Enquist [translated as The Ice Carriers (Eng.) by Jeanette K. Ringold, Die Eisträger (Ger.) by Hanni Ehlers, Les Porteurs de Glace (Fr.) by Michelin’s Goche].

Dutch novellas available in translation – by men

Oddly, I have only read and passed on one book week novella written by a Dutch man, De pianoman [The Piano Man] by J. Bernlef, which hasn’t been translated. I seem to be somewhat biased! However, I know I have undoubtedly read more, for instance:

  • Het gouden ei by Tim Krabbé [literally The golden egg, translated (twice) The Vanishing (Eng.) by Claire Nicholas White and Sam Garrett, Das goldene Ei and Spurlos (Ger.), Scomparsa (It.), La desaparición (Sp.) by Marta Arguilé Bernal, A Desaparecida (Port.)].

I was thinking that Tim Krabbé’s agent obviously did a good job selling the translation rights, but then found out it was made into a film starring Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland. This undoubtedly explains the plethora of translations, with none of the translators listed on Goodreads. Tim Krabbé’s book week gift Een tafel vol vlinders is also waiting to be read.

The ones that didn’t fit the bill

I thought this would be a good excuse to read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, under 200 pages, but discovered it’s not one novella but several short stories, as is Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Means of Escape (174pp). Not to mention all the novels that looked thin, but had more pages than expected due to thin paper.

Which ones will I read during Novellas in November?

Obviously with such an embarrassment of riches, I will have to prioritise some over others. As my husband said to me, if you read all the short novels now, you won’t get through all those long ones you want to read once you’re losing your marbles. He has a point. That being the case, perhaps I should pick the ones which are on the 1001 List first. There are a surprising number, given they are so short. I suspect this is because novels cost a lot to translate, so when push comes to shove, it’s cheaper to translate a novella and that means that translated works on ‘worthy’ book lists tend to be shorter, not necessarily an author’s best works. Call me cynical, but it’s a definite trend I’ve noticed.

There are a grand total of 17 novels in my possession on the 1001 List. If I could read all of those in November, I would exceed my (admittedly unambitious) goal of reading 12 from the list this year. On the other hand, it could severely limit my chances of reading 12 in subsequent years if I have to read more weighty tomes. Still, I might feel very accomplished. I just started Rituelen [Rituals] by the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom, so I’m already on my way. There are other challenges to be met, however.

Other challenges

I am already signed up to various other challenges on BookCrossing and Goodreads. For instance, every year I attempt a ‘read around the world’ type challenge on BookCrossing, the 666 challenge, which involves reading 6 books from 6 different countries from each of the 6 continents. As usual, I am way behind and struggling with South America and the Pacific regions in particular. So I will try to pick as many international books as I can and not double up on countries. I am also attempting to read some of my books with a number higher than 3 in the title (for the BookCrossing Ultimate Challenge), so as it’s one of my oldest books on the shelf, I’m going to try to fit Maeve Binchy’s Dublin 4 in. And next month’s theme is ‘names in the title’, so I may save My Ántonia, Saving Agnes, Noor’s Story, etc. for then.

Last month, I also took part in the 1956 Club challenge, and lo and behold, I found another novella published in 1956, so that one is a definite read for this month (even though the deadline for the challenge is long gone). In November, there is also an AusReading Month challenge, Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM) hosted by Buried in Print and Consumed by Ink and Nonfiction November.

Novellas on my shelf

  • Key to symbols (for my own benefit as much as anyone else’s):
  • 1001 – 1001 List
  • # – Number over 3 in the title
  • ABC – A name in the title
  • + – From a country I haven’t covered yet in my country challenge
  • % – Half-read
  • NF Non-fiction
  • OZ Australian author
Short novels
Look, more novellas!

TBR Novellas in English

Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart (1958) – Nigeria, 187pp. 1001 +

Martin Amis – Time’s Arrow (1991) – UK, 176pp. 1001 ABC

Isaac Asimov – I, Robot -> Ik, robot (1950) – USA, 154pp. 1001

Saul Bellow – A Theft (1989) – USA, 109pp.

Maeve Binchy – Dublin 4 (1982) – Ireland, 208pp. #

Mahi Binebine – Cannibales -> De kannibalen / Welcome to Paradise (1999) – Morocco, 172pp. +%

Pearl S. Buck – East Wind: West Wind (1931) – China, 156pp. +%

Willa Cather – My Ántonia (1918) – USA, 175pp. 1001 ABC

Rachel Cusk – Saving Agnes (1993) – USA, 218pp. ABC

Margaret Drabble – The Millstone (1965) – UK, 155pp.

Gerald Durrell – The Drunken Forest (1956) – Argentina, Paraguay, 199pp. +%NF

Noor Ebrahim – Noor’s Story (1999) – South Africa, non-fiction, 87pp. +NF

Graham Greene – The End of the Affair (1951) – UK, 237pp. in this edition! 1001

Graham Greene – The Third Man (1950) – The Fallen Idol (1935) – UK, 120pp/37pp. 1001

Kazuo Ishiguro – A Pale View of Hills (1982) – UK/Japan, 183pp. 1001

Jamaica Kincaid – Annie John (1985) – Antigua, 170pp. 1001 ABC +

Hanif Kureishi – Gabriel’s Gift (2001) – UK, 178pp. ABC

Jean Liedloff – The Continuum Concept (1975) – Venezuela, 150pp. NF +

John Marsden – Winter (2000) – Australia, 135pp. OZ

Colleen McCullough – The Ladies of Missalonghi (1987) – Australia, 132pp. OZ

Ian McEwan – On Chesil Beach (2007) – UK, 166pp.

Iris Murdoch – Acastos (1986) – UK, 131pp.

George Orwell – Animal Farm (1945) – UK, 110pp. 1001

Doris Pilkington – Rabbit-proof Fence (2003) – Australia, 157pp. OZ

John Steinbeck – Of Mice and Men/Cannery Row (1937/1945) – USA, 97pp./50pp. 1001

Susanna Tamaro – Va’dove ti porta il cuore [De stem van je hart (NL)] (1994) – Italy, 173pp.

Sue Townsend – Rebuilding Coventry (1988) – UK, 205pp.

Evelyn Waugh – The Loved One (1948) – UK, 89pp.

H.G. Wells – The Time Machine (1895) – UK, 91pp. 1001 ABC

Virginia Woolf – Mrs Dalloway (1925) – UK, 165pp. 1001

Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse (1927) – UK, 154pp. 1001

Short books in translation
Novellas translated into Dutch or English

Novellas in Translation

Alessandro Baricco – Seta (1996) [translated from Italian as Silk (Eng.) by Guido Waldman, Soie (Fr.) by Françoise Brun, Seide (Ger.) by Karin Krieger, Zijde (NL) by Manon Smits), Seda (Sp.) by Carlos Gumpert & Xavier González Rovira] – Italy, 120pp. 1001

Gerbrand Bakker – Perenbomen bloeien wit: het verhaal van drie broers (NL) (1999) [Translated as Birnbäume blühen weiss (Ger.) by Andrea Kluitmann; Los perales tienen la flor bianca (Sp.) / Les pereres fan la flor blanca (Catalan/Valencian) by Maria Rosich; ; no English translation] – NL, 143pp.

Heinrich Böll – Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (Ger.) (1974) [Translated as The Lost Honour of Katharine Blum (Eng.) by Leila Vennewitz] – Germany, 116pp. 1001 ABC

Alejo Carpentier – El Acoso (Sp.) (1956) [Translated as The Chase (Eng.) by Alfred Mac Adam] – Cuba, 122pp. +

Arthur C. Clarke – 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968) [Translated as 2001 ruimte odyssee (NL) by J.B. de Mare] – USA, 189pp. 1001 #

Sahar Khalifa – Al-Subar (Arabic) (1976) [Translated as De cactus: een Palestijnse roman (NL) by ?; Wild Thorns (Eng.) by Trevor Le Gassick & Elizabeth Warnock Fernea] – Palestine, 181pp. +

André Neuman – Hablar solos (Sp.) [Translated as Talking to Ourselves (Eng.) by Nick Caistor, Marjeta Drobnič & Lorenza García] – Argentina, 148pp. +

Cees Nooteboom – Rituelen (NL) (1980) [Translated as Rituals (Eng.) by Adrienne Dixon] – NL, 175pp. 1001

Ian Rankin – Schuld & Boete (Trans. Crime & Punishment – excerpts from different Rebus novels) – UK, 91pp.

George Sand – Leone Leoni (1997) (in Dutch, translated by Fieke Schoots?) – France, 116pp. ABC

Nawal El Saadawi – Mudhakkirât Tabiba (Arabic) (1958) [Translated as Wat bedoel je dat je de man bent (alt. title Dagboek van een vrouwelijke arts) (NL) by [Translated as ; Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (Eng.)] – Egypt, 87pp. +

Antonio Skármeta – Ardiente paciencia (Sp.) (1985) [Translated as De postbode van Neruda by Tess Zeiler, The Postman (Eng.) by Katherine Silver, filmed as Il postino (It.)] – Chile, 125pp. +%

Pramoedya Ananta Toer – Midah Simanis Bergigi Emas (Indonesian) (1955) [Translated as Midah, het Liefje met de Gouden Tand (NL) by Alfred van der Helm & Angela Rookmaaker] – Indonesia, 139pp.

Short novels
Look, more novellas!

Dutch novellas and book week gift books

Griet op de Beeck – Gezien de feiten (lit. In view of the facts) (2018) [Translated as Sa’t it lân derhinne leit (Western Frisian) by Jetske Bilker] – NL, 94pp.

Adriaan van Dis – In Afrika (1991) (lit. In Africa)- Mozambique, 167pp. +NF

Adriaan van Dis – Palmwijn (lit. Palm wine) (1996) [Translated as Vin de palme (Fr.) by Anne-Marie de Both-Diez – Africa, 93pp. +

Antoon Coolen – De vrouw met de zes slapers (lit. The woman with the six sleepers) (1955) – NL, 222pp. #%

Arnon Grunberg – De heilige Antonio (lit. The holy Antonio) (1998) [Translated as Der Heilige des Unmöglichen (Ger.) by Rainer Kersten] – NL, 95pp. ABC

Maria Jacobs – Vijfenvijftig sokken (1998) [lit. Fifty-five socks, translated by the author as A Safe House: Holland 1940-1945 ] – NL, 109pp. #NF

Arthur Japin – De grote wereld (lit. The wide world) (2006) [Translated as Suur maailm (Estonian)]- NL, 90pp.

Tim Krabbé – Een tafel vol vlinders (lit. A table full of butterflies) (2009) – NL, 89pp.

Jan Kuitenbrouwer – Turbotaal: van socio babble tot yuppie speak (lit. Yuppie language) (1989) – NL, 91pp. NF

Tom Lanoye – Heldere hemel (lit. Clear skies) [Translated as Tombé du ciel (2012) – Belgium, non-fiction, 92pp. NF

Harry Mulisch – Het theatre, de brief en de waarheid (lit. The theatre, the letter and the truth) [Translated as Das Theater, der Brief und die Wahrheit] (2000) – NL, 85pp.

Harry Mulisch – Twee vrouwen [Translated as Two Women (Eng.) by Els Early, Deux Femmes (Fr.) by Philippe Noble, Zwei Frauen (Ger.)] (1975) – NL, 131pp.

Cees Nooteboom – Het volgende verhaal [Translated as The Following Story (Eng.) by Ina Rilke, Die folgende Geschichte (Ger.) by Ina Rilke, L’histoire suivante (Fr.) by Philippe Noble, La historia siguiente (Sp.), A História Seguinte (Port.) by Ana Maria Carvalho, La storia sequente (It.) by Fulvio Ferrari]  (1991) – Portugal, 91pp.

Connie Palmen – De erfenis (lit. The inheritance) (1999) [Translated by Die Erbschaft (Ger.) by Hannie Ehlers] – NL, 96pp.

Piet Grijs – Het grijsboek, of de nagelaten bekentenissen van Raoul Chapkis (lit. The grey book, or the confessions left by Raoul Chapkis) (1970) – NL, 144pp. ABC

Leonhard Huizinga – Twaalf maanden Joost (lit. Twelve months of Joost) (1959) – NL, 154pp. #ABC

Geert Mak – De brug (2007) [Translated as The Bridge: A Journey Between Orient and Occident (Eng.) by Sam Garrett, Die Brücke Von Istanbul (Ger.), Köprü (Turk.) by Gül Özlen, Most (Croatian) by Romana Perečinec] – Turkey, 92pp.

Charles den Tex – Onmacht (lit. Powerlessness) (2010) – NL, 92pp.

Thomas Rosenboom – Spitzen (lit. Point shoes) (2004) [Translated as Tango (Ger.) by Marlene Müller-Haas, Le danseur de tango – NL] – 92pp.

Tomas Ross – De klokkenluider (lit. The bell ringer or The whistleblower) (2003) – NL, 96pp.

Tommy Wieringa – Een mooie jonge vrouw (2014)[Translated as A Beautiful Young Wife (Eng.) by Sam Garrett, Eine schöne junge Frau (Ger.) by Bettina Bach, Une femme jeune et belle (Fr.) by Bertrand Abraham, Una moglie giovane e bella (It.) by Claudia Cozzi & Claudia Di Palermo] – NL, 96pp.

Ivan Wolffers – Gekleurd Nederland (lit.  The Coloured Netherlands) (1999) – NL, 175pp. NF

Joost Zwagerman – Duel [Translated as Duell (Ger.) by Gregor Seferens] (2010) – NL, 95pp.