Long Live the Novella

Long beloved on the Continent, the novella has never been as fashionable on our side of the Channel. But in the battle between the electronic and the printed page, it may just turn out to be print’s secret weapon. Real books can no longer have brains without beauty — it is imperative, now more than ever, that they be covetable physical objects. They must have clever, alluring covers; luxuriant paper; be richly, pleasingly tactile. And it’s hard to beat a novella — a little slip of a book — as a covetable object. They fit perfectly into an inside jacket pocket; are easily concealed, when necessary, within the programme notes if one finds oneself at a particularly tedious school play. Unlike the novel, which mirrors life in all its messiness and meanderings, the long short story can aspire to perfection — to display a single, crystalline idea like a gem in velvet. And so what a pleasure it is to discover not one but two lovely European monologues, each around 100 pages, each concerned both with submission to order, and rebellion from it.

In Sophie Divry’s accomplished debut, The Library of Unrequited Love, an unnamed librarian finds a reader asleep between aisles and, in between admonishing him and putting him to work reshelving with her, she begins to rail against various injustices perpetrated within the world of her provincial library and beyond it. There are no true readers any more, only those who come to enjoy the central heating or borrow DVDs; even visitors who might want something worthwhile rarely come to her, relegated as she is to the geography section in the basement. But books, she asserts, are culture’s only hope. “Books were what saved me after Arthur,” she confides, useless Arthur for whom she gave up Paris many years before, and who subsequently left her for an engineer at the nearby nuclear plant. 

But this is not a paean to the solace of fiction, for books here are both respite and tyranny. The unnamed librarian goes quietly mad, lost amid the soothing orderliness of the Dewey decimal system. Whatever she might claim, it’s evident that even her most beloved writers offer her no consolation, even Guy de Maupassant, who “must have had terrific biceps and been fantastically intelligent”. Books cannot touch the sides of her vast, kaleidoscopic loneliness. All she truly desires is a student named Martin, who has a nice neck and is entirely unaware of her existence. Or failing that, a man like Robespierre. “Yeah, yeah, I know, don’t tell me, the guillotine, the Terror etc. Oh, stop, it really annoys me . . . They weren’t going to get anywhere by sitting around being nice, were they?” Her favourite shelfmark is 944.75, the history of the French Revolution, and though she feels oppressed and neglected within the rigorous hierarchy of the library, we sense, in her mounting outrage, that she might finally stage her own uprising.

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke also has rebellion at its core. A mother has cleaned and prepared four kilos of mussels, and now sits in the kitchen with her teenage daughter and son, waiting for her husband to come home from work. It is her daughter who explains that “mussels were my father’s favourite food, although not ours,” and it’s not long before we understand that what might at first resemble an act of love — ”she had to scrape, scrub, brush and rinse several times because my father hated nothing more than grains of sand crunching between his teeth”  — is really an act of survival. The husband is controlling and abusive, and as the book opens, his family’s only ambition is to avoid going headfirst through the bullseye glass of the wall unit when he beats them. 

But then he doesn’t come home for dinner. And as it gets later and later and the mussel pot remains untouched at the centre of the table, “we intensified the abnormality in whichever way we could”. Their lives have long been entirely controlled by a madman, and yet it takes just this minute deviation from the day’s expected course to stimulate the beginning of a potential mutiny. Perhaps the regime is not indestructible. Perhaps they will be brave. 

The Mussel Feast has long been a set text in Germany, and deservedly so. Written in 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the novella is a chilling portrait of a tyrannical regime, and an exploration of the unexpected, private ways in which human beings have escaped from repression. This is an extraordinary book, the story unspooled with masterful restraint, and written with simplicity and precision. Vanderbeke is able to animate her characters with just a few quick, clear strokes, and yet the reader cannot help but feel with them — their terror; their fear; their tiny, burgeoning hope.

Throughout history, fathers have served as the near-ubiquitous symbol for absolute rule, whether benign or despotic, religious or political. But as in the best and most affecting allegorical writing, there is a great deal more here than just metaphor. The tale is entirely and unexpectedly free of polemic and is, above all, a real portrait of a marriage and a family. Now translated into English for the first time, The Mussel Feast is published by Peirene, whose relatively new imprint of novellas shows a robust and inspiring belief in the future of the form — and of print publishing in general. Given its place in the contemporary German canon it’s surprising that it hasn’t been translated until now, but thank goodness Peirene found it. It deserves a place in our jacket pockets. 

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