I’ve just finished reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch, having received it as a Christmas present in 2011 and started reading it in November of last year. I’m neither ashamed nor embarrassed to admit it’s been a slog. An eight-hundred-and-eighty-nine page slog. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great moments, and beautiful observations but fucking hell… Eliot doesn’t half fall in love with the sound of her own voice sometimes.
At one point the heroine, Dorothea Casaubon, is meeting Rosalind Lydgate, the doctor’s wife. They shake hands and size each other up, and this lasts a page and a half. No dialogue, no action (other than the handshake), and yet it drags on, and on. And it’s not the only time she does this. The whole novel is padded out with page-long paragraph after page-long paragraph of waffle in which characters stand around in rooms not doing anything.
enduring reading Middlemarch made me realise how much I enjoy short novels and novellas. For one thing, by definition the writer has to practice restraint, selecting carefully what he or she chooses to put in. There’s no room in the novella for a handshake that lasts a page-and-a-fucking-half (caustic sideways glance in the direction of George Eliot). You have to cut to the chase.
Here, then, are five great short novels. They’re not necessarily my top 5 (I’ll probably think of another five the minute I’ve posted this) but they are all wonderful, and demonstrate just how much can be achieved in 30-40,000 words.
1) Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
This one needs little or no introduction, as it’s been adapted and riffed on so many times it’s become a kind of cultural shorthand for a certain kind of story, but it’s really worth revisiting the original novella. For one thing, of all the 19th Century gothic mysteries and romances that went on to become big screen horror movies, Jekyll and Hyde is without a doubt the best written; tighter and more atmospheric than Frankenstein, and infinitely more edgy than the occasionally leaden Dracula.
The descriptions of a mist-enshrouded London at night (inspired, most likely, more by Stevenson’s native Edinburgh than London itself) are second-to-none, rivalling even Our Mutual Friend era Dickens.
2) The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy (1886)
I read this a while back as a kind of taste test. Much of Tolstoy’s work (namely Anna Karenina and War and Peace) is so weighty, I didn’t want to embark on either novel without knowing if I’d actually like his style. As such, Ivan Ilyich is the perfect entry level text for anyone interested in reading him. All his major themes are here – bourgeois hypocrisy, the benefits of an ascetic life over one of money and possessions – but condensed down into this bitter little satire.
Tolstoy has a weakness for sadism with his characters at times, especially those he holds in contempt, and Ivan Ilyich is no exception. Though the title makes it sound morbid and depressing (and yes… it often is), there’s a vein of tar black humour running through it that makes it very readable and – if it’s the right word – entertaining.
3) The Spider’s Web by Joseph Roth (1923)
Originally published as Das Spinnennetz, Roth’s short and terrifying novella was one of the first works of fiction to deal explicitly with the rise of Nazism in Germany, and the very first to mention Hitler by name. It tells the story of a young man’s rise to prominence within the Far Right, following Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I.
The Spider’s Web gives an intense, and often hallucinatory insight into the mind of a paranoid and antisemitic fascist. It’s an incredible work which unsettled me for days after I’d finished it. One of those works that is so prescient it feels like it must have been written years after the fact, with the benefit of hindsight.
4) Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)
Often viewed as a kind of little brother (some pun intended) to Orwell’s later masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm is, I think, the more successful satire. Yes, his story of Winston Smith and Airstrip One is, perhaps, the more mature work (even if Orwell’s characters are still a little paper thin), but it’s big idea – that the political corruption of language is a dictatorship’s primary weapon – is often lost on contemporary audiences, who see it more as a piece about state voyeurism, or big government, or libertarianism, or the Nanny State, or whatever mast they want to nail it to.
It’s hard to mistake the message in Animal Farm, and okay so perhaps it’s a little on the nose, but that’s kind of the point. I first read it when I was about 12 or 13 and it was the first time I realised a book could make you think about things beyond the book itself, that even a story about a bunch of farmyard animals could make you look at the world a little differently.
The very fact that Nineteen Eighty-Four is now set in a past-that-didn’t-quite-happen hasn’t diminished it, exactly, but it has made it seem almost a period piece. Animal Farm, on the other hand, despite its allusions to Stalin and the mid-20th Century Soviet Union, is timeless, a parable to forever warn us against despots masquerading as freedom fighters.
5) On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (2007)
I read this one not long after reading another short novel of McEwan’s, the Booker-Prize-winning Amsterdam, and I’m glad I did. Amsterdam is pretty bloody dreadful. Well written, yes, but with a predictable, screwball farce plot, weak and unconvincing characters, and an ending that made me groan. As a result, I approached On Chesil Beach with caution, but I was blown away.
It’s set in the early 1960s (or, as Philip Larkin put it, “between the end of the Chatterley ban / And The Beatles’ first LP”), and details the nail-biting build up to a young couples’ honeymoon, in the days when many couples still had little intimate knowledge of one another until they were married.
I can’t really say much, because anything I do say is likely to rob the book of some of its power, but it’s very moving, very short and very sweet, and restored my faith in McEwan completely.
So there you have it. Even now, I can think of another five I could have written about (The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Mist, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Death In Venice, A Clockwork Orange etc) but I can almost guarantee you’ll enjoy any of the above.