Note on Column:
What makes a novella a novella, as opposed to a long short story or a short novel? Why does the novella seduce us, even though relatively few are published or taught? (You never hear, for example, “Mommy, I want to grow up to be a famous novella-ist!”) Deleuze and Guattari offer a few hypnotic thoughts on the subject, but even they abandon the question after only—and perhaps appropriately—half-contemplating it.
Towards a literary–psychological theory of the novella, writer and compulsive short-text reader Wythe Marschall offers a biweekly review of classic and contemporary works that may or may not fit your definition of the term.
By focusing on their playful relationship with theme—a constant seesaw between story and meditation, narrative-packed-into-a single moment and timeless “whoa” of profound human experience—Wythe hopes to pin down just what the novella does to its reader’s brain: Can we situate “the novella effect” somewhere between the constrained, heightened consciousness of the short story and the taxonomizing–exhausting consciousness of the novel? Tune in every other week to find out—
Or, at least, to discover several novellas worth reading.
Thanks to Electric Literature, New Directions, NYRB Classics, and Melville House.
No Tomorrow (Point de lendemain)
By Vivant Denon
Translated by Lydia Davis
New York Review of Books Classics, 2009
The novella must look like one thing and be another, always. It cannot succumb to plot—then it is a story. It cannot unfold too spaciously—then your brain organizes it into a novel. No, a novella must remain wild…
In his introduction to No Tomorrow, Peter Brooks writes:
The whole art here is to stage a scene… without naming names, or parts, or detailing the acts taking place. Yet it is all perfectly lucid, even precise.
He could just as well be writing of the novella in general as of Dominique Vivant Denon’s slim opus—a classic “long short story,” as far from the “very short novel” type of novella as you can get.
Still, something holds this story, as well as Marías’s Bad Nature, and a short novel such as Papadiamantis’s The Murderess, in the same abstract gaze. Something makes No Tomorrow (translated by the maniacally precise Lydia Davis) a novella—lucid and compelling but without a breakneck plot; familiar without a deep character.
Part of that “something” of the novella—the mysterium in-betweenium—is the way it gives your unconscious more than enough material to create a meaningful experience without giving you too much.
When Picasso paints the fractured face of a woman—noses, eyes, and mouth-halves all more or less there and relatively proportional, but also wrong—he is not painting “a woman,” but using the trope of “painting a woman” to paint something else entirely, or rather several things:
- the impression that seeing this woman makes on you;
- the way that you yourself make meaning out of color and line to form “a woman” in your mind’s eye;
- the way you take on something of the woman you make, the other—your own “becoming-woman,” as Deleuze & Guattari might’ve said.
This process of forcing the consumer-of-art’s unconscious to carry the heavy part of the creative load is at play always in the novella.
Here’s Denon, forcing you to become the narrator even as, in this same pithy sentence, he turns the plot over on you:
I felt that a blindfold had just been lifted from my eyes, and I didn’t even see the new one with which it was replaced.
We still don’t know the guy’s name, but now we coolly know that he knows that his new love affair with Mme de —— isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The Mme is the best friend of the Comtesse de ——, with whom the narrator is unrequitedly in love, and this Mme has just informed the poor lad that his object of affection is a pathological liar at best and an inconstant succubus on her off days. The narrator thinks he’s traded glass for sapphire, when all he’s done, to employ Denon’s optical metaphor, is change one broken jeweler’s lens for another.
Desire carries him forward. Denon, inviting philosophy to intervene within melodrama:
Kisses are like confidences: they attract each other, they accelerate each other, they excite each other.
Soon the narrator’s post-Romantic/pre-scientistic impressions of sex and our own conflate, and we share an intimate threesome with the nameless dandy and the skilled, in-command Mme. Her husband is asleep in the other room, and her real lover, the Marquis—who has invited the Mme to take a false secret lover for the evening, if she’s going to stay at her cuckolded husband’s place—is still yet to arrive. All is quiet. (Denon: “Our sighs replaced language.”)
In the morning, we still don’t know our surrogate rake’s name. We continue liking the narrator because, in his way, he wins. He’s playing with house money, and he breaks even, plus maybe enough for an onion soup at the bar on the way home…
So what happened? Is the Rashomon-style, single-moment fulcrum of the “classically libertine” No Tomorrow its narrator’s first kiss with the Mme? Their first (and only) coitus—stranger with stranger, seducer with rake? Brooks:
One would be hard-pressed to find the meaning of No Tomorrow. Yet it has endured as a classic.
Denon was not a writer, principally, but an artist, one of Napoleon’s lieutenants. According to Denon, when the Little Colonel’s conquering army came upon the ancient city of Thebes in Egypt, it broke out into spontaneous applause.
The French were struck by what happened on a level entirely removed from war, from France, from wanting-to-be-struck. Their campaign was a colonial diversion, and they would end up fighting in Europe.
But what happened that day in Thebes was real beyond the bounds of experiential genre. In some ways, the novella invites this same break with expectation. What happened? A part of you that even you cannot always access will be the judge. Read on.
-Wythe Marschall can be found here.