In the current New York Review of Books J.M. Coetzee discusses a new translation of Goethe’s epistolary novella The Sorrows of Young Werther*. My interest piqued as Coetzee is one of my favorite writers and Goethe’s novella provided one of my most enjoyable reading moments. Werther has fallen in love with a betrothed woman and writes longing letters to his friend Wilhelm. The letters are hilarious. As his longing becomes increasingly dire, he stews in fits of confusion and melodrama. Again, the letters are hilarious. After reading Coetzee’s article I wondered—besides the exceptional story—what was it about Werther that I enjoyed so much. There was something more, something beyond the hilarity and the characters.
It was the form. I realized how much I enjoy novellas. Like short stories, novellas are concise, an exercise in economy, yet they also offer the robustness of a novel. And a novella can easily be read in a day. My first reading of The Metamorphosis was a seminal moment—I realized I enjoyed reading about something other than sports. Of Mice and Men and The Old Man and the Sea quickly followed. Then I read The Death of Ivan Ilych. Years later, after a long break from novellas, I read Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day and went looking for contemporary novellas. I stumbled upon Alessandro Baricco and loved Without Blood and Silk. Steve Martin’s Shopgirl is another good one. Next up are Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winner The Sense of an Ending, Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall, and Alice Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman .
Melville House Books’ Art of the Novella series offers a wonderful collection of novellas from literary titans. Almost all in the series are available at the Austin Public Library.
*Corngold's Werther translation is on order. We should have it soon.