Just Great Novellas, In Any Language

The other day on Twitter, I saw a tweet with a link to a certain book-related site, where a contributor was promising to tell us what the top ten novellas of all time were.  I’m a fan of the not-so-long, not-so-short form of fiction (as long as I don’t have to pay full price for it!), so I clicked through to have a look, and (as usual) wished I hadn’t bothered.  Would you believe that of the top ten novellas ever, nine were originally written in English, five by Americans?  No, me neither 😉

So, instead of swearing and sulking – I’ve done that already -, I thought that I’d come up with a slightly wider, non-Anglophone selection (links go to my reviews).  I make absolutely no claim to their being the best of all time – these are just ten great novellas…

*****
Gabriel García MárquezChronicle of a Death Foretold
A wonderful story where we know from the start exactly what will happen – the writer spends the rest of the book telling us how and why.  A man is going to die in a small village even though nobody, even the killer himself, really wants him to.  This would be an excellent first step into the Colombian master’s magical fictional world for any reader curious about his work.

Albert CamusL’étranger (The Stranger/The Outsider)
One of the few foreign books which don’t really need the translated title.  Even people who have never read Camus will have heard of his bleak tale of a man who finds himself on a hot beach in North Africa facing a man with a knife.  An absolute classic of world literature.

Yasunari KawabataSnow Country
From the heat of Africa, we turn to the snowy mountains of winter Japan, as a Tokyo businessman takes a trip to a mountain resort to visit an attractive entertainer.  It’s very much style over substance, with much of the action hidden beneath the surface – like much Japanese fiction, it’s what is not said that is important…

Eça De QueirozAlves & Co.
While north-European classics of infidelity like Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and Effi Briest are fated to end in disaster, these matters are not taken quite as seriously on the Iberian Peninsula if you believe Eça de Queiroz.  This classic Portuguese novella shows us that it’s best to take your time when you suspect that your partner has been less than faithful.

Theodor StormDer Schimmelreiter (The Rider on the White Horse)
19th-century German writer Theodor Storm is well known for his short stories and novellas, and this is his masterpiece.  A frame-narrative story set on his home turf on the coast of the North Sea, Der Schimmelreiter combines bleak landscapes, impending tragedy and supernatural elements to create a memorable story about a headstrong man who tries to control both his fellow villagers and the tides.

Juan Pablo VillalobosDown the Rabbit Hole
Once upon a time, there was a little boy who lived in a big, big house, somewhere far, far away.  Lots of fascinating people lived there, and the boy used his imagination to entertain himself when he was unable to go out.  Oh, did I mention that he is the son of a Mexican drug dealer?  And that he wants a pygmy hippopotamus?  Exactly as mad as it sounds (and a good deal darker…). 

Heðin BrúThe Old Man and his Sons
Next it’s off to the Faroe Islands, where an old man tries his best to look after his half-wit son and pay off a debt he has incurred for whale meat.  A beautifully-written story of life on the edges of civilisation in a time of change, showing us that young and old both have a lot to learn from each other. 

Ivan TurgenevFirst Love
I could have chosen any number of classic Russian novellas, but Turgenev is generally acknowledged as an expert in the form.  First Love is one of his most famous works, and it looks back at an early love in the life of its narrator.  While this may not be the most original premise for a novella, the writing ensures that the story is a memorable one. 

Andrzej StasiukDukla
Less a novella than an outpouring of emotions and sensations onto a cool, white page, Dukla is a description of several visits a writer pays to a country town in eastern Europe.  This is another novella where the plot takes a back seat to the prose, although the writing is at times more poetical than prosaic.  A paean to light in remembrance of past times 🙂 

SjónThe Blue Fox
Another fable from the frozen north, a story with a hint of magic mixed in with the smell of blood, coffee and other less fragrant substances.  An arrogant priest hunts the rare blue fox across the Icelandic countryside, unaware that he is pursuing no ordinary animal.  This was the first of Sjón’s books to appear in English, and it’s a real treat.

*****
So there you have it: ten great novellas, books I’d recommend to anyone.  I make no claims to their being the best ever, but I certainly enjoyed them 🙂

A short advisory note to finish this piece – I am well aware that my selections are just as arbitrary as the original post that sparked my decisions.  There are hundreds of books out there that could have been chosen, and there are areas of the world that aren’t represented here (Africa is a big omission).  Of course, there is one other point that some readers might take issue with.  Both my ten and the original list fail to mention even one novella written by a woman…

Over to you!  What are your favourite non-Anglophone novellas?  I’d love to hear what you’ve enjoyed reading 🙂

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24 thoughts on “Just Great Novellas, In Any Language

  1. Thomas Mann's Tod in Venedig would have to be my very first choice, and I also defy anybody not to be utterly bowled over by Marguerite Yourcenar's Coup de Grace – which also fills up the female tab 🙂

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  2. I'm not really a fan of novellas (I prefer long, complex plots) but I make an expection for Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi. It is so shocking and powerful it has become an all-time favourite. And the good news is that it helps to balance your list as it is written by a woman 🙂

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  3. Margit – Naturally, I could have filled the entire list with German-language novellas, and 'Der Tod in Venedig' would definitely have been on it. Yourcenar's not a writer I'm familiar with, but I'm happy to receive any new names and books, especially of female writers 🙂

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  4. Jackie – I'm definitely one for long novels too, but my adventures in translated fiction have seen novellas grow on me 😉

    'Beside the Sea' is one that a lot of people like, but as this list is a very subjective one (i.e. my faves!), it was never going to get a place. If I was going to add a Peirene book, it would probably be 'Portrait…'. I have yet to read 'Stone in a Landslide' though…

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  5. A long list of the best novellas would not be entirely filled with German-language texts, but they sure would be disproportionate, wouldn't they? Just the Storm, Hoffmann, Stifter, and Fontane. And the Schnitzler, Keller, Kafka…

    I've got to read that Heðin Brú book sometime.

    Mariama Bâ's So Long a Letter is the champion West African novella at this point, but I think Aminata Sow Fall's The Beggar's Strike is a better novel (as opposed to an argument).

    Staying in Senegal but stepping away from women, Ousmane Sembène's The Money Order is as good as Chekhov.

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  6. I think waugh wrote great novellas ,of course all the peirene books have been gems ,face in the crowd the mexican book I read earlier in the year maybe my choice for this year as best novella ,all the best stu

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  7. What comes to mind is my most recent read of novellas.. Oe's four in the collection Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness. Subjectively speaking, too, they moved me. Thanks for this list, Tony. A few of them I hadn't heard of before and will look into.

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  8. I've posted on novellas a few days ago too (there's something in the air) but not with the intention of listing a definitive list. That's a bit cheeky really to say that. I LOVE novellas and have a growing list of favourites. Your first two are among my them. I think Murakami's After dark is a novella also. I liked it. Also Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen. In fact there are a lot of good novellas by Japanese authors aren't there, though I haven't read the Kawabata you list.

    As you say the Russians – including Dostoevsky and Tolstoy – have written good novellas, but I haven't read them yet. On the list though!

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  9. Tom – Absolutely. Nineteenth-century German literature basically ignored novels in favour of novellas – if I hadn't restricted myself to one per country…

    I think any list of African non-English novellas is bound to be dominated by French- and Arabic-language works, but it's not an area I know much about. Again, thanks for the tips 🙂

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  10. Sue – There's definitely a novella revival on, and it's most noticeable in translated fiction (especially with those excellent small presses which champion the form).

    Japan, Germany, Russia – all well known for novellas. The thing that annoyed me most about the original piece is that English is a language which isn't actually that well known for the shorter form…

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  11. I loved 'The Blue Fox' by Sjon, but many of the others are new to me. I've yet to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, so 'Chronicle…' could be a good introduction! I recently read 'The Ice Palace' by Tarjei Vesaas (following a friend's recommendation). It's quite beautiful and haunting. Well worth a look. Jacqui (@jacquiwine)

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  12. Jacqui – Have you read any more by Sjón? I've loved all three in English so far 🙂 I'd definitely recommend GGM too.

    Tarjei Vesaas isn't a writer I'd heard of, but I'm sure Wikipedia can help a little there…

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  13. Excellent list, agree on Camus, Villalobos and Heoin Bru. In terms of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, does 'Memories Of My Melancholy Whores' qualify as a novella? Because it certainly qualifies as one of my favourite book titles of all time, either way.

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  14. Hi Tony. No, I haven't read any others by Sjon – 'The Whispering Muse' sounds great, thanks. I hadn't heard of Vesaas until recently. I'd definitely recommend 'The Ice Palace'. It's beautifully written and gives a real sense of place.

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  15. Another bit of nostalgia on reading one of your posts! I studied Der Schimmelreiter for my German A-Level. I remember finding it a tough read at the time due to the language. Such a blast from the past to be reminded of that book after all this time! Great post.

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  16. Lindsay – Thanks 🙂 Storm was a late discovery for me, but I do enjoy his work. I was really tossing up between this one and 'Immensee' – in the end I opted for this one just because 'Immensee' is perhaps a little too short…

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  17. I think a little fairy ate my previous comment. *sigh*

    I was saying in the said supposedly-posted comment that:

    1) I wasn't aware that The Stranger was a novella. The word novella doesn't exist in French and obviously I haven't totally understood the concept.

    2) I'll add to the list: The Murderess by Papadiamantis (Greek), Ripening Seed by Colette, Journey into the past by Zweig

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  18. Emma – There are two differing opinions on novellas, depending on whether you think it's the style of writing that counts or the length. In reality, there are no hard and fast rules 😉 Thanks for your additions to the list 🙂

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