Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Novel or story?

When is a 'novel' really, in fact, a long short story?

'Silk' by Alessandro Baricco is just 148 pages long (and about a third of those blank). It reads something like a fairy story, with one passage repeated several times (and one word in the middle changed just to check you're paying attention!) about a silkworm seller who journeys to Japan to buy silkworm eggs in the nineteenth century. It is a gorgeous, evocative tale that surely does deserve a publication to itself, but it really does have only one point to make, and therefore I would class it as a long short story rather than a novel. I would not say it is not even complex enough to warrant the term 'novella'.

The characters are lightly and skilfully portrayed. It is as if they are meant to be seen as shadows, maybe behind layers of cloth in a shadow theatre or some eastern boudoir. It is a beautiful effect that adds to the atmosphere of the book. The story is about love, and about being loved so absolutely you pay no attention to it until it is too late. I shan't describe it any more than this because it would be difficult not to give away all of the plot. It takes all of an hour to read I would say - but worth every second.

It has been made into a film, and I don't think I've ever read a book which is so obviously 'filmic' - I imagine (and hope) it is magnificent. Although, according to the reviews, it is not. Maybe I shall take a look anyway.


Blogger Maxine Clarke said...

For some reason this reminds me of that film starring Hugh Grant (which I have not seen) about when a hill is a mountain. As it is about a Welsh hill (or mountain) I expect you know what I mean even though I'm being even more vague than usual!

The length of this book appeals to me as I've just embarked on an exceedingly long one.

By the way, another author who writes very short books and who is exceedingly well received is Andrea Maria Schenkel. Her Murder Farm (last year) and Ice Cold (about to be published in UK, I've read a proof) are both almost too short to be called novels. I am not sure I'd recommend them - I think I don't quite share in the general enthusiasm for them. But they don't take long to read!

Wed May 06, 03:48:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Seems to me, Maxine, that these are maybe tales for our modern rushed times. When I belonged to a book group we were always after short books that everyone could read in a month. I suppose it meant we could chalk them up, as if it is some competition we have with ourselves: four novels this month, 52 this year....why? (I can't talk - I do it myself). Sometimes I think we need to sit back and enjoy the sensation of reading something long and complex just for the joy of doing so. It might take months - all of my favourite books have taken a long time to read - but looking back it was certainly worth the time.

I enjoyed Silk, and appreciated its strange ethereal quality, but now I want something with lot of juicy meat (:-))... so, bearing in mind this and what you say here, I think I shall eschew Schenkel and embark on something more complicated.

Wed May 06, 04:03:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

And thanks for the film recommendation. I wonder if it was based on Bruce Chatwyn's On the Black Hill. I shall try and find out...

Wed May 06, 04:06:00 pm  
Blogger jem said...

I've got this on my to be read shelf. I think I shall bump it up the waiting list based on your review of it.

I struggle to find short stories / novellas filling enough - they always feel like snacks. But then reading a lot of them in one go feels wrong too, like each is diminshed that way. I'm trying to persevere to find ones that really satisfy me though. My favourite collection so far was 'Dancing After Hours' by Andre Dubus.

Thu May 07, 03:56:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I have a feeling you'll love this Jen! I know exactly what you mean about short stories. Alice Munro is good, though - the ones I've read of hers - and yet even then I feel a sort of wrench as I move from one to another. And of course I think Chekhov is brilliant - but I only really enjoy his longer ones. The others are exquisite scraps of writing, but unsatisfying - at least to me. I suppose I just don't want them to end.

Thu May 07, 04:32:00 pm  

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