Adventures with Short Fiction

A couple of months ago I realized that there were several works of fiction of the shorter variety that I had never read. some of these personal omissions of mine could be even considered criminal. I decided to remedy this immediately and took it upon myself to find a series of short novellas by mostly well known authors and read them so that I could be a better informed reader and would no longer have nod in agreement when these works or authors are brought up not being able to contribute in any way to the discussion. They are all novellas with the exception of one play and one story in verse. What follows are my brief impressions and thoughts on each work I read, in chronological order by date of publication.

Anonymous – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 14th century)
This is a 14th century Middle English chivalric romance and it is great. My best friend recommended this to me as she said it was one of her favorite works of all time and so I immediately scooped it up and read through it in a matter of a couple of hours. It is an Arthurian legend and centers around the named Gawain who must take on an arduous journey in order to fulfill a promise to the Green Knight. It is astonishing how modern certain components of the story are and how liberal in the discussions of sexuality the writing is. Unfortunately the author is unknown, but I really enjoyed reading it, and the edition of the book I have also was accompanied by some interesting articles and scholarly work on this work in verse which made me appreciate it all the more.

Moliere – Tartuffe (1664)
So I was supposed to read this when I was seventeen years old and took a summer college course before my senior year at a university’s special program for high schoolers. I did not. The class was great and so were the readings, but this was the last one before the final exam and after being told that it wouldn’t show up on the test I decided to spend myself preparing for my first exam that counted as college credit and ignored Moliere’s French comedy. As is true with all plays I am sure it is better to see it performed, but it is an enjoyable read. The play is long in soliloquies, as was normal in the 17th century, so some sections are not as pleasant to read through as the moments of amusing quick banter, but it’s a classic for a reason and I am happy to have finally made up for my mistake all those years ago.

Jonathan Swift – A Modest Proposal (1729)
Another work everyone who has studied literature knows the basic premise of: due to famine in Ireland, Swift invites people to begin using infants as food in order to survive. It is a work that is mentioned and used as an example of successful usage of irony and hyperbole. What I did not realize is how funny and dry-humored it actually is and how it gleefully goes into details. If is a masterful work in persuasive rhetoric and is an extremely effective work of satire.

Nathaniel Hawthorne – Young Goodman Brown (1835)
This work fits nicely in with Hawthorne’s recurring themes of religion and the attack on the culture perpetrated by his ancestors during the Salem witch trials. In June I went to a wedding in Rhode Island and I took the opportunity to have a small road trip through New England and stopped in Salem, Massachusetts, along the way. I visited Hawthorne’s birth-home and the House of Seven Gables. In spite of the rain, I had a good time. The novella doesn’t deviate in any way from the topics he explores in his other fiction, and is an interesting tale of superstition and damnation.

Herman Melville – Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853)
I was not really looking forward to this one but was really pleasantly surprised. The story seems written by Edgar Alan Poe, an author I have liked all I’ve read from, and the pace and attention to detail are really masterful. A man takes on an employee who refuses to do anything but his initial job description, only to eventually decide to not even do that much. He never seems to leave the office and begins to behave as if it were his home altogether. It is a work with absurdist tendencies and is rightly canonical in its place in the genre along other such works. Which brings me to…

George Eliot – The Lifted Veil (1859)
This novella is probably the one I enjoyed the least. The story shifts from romance, to the supernatural, to travel narrative and the tonal changes are not always successful. I found myself having to re-read passages due to overly long paragraphs of detailed descriptions but no discernible point. I have a huge appreciation for literature, but not always do I enjoy works considered to be classics, just like I don’t always love more modern things that others thoroughly enjoy. This is one of those times.

H.G. Wells – The Time Machine (1895)
As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I am not a fan of speculative fiction in general, but this work is so famous that obviously I wouldn’t discount it solely because it dealt with time travel as a theme. What surprised me is how little I actually knew about the story before reading it. I had always assumed it had a lot in common with Jules Verne, basically an adventure story for young readers, but it is nothing of the sort. It is a thoughtful dissection of the human condition indicative of the time in which it came out and where humanity would end up because of it. The novella recounts the story of an unnamed time traveler who goes to the future only to discover that humans have devolved and eventually sees the destruction of all life. It is more a philosophical reflection of the ephemeral nature of man and life masked as an adventure caper, and it is beautifully written.

Edith Wharton – Madame de Treymes (1907)
Wharton wrote this story and since I myself a fan of the writer, also I simply really liked it. Ethan Frome is one of my favorite novels. Once again we have the tale of a love that is not meant to be, and a study on the role that fate plays in human lives, preventing ultimately for happiness to be reached or achieved. I did not know about this specific tale, but after Amazon saw the types of works I was putting in my cart for this little project it suggested this one and it was a successful purchase as it is amongst the best novellas of the lot that I read.

Jack London – To Build a Fire and Love of Life (1908 & 1905)
Two tales of survival that came in the same binding that I purchased, the second one a surprise, as I thought I was only getting the first story. I was never a lover of survival tales, or of frontier stories that took place in wastelands but these were interesting tales. I had heard a lot of the first one, but had never read it. The way that London manages to handle the psychology of two very different men dealing with the same issues – the quest to survive in an unforgiving and devastatingly lonely environment – is really admirable and I was really gripped by the tension that he managed to build.

Franz Kafka – The Metamorphosis (1915)
The work on this list I am most embarrassed never to have read, and another one that I was meant to have, this time in grad school. It was a difficult semester and after having tackled as a class works by Ionesco, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, I just felt spent and for some reason could not bring myself to read what is quite a short story. For some reason this was the one work I just couldn’t take and simply never read it. How wrong I was because this novella is a true masterpiece. I obviously knew the story and none of it was a surprise as far as plot goes, as it is basically impossible to avoid having passing knowledge of certain works regardless of having read them. Anyway, the writing is superb and the level of emotion that Kafka manages to inspire for what amounts to a giant cockroach that masks as a coming of age story of sorts is awe inspiring. I will stop now because I am already late to this party and refuse to be that person gushing about how great something is when everyone already knows this to be true.

Richard Connell – The Most Dangerous Game (1924)
This was a nail biter. Connell builds tension from the very beginning and it never lets up until the very end. It may not be the best written, from a stylistic perspective, of the lot but it was the more plot based of the stories. It is a thrilling and almost cinematic work of a cat and mouse game in which matters of life or death are the main focus. There are some over the top moments, and a nearly deus ex machina ending, but I was entertained all the while.

Edan Lepucki – If You’re Not Yet Like Me (2014)
This is by far the most modern in this little experiment and also the last work of the group. The writing is acerbic and highly ironic. It narrates the story in the first person of a woman and her sexual exploits. It focuses on the amorous connection and courtship with a young man who she usually would never date, but for some reason she lets her guard down for. It is a quick read but highly entertaining, with Lepucki able to capture a strong voice for the protagonist and run the line of unlikable and amiable without becoming strident or overly saccharine.

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