|Perhaps this is Hant'a, hard at work|
Novellas are having a bit of a moment. You notice this more as a writer perhaps – suddenly there are novella competitions out there in amongst the usual short story ones – and I for one am all for it. Recent favourites of mine have been D H Lawrence’s The Fox, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, and David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide (both of which I've written about here). Vann sees his books as novellas rather than novels because they have no subplots, and are focused on one situation, usually geographically constrained and with limited characters, relying on minimal back story.
Legend of a Suicide is really written in several stories, with one long one in the middle. Rarely have I been so intensely gripped by a piece of literary fiction, especially after the gut-punching twist that comes, bravely, halfway through. I’d urge everyone to read it.
But I digress. The reason I’m talking about novellas is because I’ve just read Too Loud a Solitude, by Bohumil Hrabal. This is a translation from the Czech, and I know zilch about Czech literature, but this is an astonishing book. Its effect extends well beyond its perceptible limits: it is only 100 pages long, and is the first person narrative of a drunk who works in an underground cell, compressing waste paper into bales. Not a promising premise, you might think. But it makes what Hrabal achieves in the small space he chooses all the more remarkable.
It’s easy to wheel out a load of literary labels: there’s pathos, bathos, humour including the toilet kind, gothic aesthetics, magic realism, philosophy, love, sex and death in this book. It’s completely different from the Vann formula for a novella: incidental characters drop in yet there’s hardly any real dialogue; only right towards the end does anything change, introducing conflict and tension.
Rather, the reader becomes bizarrely seduced by the unappealing protagonist, trapped in a ritual of beer drinking and the destruction of books (and the mice that live in them), because in the ugliest of situations he sees so much beauty. This is not an observation Hrabal asks you, or even invites you, to make. The paper baler, Hant'a, only describes his life in repetitive detail, gradually spinning out from the cellar where he works to include memories. But Hrabal uses this process to include so many stunning, bright visions, that I felt as though I’d read 300 pages by the end.
By coincidence I’ve been rereading Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude recently (20 years since the first time, eek!). He wreaks a similar effect on the reader, decorating a winding narrative with endless rich, incidental detail, so that after a few pages you feel as stuffed as after Christmas dinner. Not surprisingly, given the novella format, the approach in Too Loud a Solitude is tighter. In the end, every seeming digression and flicker of colour comes together to tie a tight knot in the reader’s heart, reaching a full understanding of Hant'a just as he reaches the end of his story.
Reading this book was a lesson in how to include vivid, wide-ranging detail in a short narrative, all of it working to enhance the reader’s understanding of the main character. This is exactly what short stories should do, but watching this performance in a slightly larger, but still restricted, space was so satisfying. Reading Too Loud a Solitude without an eye to learning about the craft of fiction will be an even greater pleasure. Take it.