Novella a Day in May 2020 #16

Speedboat – Renata Adler (1971) 170 pages

Speedboat is only a novel (or novella) in the loosest sense of the word. There’s no plot, no sense of linear time, no developing characterisation. Rather it is a series of observations, scenes, notes and stories that build a picture of late twentieth century life for a young female journalist living primarily in New York.

Jen Fain can be silly, shallow, detached; she is also insightful, witty, caring. She observes her life and the people in it with wry humour. There is the day she sees two rats:

“the second rat, of course, may have been the first rat farther up town, in which case I am being followed or the rat keeps the same rounds and hours I do. I think sanity, however, is the most profound moral option of our time.”

Her attitude to her profession:

“That ‘writer’s write’ is meant to be self-evident. People like to say it. I find it hardly ever true. Writers drink. Writers rant. Writers phone. Writers sleep. I have met very few writers who write at all.”

Her young friends and their self-defeating endeavours:

“In the bar of his father’s hotel, with the leather chairs that give one the feeling of sitting in a wallet, Dommy has introduced a new drink, Last Mango in Paris. A steep decline.”

Amongst silly cocktail puns there is also a sense of a serious young woman, trying to work out the world amongst a hectic, intellectual life that offers few certainties:

“When I wonder what it is that we are doing – in this brownstone, on this block, with this paper – the truth is probably that we are fighting for our lives.”

At the moment I’m finding it hard to concentrate on reading and I wondered if I could sustain reading a plotless novel, but I found the humour and sharp observations of Adler’s writing pulled me along.

Speedboat reminded me a bit of Flights by Olga Tokarczuk so if you enjoyed the fractured, plotless style of that, you might enjoy this.

“Hardly anyone about whom I deeply care about at all resembles anyone else I have ever met, or heard of, or read about in literature.”

Novella a Day in May 2019 #29

Pinocchio – Carlo Collodi (1883, trans. Geoffrey Beck 2009) 160 pages

Pinocchio, like a lot of classic children’s literature, is deeply weird and dark. I didn’t read it at all as a child, despite seeing the Disney cartoon which is very different. I picked it up as an adult because its published by the ever reliable NYRB Classics, and it turned out to be an intriguing read.

The basic premise I think everyone knows: a wooden puppet comes to life, wants to be a real boy, misbehaves and every lie he tells has a very obvious effect on his physiognomy.

“ ‘Lies, my boy, are immediately recognizable, for there are two kinds: lies that have short legs and lies that have long noses. Yours happen to be the long-nosed variety.’

Pinocchio, wanting to hide his face in shame, tried to run from the room – but he couldn’t. His nose was so long that it wouldn’t fit through the doorway.”

Pinocchio isn’t very likeable. He’s totally idle and only interested in himself.

“ ‘Of all the trades in the world, there’s only one that really suits me.’

‘And what trade would that be?’

‘That of eating, drinking, sleeping, playing, and wandering wherever I like from sunup to sundown.’

‘For your information,’ said the Talking Cricket, with his usual calm, ‘everyone who plies that trade ends up either in a poorhouse or a prison.’

‘Watch out, you doom-and-gloom Cricket! If I snap, you’ll be sorry!’”

Pinocchio does snap, and kills the Cricket stone dead. A short-lived relationship with an insect, who is nothing like the top hat and frock coat wearing, enduring friend of the cartoon.

The story is episodic, with Pinocchio going on several adventures, invariably taking the wrong decision, and failing to learn from his mistakes. It has the feel of folk tales rather than fairy tales, being grounded in an earthy reality of poverty and banditry, even when the bandits are a fox and cat double act. Pinocchio is always appealing even though he is selfish and unheeding, but there is never any sentimentality in the tale.

However, there is the strong didactic element associated with fairy tales, and Pinocchio is constantly lectured, by the cricket, by adults, and by the fairy with sky blue hair who crops up in various guises.

“ ‘Dear boy,’ said the Fairy, ‘people who talk that way almost always end up either in a prison or a poorhouse. For your information, everyone, whether they’re born rich or poor, is obliged to do something – to keep busy, to work. Woe to anyone who yields to idleness! Idleness is a dreadful disease and must be treated at once, starting in childhood. If not, it will be too late by the time we grow up.’”

Pinocchio does eventually learn and does become a real boy, but there’s something irrepressible about him. The feeling at the end is not of conservative integration where all is right with the world, but rather that the subversive elements that have been present all along are still there, waiting to spill out at any minute.

It’s a tale that can be enjoyed by children and adults. My edition included contributions from intellectual heavyweights to say the least: an Introduction by Umberto Eco, an Afterword by Rebecca West and a quote on the back by Italo Calvino. This shows how Pinocchio has been so widely recognised and why it endures; deceptively simple, hiding its complexities in an engaging children’s tale, it can be read differently each time.

I really didn’t like the cover of the NYRB Classics edition, finding it creepy, but it captures the unsettling quality of the tale of an animated puppet perfectly:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #7

Great Granny Webster – Caroline Blackwood (1977, 96 pages)

My blogging slump meant I completely failed to take part in Cathy and Niall’s Reading Ireland 2019 (#Begorrathon) in March, and so I’m including a few Irish novellas this month. The first of these is by an author I’ve never heard of, which seems extraordinary given her quite astonishing life story.

The titular matriarch of this novel is a wonderfully Gothic creation:

“She had arranged her hair in two grey tufts that lay on her forehead like a couple of curly horns, so that what with the exaggerated narrowness of her elongated face, and her uniquely over-long upper lip, she often reminded me of a melancholy and aged ram.”

The narrator is sent to Hove to recuperate with her great-grandmother in 1947 when she is 14, as it’s thought the sea air will help her recuperate from an operation.  It’s totally bizarre that her family would think this a good idea, as Great Granny Webster lives in severe austerity in a damp and gloomy house, alone except for her aged and devoted retainer, Richards.

“All she wanted from each new day that broke was the knowledge that she was still defiantly there – that against all odds she had still managed to survive in the lonely, loveless vacuum she had created for herself.”

Unsurprisingly, this is not a warm and affectionate portrait of the generations of a family. It is however, witty, astute, sad, and incisive. Great Granny Webster is entirely uncompromising:

 “ ‘There really is nothing more unattractive than the sight of a young woman displaying a repulsive amount of arm. I am not going to mention this subject again.’

Great Granny Webster always told the truth. She never once referred to my sleeves or my arms again.”

We later learn that her daughter (the narrator’s grandmother) completely lost all sense of reality, trapped in the family castle at Dunmartin. The echoes of previous generations are heard down the years. As an adult, the narrator is contacted by her fragile, enchanting Aunt Lavinia who is having similar problems:

“One day Aunt Lavinia rang me up to say it was too maddening, she was in prison. When I sounded astonished she admitted that it wasn’t exactly a prison, but it was just as bad, for she was being detained in a hospital where she had been put by the police.”

What Blackwood captures brilliantly is how in families, people can be superficially polar opposites but underneath it all, so very alike, much to their own alarm:

“Aunt Lavinia’s house was very warm. She liked to have log-fires burning and her central heating turned on even in the summer. Although her bedroom was rather like a hot-house and fragrant with the smell of her lillies, I had exactly the same feeling of chill I had experienced in the bleak, cold, flowerless drawing room of Great-Granny Webster when that old lady had predicted that eventually I would be very like her.”

In such a short space, Blackwood achieves fully-rounded portraits of three generations of women in an idiosyncratic noble family. Great Granny Webster is, like its anti-heroine, bleak, funny and unique.

I read this in an old Picador edition, but I’m delighted to say the wonderful NYRB Classics have re-issued it.