The novelist Cynan Jones once wrote that in brief fiction, “every word is doing a job. So pay attention. A short novel is an event, not a trip.” The Swedish Academy recognized that this week when they awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature to the French writer Annie Ernaux, whose famously short, unsparing books about women, sex, and shame challenge collective notions of memory. Some breathtakingly brief novels are among the best English literature has to offer (think Giovanni’s Room, or Wide Sargasso Sea). The form concentrates language and plot so tightly that rereading is a pleasure.
Below are seven books that each require no more than a weekend or so to finish. That doesn’t mean they’re superficial: Instead, they are examples of the power and range of short novels. They come from multiple languages over more than a century and a half, and they excel at grappling with complex situations without overcomplicated writing.
The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett
In the famed dramatist Alan Bennett’s novel, Queen Elizabeth II discovers a traveling library in a van by happy accident and becomes addicted to reading, with unexpected and sometimes hilarious results. She attempts to shrug off various royal obligations by claiming she’s involved in her latest book, and when her private secretary, Sir Kevin, suggests that HRH might “harness your reading to some larger purpose—the literacy of the nation as a whole, for instance,” she tartly responds “One reads for pleasure … It is not a public duty.” Her family appreciate her newfound pastime because it means she leaves them alone, but things devolve as the Queen grows sloppier in her clothing choices and spends more and more of her time talking about books with courtiers who couldn’t care less about literature. It's not the tale of a monarch who wants to become an author or a pundit; rather, it’s that of a woman in a public role who wishes—just like so many other busy women—to reclaim a private space for her own peace.
The Crocodile, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
This is most often characterized as a short story, but it’s substantive enough to have been published in its own volume multiple times. The Crocodile, by the great Russian writer Dostoyevsky, is incredibly brief, and it’s a sharp social satire with plenty of teeth. The narrator accompanies his friend Ivan and Ivan’s wife, Elena, to a public show that includes the eponymous beast. Said creature swallows Ivan, and various characters of many different stations argue what to do for him—or not do. Does a crocodile with a man inside make for a more expensive novelty act? If the crocodile is killed to save Ivan, is that a waste of valuable property? What gives this the immersive scope of a novel, rather than that of a novella or a short story, are the high stakes of the bystanders’ decisions and of the shocking revelations from Ivan’s wife, all of which will affect his future—meanwhile, Ivan finds the new quarters ever more cozy and hospitable for his bureaucratic work. The Crocodile is a darkly funny examination of a culture caught between gentility and productivity, one that, like ours, couples too much information with too little listening to others.
The Lover, by Marguerite Duras
“The Lover is a load of shit,” Duras told a colleague. “It’s an airport novel. I wrote it when I was drunk.” That last sentence is probably true; Duras spent a large portion of her life drinking. But those who have read The Lover recognize the shocking immediacy of its narrator’s perspective, which defies her characterization of her work, and draws from Duras’s remembrance of what her own life was like as an adolescent girl in then-French Indochina (in what is now Vietnam). Like her young narrator, Duras wound up in a relationship with a much older man; however, the author did not write The Lover until she was 70 years old—making the novel’s hypnotic language, combining sharp personal memory with a young person’s scant adult knowledge of love and desire, even more arresting. The affair she experiences takes place in a strange bubble, at the nexus of different, dramatic types of power. Only from the vantage of old age can Duras, whose writing consistently deals with sexual and self-possession, recognize that there was some kind of real love between her past self and the older man.
Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck
Erpenbeck, born and brought up behind the Iron Curtain in East Berlin, titled her 2008 novel Heimsuchung, which means “Homeseeking.” While Visitation is an elegant English translation, it doesn’t completely convey what the author does with the home the novel revolves around. That building is set along a lake in Germany, and in the prologue, Erpenbeck traces the setting’s history over 24,000 years, as it changes from a Paleolithic glacier to “a gentle hill above where the house stands,” she writes. That timescale makes human-driven disasters, like global warming and war, feel sudden and violent when they appear. Most of this exquisite book, however, focuses on a narrow stretch of time, following the fates of the house’s inhabitants during Germany’s turbulent 20th century. In the late 1930s, its Jewish owners sell it and manage to acquire visas. Their son is able to emigrate—but his parents and other relatives are not so fortunate. One, a little girl who perishes after confinement in a Polish ghetto, gets the book’s most substantial chapter, and her story balances out Erpenbeck’s objective tone. Although the omniscient narrator reserves judgment, after exposing the forces that determine the girl’s fate, the book’s condemnation of fascism is devastatingly clear.
On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
In this elegiac novel, the early 1960s wedding night of two English virgins, Edward and Florence, somehow turns into a discourse on fear, choice, and love. Each tiny action the couple takes, each sad detail of their coastal hotel, adds to the story’s atmosphere of frustration and irresolution. Florence, at 22 already an accomplished string musician, has great confidence on the concert stage, but dreads sexual intercourse (and perhaps men, as well). Still, she truly loves Edward, who hopes for a career as a historian, and clumsily tells him that if sex is so important, then she doesn’t mind if he has it with other women. Young, rash, and angry, Edward allows Florence to walk away from their marriage—but they never forget each other, and their unconsummated, ultimately annulled union mimics the unattainable freedom of the Swinging ’60s that their relationship just preceded. It's a book as delicately constructed and as carefully tuned as a precious violin.
The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
One of Morrison’s hardest, toughest works, The Bluest Eye is also one of her deepest and truest. Set in Morrison’s hometown of Lorain, Ohio, this novel follows the narrator, Claudia, and her sister Frieda, Black girls who in many ways feel ignored in their community, just as their friend Pecola Breedlove does. Pecola, however, so dearly wants blue eyes that she goes mad—or perhaps she breaks because her father, Cholly, rapes her and she becomes pregnant with a child who doesn’t survive. Morrison needs only just over 200 pages to craft a full novel about what is seen and unseen, what we overlook in other people, and how society manufactures beauty. The sexual abuse in The Bluest Eye is difficult to read about, but the book wants you to look at it squarely against the abuse of racism and, maybe, gain some insight into how grotesquely such a double bind affects these characters and their choices.
Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata
Keiko Furukura, 36, works at a franchise that sells items as varied as cold drinks, sandwiches, and seasonally appropriate gifts. Eighteen years at the same job have suited Miss Furukura, who knows she isn’t exactly the same as other people; when her co-workers become indignant about something, Keiko tries to mimic their facial expressions and vocal tones so that she won’t seem strange. A new employee named Shiraha gets fired, and after Keiko spots him hanging around the building, she comes up with a scheme that may benefit them both: They’ll pretend to be a couple with a “normal” family life for the sake of appearances. Murata manages the trick of keeping Keiko’s first-person narration entirely sympathetic, even when her behavior seems hostile or aggressive. Convenience Store Woman takes a staple of Japanese life—the orderly, well-stocked neighborhood shop—and uses it to demonstrate how difficult it can be to remain part of a society that actively disdains those who don’t fit into tidy categories.
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