In an amusing essay atThe Spectator, Boyd Tonkin recommends that we turn to shorter books. He writes,
If I had a rouble or a euro for every reader who fulfilled their lockdown promise to devour Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or Proust my bank account would hardly grow by a single penny. Duty, guilt and pride never made the pages turn more swiftly, whatever a book’s length. Almost all vows to catch up on doorstopper classics from the global canon will have failed to outlast the fallen blossoms. Yet you might more realistically blend discovery and delight by exploring some of the smaller miracles of great fiction in translation.
Do read his essay: you’ll enjoy his take on Colette and Calvino, as well as others whose work you may not know.
And let me recommend four of my favorite shorter novels. (I consider anything under 375 pages “shorter.”)
Carmen Laforet’s Nada (244 pages), translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman, an autobiographical novel about a young woman in Barcelona in the 1940s. This atmospheric coming-of-age novel, set in post-Civil War Spain, is narrated by a college student who moves into her grandmother’s apartment in Barcelona. The cramped apartment also houses the narrator’s controlling Catholic aunt, two uncles, both painters, and one of their wives, a gambler, all slowly starving in poverty. Life is a struggle, though there are moments of humor.
Fans of Olivia Manning will enjoy her tightly-plotted novel The Rain Forest (352 pages), published in 1974, set on an island in the Indian Ocean. If you are a fan of Graham Greene or W. Somerset Maugham, you will not be able to put it down. This hypnotic story of an expatriate couple living on a jasmine-scented island ruled by the British is a trenchant examination of colonialism and culture clash.
The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier (352 pages). If you loved Rebecca, you’re bound to enjoy du Maurier’s lesser-known novel The Parasites, an intriguing portrait of an artistic family. It begins with Charles, a country squire, calling his wife Maria, who is a famous actress, her brother Niall, a songwriter, and sister Celia, a writer, “parasites.” Are they or not? The novel explores the question.
Doirs Langley Moore’s charming 1948 novel, Not at Home (300 pages),has recently been reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow. It is brilliant, funny, and bingeable, with a likable spinster heroine and an utterly believable plot. And you will be rooting for the polite heroine all the way, though her too good manners sometimes get in the way of life. This novel is about landlady problems!
The heroine, Miss MacFarren, a middle-aged botanical writer, must rent out part of her London house because of post-war money problems. And, because she is so polite, she takes her bossy friend Harriet’s advice and rents to Mrs. Antonia Bankes, a manipulative American who will agree to anything–and then go her own way. Mrs. Bankes slowly takes over the house… Fascinating, funny, and unputdownable!
I am a fan of some long, very long books, but we need to mix it up!