An Encomium for Short Books:  “The Diary of a Nobody,” “Another Part of the Wood,” “In the Act” and “The King in Yellow”

It is satisfying to read a book a day. I recently read several short books, among them The Diary of a Nobody, by George and Weedon Grossmith, In the Act, by Rachel Ingalls, Another Part of the Wood, by Beryl Bainbridge, and The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers.

Ingalls and Chambers clock in at less than 100 pages, the other two under 200 pages.

Another Part of the Wood, by Beryl Bainbridge.  Published in 1968, this early novel showcases Bainbridge’s subtle, haunting style.  In this dark, short novel, Joseph, a charmer who can turn it on and off, organizes a camping  trip to Wales with Dottie, his live-in girlfriend, Roland, his son by his first marriage, and Kidney, a mentally-challenged adolescent boy.

The campers stay in dark huts, which Dottie finds uncomfortable, and the boys sleep in a barn, which scares Roland. Dottie is not woodsy, so there is little to do  except smoke cigarettes and play Monopoly, or walk to the village to shop for food.  (Of course Joseph did not  pack enough food.) But Dottie is also annoyed that Joseph invited a couple they barely know, May, whom she knew at school, and Lionel, a former solider who brags  about his medal of valour, which is actually a train token.

The men seem content to chop wood and help the owner George and his handyman with other macho chores, while Dottie and May quietly seethe with rebellion.  Meanwhile, who is looking after the kids?

In the Act, by Rachel Ingalls.  Best-known for Mrs. Caliban, a short novel about a neglected housewife who falls in love with a monster who may or may not be imaginary, Ingalls wrote several edgy, funny short stories and novellas.  In her 1987 novella, In the Act, Ingalls writes a version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the age of robots and sex toys.

Although Helen’s sons are at a boys’ boarding school, of which she does not approve, she keeps busy with adult education classes, so she isn’t lonely. Meanwhile, her husband, Edgar, works night and day in his laboratory on the top floor of the house. When the adult ed program is cancelled, she finds a key to the lab and sneaks upstairs to investigate.

  She shrieks when she sees the body parts.  But then she sees that the life-like limbs are not real, and there is metal in a broken skull. Apparently this is some kind of creepy invention of Edgar’s. And then the novella turns into a feminist comedy of blackmail and theft when she packs her husband’s docile quasi-human doll in a suitcase and checks it in a train-station locker. Everything would be fine if someone didn’t steal teh doll from the locker. The twist at the end is suitable for a feminist Frankenstein story.

The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers.  In this collection of  short stories, Chambers proves himself a master of weird fiction.  The first four stories are linked by the existence of a banned, evil, hypnotic play, The King in Yellow, which destroys the lives of anyone who reads it.   In the best of these linked stories, “The Yellow Sign,” the narrator, a painter, looks out the window and sees a clammy, death-like figure. The picture he has been painting changes.  “The flesh tones were sallow and unhealthy, and I did not understand how I could have painted such sickly color into a study which before that had glowed with healthy tones.”  Later, his model Tessie, who is in love with him, climbs a ladder to look at the books on the highest shelf. She picks up the copy of The King in Yellow, and, terrified, he orders her not to read it, but she thinks he is teasing. She begins to read and falls into a swoon.  Furious with himself for even having the book around. the narrator feels compelled to read it.

Overall, I preferred the realistic stories. Some of them remind me of the work of Balzac or Zola.   In “The Street of the First Shell,” set in France during the siege of Paris in 1870, Trent, who volunteers in the ambulance unit, finds himself fighting at the front because so many men have been wounded or killed. It is eerily unreal, a nightmare of falling horses and men killed by bayonets. Bewildered Trent isn’t even sure he is at the front, but he miraculously survives. 

A splendid collection of stories! Many of the characters are artists: Chambers, too, studied art in Paris and worked as an artist before turning to writing.

The Diary of a Nobody,  by George & Weedon Grossmith.  Written in the form of a diary, this gentle comedy is a predecessor of E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady. Mr. Pooter, a “nobody” who works in the City and is known for his silly puns. He begins a diary after he and his wife, Carrie, move into the Laurels, a six-room house with a back garden that runs all the way back to the railway tracks.

“We were afraid of the noise of the trains at first, but the landlord said we should not notice them after a bit, and took 2 pounds off the rent.  He was certainly right; and beyond the cracking of the garden wall at the bottom, we have suffered no inconvenience at all.”

Every reader understands the adjustments needed to attain affordable housing . Also familiar are Pooter’s comical DIY attempts.  He develops a painting mania, and paints his boots and his friend’s cane black. Then he is inspired to  to paint the bathtub red but bathing in it turns his skin red.

They have an active social life, but have a slacker son. When Lupin arrives for the weekend, they are ecstatic, but wonder why he makes no preparations to leave. On Sunday he first boasts that he has quit his job, then admits that he has lost it. And so he moves in, lounges like an adolescent, and puts a financial strain on his parents.  (A very modern problem!)

A book for the Victorians and for us who live in the future.

NOTE: Do recommend your favorite short books. What a pleasure it is to read a book in a day!

2 thoughts on “An Encomium for Short Books:  “The Diary of a Nobody,” “Another Part of the Wood,” “In the Act” and “The King in Yellow””

  1. I recommend Gérard Bessette’s 1960 novel/novella Le libraire, which concerns a directionless bookseller working in a Quebec that is still very much under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church.

    That sounds dry. Trust me, it isn’t!

    It’s been translated twice, both times under the title Not for Every Eye.

    Here’s hoping a copy of one or the other can be found in your corner of the continent.

    1. This sounds right up my alley. Anything with a bookseller, and the Catholic problems are always intriguing.. We have a dearth of Canadian lit here, as you probably know. I’m sure I can find a copy, though.

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