In this week’s second PEN Atlas dispatch, Meike Ziervogel from Peirene Press makes the case for the novella, charting the history of the form, and reflecting on her experience publishing great novellas in translation from around Europe

“To reduce the novella to nothing more than a short novel is like saying a pony is a baby horse.” (George Fetherling, Canadian poet and novelist)

When I set up Peirene, I knew I wanted to concentrate on publishing contemporary European novellas which had never been translated into English. I love the novella form and believe that many modern novels tend to be over-written. Too much description, too much repetitive dialogue, too much information copied straight from Wikipedia.  I, as the reader, feel spoon-fed, sometimes even force-fed. I wonder if I am being deprived of the opportunity to use my imagination.

Let’s take the modern Catalan classic, Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal, (translated into English by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell). It’s a miracle of compression. In a mere 120 pages we get the complete life story of an old woman, covering the entire 20th
century. I still remember when I finished reading it. I was amazed how this book covers everything there is to cover in a person’s life: love, hate, war, peace, loss, joy, passion, desire, loneliness. How did the author achieve this? Through the narrative voice – simple, almost naïve at times and yet beautifully wise. I often return to this story in my mind, although I read it five years ago.

A novella is a short work of fiction. It is a film for the mind – short enough to read in one sitting, but large enough to provide a satisfying read. A full-length novel often aims to deliver a complete world-view. If you present a baddy then you need a police inspector to tell you that this person is a baddy and why. The world inside the story must be kept in balance – and sometimes this has the effect of simply confirming the reader’s worldview.

A novella, on the other hand, prefers to focus on one view or one voice, highlights one feeling, portrays one psychological human trait. It zooms in on one aspect of a story. By doing so, it prompts us, the readers, to fill in the larger picture. It provokes us to think and use our imagination.

For example in Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (translated from French by Adriana Hunter), we see the world entirely through the eyes of a mother who cannot cope. For her the world has become a dark, dangerous place. We believe her and follow her. Nowhere in the story does another character tell us what to make of this woman. We are left to judge for ourselves. The author shows us the protagonist without telling us what to think.

The novella as an art form came before the modern novel. One Thousand and One Nights, written in the 10th century, is one of the earliest examples of serialised novellas. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1386-1400) followed suit.

During the Renaissance the novella developed into a literary genre in France and Italy. The Decameron (1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio and Heptaméron (1559) by the French Queen, Marguerite de Navarre, stand as two outstanding examples. Then in the late 18th and early 19th century the novella became fashionable in Germany. The Black Spider (1842) by Jeremais Gotthelf and Immenseen (1849) by Theodor Storm still make haunting reads today.

There are many examples of great novellas across the years. Many famous films have drawn from novellas, such as A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.

For me, reading is a creative act. Literature presents a wonderful tool to analyse and understand ourselves better. A text should serve as a springboard  to engage our mind, our intellect, our imagination.

The novella is the perfect form to sharpen and make use of our creative reading skills. At best plot, voice and structure form a complete whole and each of those three aspects supports the other with an intensity made possible by the novella’s obligation to focus.

This month Peirene will publish Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristian Carlson, translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah. Like Dylan Thomas in Under Milk Wood, Carlson evokes the voices of an entire village. They are held together by an impressively tight narrative structure.

But also in Anglo-Saxon writing the novella is making a come back. Last year two beautifully short books were short listed for the Booker: The Lighthouse by Alison Moore and Swimming Home by Deborah Levy.

About the Author

Meike Ziervogel is a writer and publisher. She grew up in northern Germany and came to London in 1986 to study Arabic language and literature. She has worked as a journalist for Reuters in London and Agence France Presse in Paris. In 2008 she founded Peirene Press, an award-winning independent publishing house that specialises in the foreign literature in English translation. In 2012 Meike was voted as one of Britain’s 100 most innovative and influential people in the creative and media industries, the Time Out and Hospital Club 100 list. Meike’s first novel ‘Magda’ was published by Salt in April 2013.

Additional Information

To find out more about Peirene Press, please see here.

Meike has also been interviewed here about her first novel, Magda, that tells the story of the wife of Joseph Goebbels.