The Novella’s Forking Path
In 'Some Notes on the Novella' in the New Yorker, Ian McEwan admires the potential perfection in the form that he doesn't reckon is possible in the novel. "I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated, ill-shaven giant..." His comment resembles Pascal's remark about writing a shorter letter if only he had time; evident when McEwan later says, "the demands of economy push writers to polish their sentences to precision and clarity..." But while McEwan sees the novella as a contraction of the novel, it can equally be viewed as the expansion of the short story. When the blurb on the back of Patrick Suskind's novella The Pigeon refers to the book's "fearsome triviality", it captures well the novella as a form expanded beyond its apparent narrative demands. Numerous novellas could in synopsis pass for short stories. Milan Kundera's Ignorance shows a couple meeting again after many years. Peter Handke's TheAfternoon of a Writer is exactly what it says on the cover. The Pigeon concerns someone who doesn't know what to do when the eponymous bird insistently ensconces itself by his front door. J. M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals concentrates on a couple of lectures a writer gives when visiting her adult son's university. These are all negligible narratives given weight and texture by other elements, and not only or always through the polish of the prose, the chiselled precision of the mono-directional. If McEwan reckons the "central idea, even if it is just below the horizon, always exerts its gravitational pull", he seems to be talking of the idea as narrative conceit. But another way of looking at the novella is to see it as a baggy story rather than a tight novel. It allows less for the gravitational pull of the central idea; more the opportunity to explore thought by the opening up of its form rather than the closing down of its length.
In this sense, the fearsome triviality might reside in the plot, but the novella's significance then lies elsewhere; in making the trivial fearsomely relevant. In Handke's The Afternoonof a Writer, the central character leaves his desk and goes for a walk. "It seemed to him that he was not going away from his work but that it was accompanying him; that now, far from his desk, he was still at work. But what does "work" mean? Work, he thought, is something in which material is next to nothing, structure almost everything; something that rotates on its axis without the help of a flywheel; something whose elements hold one another in suspense; something open and accessible to all, which cannot be worn out by use." Equally, when Kundera speaks in The Art of the Novel of the meditative digression in the novel form, it is also exactly what he allows for in his own novellas, or short novels, Slowness and Ignorance. The latter is a variation on a Kundera story from many years earlier, 'Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead'. The original was made up of fourteen short chapters; Ignorance is made up of fifty three, often of no greater length. Yet the longer work gives greater space for digressions of thought, evident when Kundera explores in chapter two the Greek origins of the word nostalgia, and also the various uses of the term in different languages. He says for example that "The Germans rarely use the Greek-derived term Nostalgie and tend to say Sehnsucht in speaking of the desire for an absent thing. But Sehnsucht can refer both to something that has existed and to something that has never existed (a new adventure), and therefore it does not necessarily imply the nostos idea; to include in Sehnsucht the obsession with returning would require adding a complementary phrase..."
In each instance, in Handke's novella and Kundera's, the form doesn't result in the tightness McEwan invokes, but the looseness that allows what Kundera calls, in The Art of the Novel, novelistic enquiry: a space for thinking about ideas without at all feeling obligated to justify them in conventional philosophical or etymological terms. When Kundera explores the word nostalgia in various languages, it isn't to display his linguistic abilities, but to create the space to examine an enquiry into self. Handke is less inclined to offer up an idea so essayistically, yet in the novella Across he talks of the Greek word Leukein as he sees that German doesn't quite have a word to match the Greek. "Perhaps only Greek has a verb expressing that fusion of perception and imagination (which is essential). On the surface this verb means "to notice"; but it carries overtones of "white," "bright," "radiance," "glitter," "shimmer." Within me there was an outright longing for this radiance, which is more than any sort of viewing." Kundera and Handke use the novella as an exploratory form more than as an opportunity for stylistic perfection. This isn't to invalidate McEwan's point, but it is to expand it. McEwan's perception of the novella isn't of course idle; it is the thought of a practising novelist who also has written novellas of his own: The Cement Garden and On Chesil Beach, for example. He knows what he is talking about; but as with many a novelist who has a vested interest in their argument, it adds up to a useful angle on the subject, but not quite a firm thesis. There is space aplenty for disagreement and expansion.
For example, McEwan says "the great novella is Joyce's 'The Dead'. A simple binary structure (a party, a hotel room) supports the evocation of an entire social milieu (decorous and fractious by turns) with extraordinary warmth. They seem to play out in real time, the dancing and singing in the aunt's annual dinner, the family tensions, the barbed exchange about national identity." Then there is the beautifully worded conclusion that McEwan admires so much, with phrases like "snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead." The antimetabole of falling faintly and faintly falling is undeniably part of the linguistic precision McEwan is looking for. From the angle upon which McEwan views the novella, The Dead is the great work, but if we compare it to Ignorance we notice that where Joyce keeps to the present with the occasional aside as he investigates the idea of the deceased, Kundera constantly interrogates the past in relation to the present. The unity McEwan admires in Joyce, Kundera takes apart for the purposes of meditative digression. As Kundera says in Chapter 22: "the more vast the amount of time we've left behind us, the more irresistible is the voice calling us to return to it. This pronouncement seems to state the obvious, and yet it is false. Men grow old, the end draws near, each moment becomes more and more valuable, and there is no time to waste over recollections. It is important to understand the mathematical paradox in nostalgia: that it is most powerful in early youth, when the volume of the life gone by is quite small." Kundera presents what amounts to disembodied argument: digressive through its removal from character and its presence as essayistic. By contrast Joyce refers quite concretely to the desire Gabriel has for his wife Gretta, saying Gabriel believes "the years, he felt, had not quenched his soul or hers. Their children, his writing, her household cares had not quenched all their souls' tender fire. In one letter he had written to her then he had said: 'Why is it that words like these seem to me so dull and cold? Is it because there is no word tender enough to be your name?'" We are here very much within Gabriel's point of view, and the past is tentatively broached but the present forcefully evident. Kundera is much more willing than Joyce to break with time and space, and sacrifice the unity McEwan talks up. If this is a failure it is not an unintentional one. Kundera's work has often sought out the ways and means by which to break with classical construction, to find, in counterpoint and disjunction, other types of connection. He isn't interested in the ready unity of the story, but "with the enigma of the self". "As soon as you create an imaginary being, a character, you are automatically confronted by the question: What is the self. How can the self be grasped?" (The Art of the Novel) It is the meditative digression, it seems, which allows for this exploration of self more readily than seeking cohesion. Of course Kundera is also, like McEwan, a practising writer of novellas, and what he says cannot easily be separated from his own specific novelistic agenda. But by setting up Kundera and McEwan in opposition to each other, we can usefully look at the novella's forking path.
Now the self Kundera refers to is not a psychological subject: "My novels are not psychological. More precisely they lie outside the aesthetics of the novel normally termed psychological." (The Art of the Novel) If Kundera is wary of psychology because it can allow the novel to lapse into convention, however well done, James Wood, in How FictionWorks, is suspicious of detail, perhaps because of its superficial ingenuity. "I confess to an ambivalence about detail in fiction. I relish it, consume it, ponder it. Hardly a day goes by in which I don't remind myself of Bellow's description of Mr Rappaport's cigar [in Seizethe Day]: 'the white ghost of the leaf, with all its veins and its fainter pungency'. But I choke on too much detail, and find the distinctively post-Flaubertian tradition fetishises it." However if we accept with Kundera that fiction is chiefly neither the means by which one tells a story, nor the means by which one delineates a world, but an opportunity to open up an existential dilemma, then the problem of description falls away, as does the issue of 'perfection'. The writing returns to what Coetzee (quoted by Wood) calls "moderate realism". Where Joyce brilliantly pushes the details in The Dead to a descriptive delirium that would be taken up and expanded by writers of the nouveauroman in the fifties, for writers including Kundera, Handke, Coetzee, as well as Doris Lessing and Clarice Lispector, the enquiry into the nature of the self, in their short novels, takes precedence over detailed scene setting and observation.
Now Joyce happily writes, "a fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin, and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk shaped handle on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds..." However, surely this is by Coetzee's standards immoderate realism, but not at all what we would call fearsome triviality. Joyce was obviously a brilliant writer, but his definition of fiction writing would be very far away from Kundera's: Joyce had a genius for finding the transcendent in the everyday; Kundera, like Coetzee, Handke, Lessing and Lispector, abstract the every day and turn it into a question. For example, Coetzee's penultimate paragraph in The Lives ofAnimals contains two questions, a paragraph on the last page of Lessing's The Fifth Childoffers five. Ignorance has six on the first page. At one moment in The Afternoon of a Writer the narrator wonders about the titular figure: "did he have any rules? Weren't the few that he had tried to impose on himself constantly giving way to something else - a mood, an accident, a sudden inspiration - that seemed to indicate the better choice...?", and ends not with a question, but with the acceptance of an existential mystery. "To himself he was a puzzle, a long-forgotten wonderment". As Gabriel Josipovici says in distinguishing between Beckett and Joyce: "his biographers tell us that Beckett's mother used to walk about the house at night unable to sleep...he might have used that to 'say something' about parents and children, or about guilt and the generations, as Joyce did in The Dead...that is not Beckett's way." Nor would it be the way of Kundera, Coetzee, Lessing, Lispector and Handke, no matter if they are of course very different writers from Beckett, and also very different writers from each other. But our point and purpose resides in saying that the writer can use the novella form to delve into description and seek the perfect style McEwan proposes, or he can use it as a propositional form to ask questions about the nature of being. It doesn't mean of course that Joyce isn't asking such questions; just that the question is absorbed into the formal coherence. In Kundera, Handke, Lessing. Lispector and Coetzee it seems to reshape our expectations and, consequently, the shape McEwan so admires becomes close to a misshaping through reconfiguration. There is some question that refuses the limpidity of form and arrives at the complexity of the enquiry.
A good example of this latter approach can be found in The Hour of the Star by Lispector. Here is a novella where in the second, two line, paragraph the narrator announces: "Let no one be mistaken. I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort." The next paragraph continues, "So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I shall go on writing. How does one start at the beginning, if things happen before they actually happen? If before the pre-history there already existed apocalyptic monsters?" Here the narrator, one Rodrigo S. M., wants to ask a question from the unfathomable depths of being, and then finds a story about one young woman, with the "legacy of misfortune", to furnish that tale. Macabea "was inept. Inept for living," we are told. "She had no idea how to cope with life and she was only vaguely aware of her own inner emptiness", the narrator says as the novella explores a character who is neither heroine nor villainess, nor an interesting mind nor a beautiful body. She is a person without charisma: "She lacked that elusive quality known as charm. I am the only person who finds her charming. As the author, I alone love her. I suffer on her account."
In The Hour of the Star Lispector asks some of the same questions addressed by Lessing in The Fifth Child, but chooses to do so through the further remove of a narrator outside the text commenting on the character. Lessing, on the other hand, deals with no less primordially difficult a figure in her novella, but more clearly contains him whilst still asking probing questions about the given situation. Thus Lessing uses the distraught mother as the figure through whom we see the troublesome title character, a son only a mother can love; while Lispector gives us a young woman conjured up by the novelist but who nevertheless no doubt exists, living in cities like Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, someone that "exists in an impersonal limbo, untouched by what is worst or best. She merely exists, inhaling and exhaling, inhaling and exhaling." Lessing adopts the mother's fundamental affection for Ben to try and work through some very basic questions about what constitutes a human being. This troublesome child, who often seems more animal than man, Harriet Lovatt looks at with dismay, at one moment observing him in a room in the attic of their house. "'Ben', she said softly, though her voice shook. 'Ben...' putting into the word her human claim on him, and on this wild dangerous attic where he had gone back into a far-away past that did not know human beings." The enquiry is there, but the novel, focalised chiefly through the mother's consciousness, allows the questions to be asked through a mother's unconditional love, rather than through a narrator's unconditional freedom. If the narrator in The Hour of the Star wants to create a character that is hopelessly inadequate for most fictional needs, Lessing more concretely creates a character who struggles to meet life's demands. Harriet wonders if Ben is a throwback to a different time, a time when "Ben's people were at home under the earth, she was sure, deep underground in black caverns lit by torches..." If meditation comes through the story, or slightly removed from it, it is still meditation nevertheless. While Giovanni Ponteiro in his afterward to The Hour of the Star justifiably notes that "meditation has always outweighed mere description in Lispector's writing", this is also true of many writers we are talking about here, even if they are more inclined to veil it in unequivocal fictional form.
It is not that McEwan is wrong to assume that the novella is an opportunity for perfection; however, equally, it is often an opportunity for 'imperfection', for in Richard Neupert's striking phrase, "the told is not resolved but the telling is concluded": the work is an open book more than a closed form. Neupert in The End might be talking about various narrative approaches in film as he draws on literary theory, but it could be used, up to a point, to differentiate the shape and completeness that we often find in the novella McEwan rates, and a more open-ended method that seems to draw more from a problem in life than a problem in form. The life problem cannot allow itself to be closed off by the form, and spills out beyond it. Thus Neupert will contrast films like The Quiet Man, Shaneand Gigi, with 400 Blows, Bicycle Thieves and Rome, Open City. It is not Neupert's general narrative theories that interest us here (he offers another two further categories), but the suggestiveness in his phrase about the told and the telling. In this sense we have, for example, Slowness and Ignorance, The Lives of Animals, The Fifth Child and TheHour of the Star, The Afternoon of a Writer and Across and, closer to McEwan's definition, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, The Dead, The Outsider, Animal Farm, Seizethe Day. The latter works are all masterful on tone and atmosphere, or clarity of vision and succinct closure, while the former seem always to be creating a world beyond the work and not only one contained by it. We needn't predicate one style of novella over the other, and these are hardly tight categories, merely suggestive ones. But we can see them as the two sides of the novella coin. In the latter the told is resolved as well as the telling concluded; in the former the told remains in flux because of the nature of the telling. Some question asked cannot possibly close the work down, so that the telling accepts its limitations, and conforms to that old literary clich that a work is never finished; it is always abandoned. Yet some works seem more obviously abandoned than others. Some we can call expansive novellas; others contractive.
One way in which to contain the finished is by starting with a story that can be held within ready parameters, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez does this wonderfully well in Chronicle ofa Death Foretold, a very fine example of the contractive. "On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on." The book all but ends on that very death, with the line: "they've killed me, Wene child." Even if, as Salman Rushdie proposed in a review in the LRB, the use of an unnamed, shadowy narrator investigating the past was something new for Garcia Marquez, the Daily Telegraph seems right in claiming it as "a superbly crafted short novel...the telling of a simple tale can be pure art." It is the combination of careful use of point of view, the winnowing of the real world down to a small, fictionalized coastal town, and the writer's ability to offer the story as an inquiry without feeling under any obligation to couch the novella in terms of questions. Occasionally a character will ask one - "did something happen to him?"; "and might a person know why you want to kill him so early in the morning?" But the work usually holds to the description of the murder rather than poses questions about the event, or even to expect us to draw parallels with a political situation in a specific context. As Garcia Marquez would say, "thinking about my own work...I finally came to the conclusion that it was not to the social and the political reality of my country that I was committed, but to the total reality of the world." (The Fragranceof Guava) Marquez has earlier talked of his first novel, Leaf Storm, as a book "that appeared during a period of very bloody political repression and my militant friends gave me a terrible guilt complex." He might add that "Nobody Writes to the Colonel, In Evil Hour and Big Mama's Funeral all reflect the reality of life in Colombia", but they reflect it rather than focus on it. They remain books fascinating not least because of Garcia Marquez's capacity to imagine an alternative world more than a depiction of the one in which we live. His perfection resides in generating a universe that he makes vivid but that needn't exist. We might not easily believe in the unusually evolving love affair between two of the characters in the story, but Garcia Marquez creates such a world of spatial and temporal originality that it is as though he creates his own psychology too. Here the two characters, that marry and set in motion the tragedy of the title, don't see each other for many years. Initially Angela Vicario has no interest in seeing him, and he felt betrayed by the fact that she wasn't a virgin on her wedding night. But after the events she was sobbing not because of the blows her mother administered, but for Bayardo San Roman and, in time "went crazy over him", she admits to the narrator, as she writes Bayardo a letter every week for over half a lifetime without getting any reply back. Then one day, no longer young, he arrives on her doorstep, saying, "Well, here I am", "carrying a suitcase with clothing in order to stay and another just like it with almost two thousand letters that she had written him. They were arranged by date in bundles tied with coloured ribbons, and all unopened." Garcia Marquez stretches our capacity for suspension of disbelief but, perhaps because he is a writer who at the same time stretches our imaginations, can generate the capacity for belief out of the psychologically implausible. The book's depiction of a lengthy, unconsummated marriage isn't a flaw in the novella; it is a revelation of the writer's gift for generating a parallel world, a world that needn't play too fair with believable behaviour when the metaphorical dimension has been so well sketched. It is a sign of Chronicle of a Death Foretold's inner integrity that it works as an emotionally affecting moment.
If in Garcia Marquez's novella we can see the perfection through a potential flaw that brings out the book's beauty all the more completely, in Seize the Day we might see how well Saul Bellow holds to point of view and specificity of description when the book very occasionally and perhaps erroneously deviates from it. Though the novella is in the third person, the perceptual centre is that of Tommy Wilhelm, so when the book at a certain moment gives us an image of Tommy from his father's perspective, it feels a little like a reverse angle from which we have been hitherto denied. Where most of the time we get a sense of how Tommy feels about his father's judgements, they remain perceptions from the outside of Dr Adler's character rather than thoughts from the inside. But then the narrator says: "Dr Adler saw it with a silent repugnance. What a Wilky he had given to the world! Why, he didn't even wash his hands in the morning. He used an electric razor so that he didn't have to touch water. The doctor couldn't bear Wilky's dirty habits. Only once - and never again, he swore - had he visited his room". The passage goes on to describe the mess he found there. As Bellow covers one day in the life of the central character and his descent after bad business decisions, so the book's genius rests on the empathy generated for a character who feels himself in the eyes of everyone a loser. But by changing point of view, here, Bellow gives us not a feeling but a fact, a moment where that point of view is stated by another rather than an implied feeling from Tommy's state. It breaks something in the tension of the novella, but at the same time illustrates just how well Bellow generally holds the perspective for us to be so easily puzzled when it momentarily shifts. If people talk of perfect novellas with the smallest of flaws, Seize theDay would be a good example of one such book.
There may be flaws in The Outsider also. Patrick McCarthy says that "the time sequence is not merely vague but incorrect: on page 10 the reader cannot know precisely when Meursault went to Emmanuel's flat to collect the black armband." But what critics often find distinctive about the book is the use of tense. "The most obvious break with literary convention - untranslatable into English - of the perfect instead of the past historic". Past historic is often used in fiction, McCarthy notes, the perfect for conversation. Camus' novel is punningly perfect as it controls tense for the purposes of capturing an emotionally removed perspective: Meursault is someone who doesn't reflect, so how better to capture the idea of a character living in the moment than by adopting a tense that reflects that moment by moment existence? Camus may have been one of France most talked up philosophers in the post-war years. He was after all a writer whose The Myth of Sisyphuspredicated life on the problem of suicide and the existence of the absurd, the importance of the actor and the significance of a phenomenology forcing us to accept that our world is constantly changing. But The Outsider is a chiselled account of the killing of an Arab, a work that refuses intellectual digression as it holds not so much to point of view, as singularity of dramatic perspective. Here is a man who doesn't cry at his mother's funeral, kills someone because of the heat, and gets executed as much for the former failure as the latter murder. The book may contain in dramatic form ideas expressed in philosophical enquiry elsewhere, but it doesn't allow for the ideas to be given anything other than narrative focus. Where that other existential combatant Jean-Paul Sartre cheerfully (or morosely) waxes philosophical in Nausea, Camus is more constrained. Nouveau romannovelist Alain Robbe-Grillet went so far as to say there would have been nothing left of the book without its very precise form. "Take The Stranger [The Outsider], for instance. It suffices to change the tense of its verbs, to replace that first person in the perfect tense (whose quite uncustomary use extends throughout the narrative) by the usual third person in the past tense, for Camus' universe to disappear at once." (For a New Novel) There may be the occasional reference to the absurd, but it is contained within a very specific context. When Meursault is in the police station he says: "As a matter of fact I had great difficulty in following his remarks as, for one thing, the office was so stifling hot and big flies were buzzing round and settling on my cheeks; also because he rather alarmed me. Of course I realized it was absurd to feel like this, considering that, after all, it was I who was the criminal." Meursault remains a character throughout to whom events happen, rather than one given to reflection on events. If Socrates claimed the unexamined life is not worth living, then Meursault's is not a worthy life, with Camus the novelist choosing to ignore Camus the philosopher as he chooses an unexamined existence as his focal point. In this sense Sartre's albeit longer novel is very much an examination of consciousness. The blurb on the back of the Penguin Modern Classic refers to it as "a novel of the alienation of personality and the mystery of being, and presents us with the first full length essay in the philosophy for which Sartre has since become famous." The opening passage of the book emphasizes the self-conscious: "the best thing would be to write down everything that happens from day to day. To keep a diary in order to understand. To neglect no nuances or little details, even if they seem unimportant, and above all to classify them." Sartre even plays up the novel's imperfections: the opening page announces that a word is missing; in another passage that a word has been crossed out but the word written above it is illegible. Of course Sartre's is a novel rather than a novella: the book is twice the length of Camus', so perhaps automatically rules out the possibility of perfection according to McEwan's argument. However, one suspects even if were half the length it would still be more interested in enquiry over perfect form, would still be chiefly an "essay in the philosophy for which Sartre has since become famous." It would be an expansive novella.
George Orwell is another writer whose reputation resides as much on his non-fiction as his fictional work. If writers like Bellow, Garcia Marquez, Lessing and Coetzee are all very much fiction writers who write the occasional work of non-fiction, then there are writers like Sartre, Camus, Orwell and Kundera for whom the divide is much less pronounced. Yet this doesn't mean that when working on the novella the writers known for their fictional work write less essayistic and ideas driven books than those known as much for non-fiction. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals and Lessing's The Fifth Child are ideas rich; while Orwell's Animal Farm and Camus' The Outsider withhold them. Orwell's essays are great articles given to a very high degree of specificity, evident in 'A Hanging', 'Shooting an Elephant' and 'Down the Mine'. Animal Farm is the opposite, a perfect little fable whose perfection lies not least in the distance between the eschewal of the authentic and the force of the dramatic, between foregoing the telling detail and pushing the narrative forward. For example in 'Down the Mine', Orwell talks about a miner's day: "what is surprising...is the immense horizontal distances that have to be travelled underground. Before I had been down a mine I had vaguely imagined the miner stepping out of the cage and getting to work on a ledge of coal a few yards away. I had not realized that before he even gets to work he may have to creep along passages as long as from London Bridge to Oxford Circus." In 'Shooting an Elephant' Orwell notes, "it is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant -it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery - and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possible be avoided." This specificity becomes allegorically contained in Orwell's Animal Farm as we suspend disbelief over verisimilitude so that Orwell's purpose isn't to tell us how animals do the tasks around the farm, but that we accept they are able to do them despite physically being incapable of such actions. If Joyce perfects the novella with 'immoderate' detail; Orwell perfects it inversely: by detail's very lack. When the animals rebuild a destroyed windmill, we might wonder how they can do so with their hooves, trotters and paws. Orwell's purpose is to forgo the specific and arrive at the extended metaphor of allegorical purpose: to create a book about the perils of totalitariaism. This is a novella about the nature of power, and must find a strong enough formal completeness to counter the questions a reader might have about plausibility of action. The book moves from the takeover of the farm by the animals at the beginning, to the end of the novel where the animal elite, the pigs, resemble the humans they were supposed to replace. They are now walking on two legs even though the first of the seven commandments was "whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy." Orwell opens the book with the owner of the farm Mr Jones too inebriated to shut the pop holes. By the end of the book, the pigs are as drunk as Mr Jones used to be, and the novella concludes with a mixture of pigs and humans in the farmhouse sozzled. "Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."
Of course, this ending offers a certain poetic license maybe more accurately called allegorical license, where we accept that the pigs and the humans are indistinguishable not at all because they would be, but that the allegorical demands of the form insist that they are. The thrust of the book rests on the problem of radical change when power simply shifts rather than happens to be overturned. Most of the animals are no better off than they were at the beginning, and in many ways their lives are far worse: "There were times when it seemed to the animals that they worked longer hours and fed no better than they had done in Jones's day." The rights they were hoping to achieve in the early days of the revolution have been ignored: "When the laws of Animal Farm were first formulated, the retiring age had been fixed for horses and pigs at twelve." Orwell's book isn't at all an enquiry into power but instead an encapsulation of it. If Kundera would praise Kafka over Orwell (comparing specifically The Trial to 1984) it lies in what he sees as Kafka's enquiring, poetic originality, against Orwell's book which he believes is "firmly closed to poetry." "Did I say novel? It is political thought disguised as a novel; the thinking is certainly lucid and correct, but it is distorted by its guise as a novel, which renders it imprecise and vague." (Testaments Betrayed) Kundera adds, "the pernicious influence of Orwell's novel resides in its implacable reduction of reality to its political dimension alone..." Much the same could be said about Animal Farm, and especially if one sees, as many people do, the book as a direct allegory for Communism rather than a broader based analysis of power. Animal Farm is a perfect little book, the sort of work that is impeccably precise in its aims and its execution, but lacks the imagistic poetry that Kundera so admires in Kafka, and the specificity of detail one often finds in Orwell's essays.
If McEwan is so awed by the perfection in the form, then would he claim Animal Farm is a better book than the more enquiring novellas we have mentioned here, including The FifthChild, Ignorance, or The Hour of the Star? Books like Seize the Day and The Outsidercome very close to perfection, but that doesn't mean they are better than those that are seeking an enquiring approach over the perfect. Fearsome triviality can go in two directions: one towards the wondrous miniature; the other towards the endless expansion of the subtlest of ideas. There are masterful examples of both, and any definition of the novella needn't be limited by the idea of formal perfection over querying openness. The novella can avoid becoming a baggy monster, but there is no reason why it can't also be a Pandora's box troublingly testing its formal properties.
© Tony McKibbin