I have been thinking about a comment by one of you, dear readers – “millions of people can’t find the time to delve into +700 pages of Moby Dick, because they have jobs to do and children to raise”.
You’re right. It is a luxury to be able to read long novels. It is a luxury I enjoy immensely: just think about Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, one of my favorite novels of all time and the one that taught me that idleness allows interesting events to unfold (in addition, the book was the direct source for my purchase of a red vinyl rain hat). Or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Or even the catastrophically badly written but ultimately heartful Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts.
But then, a lot of novels are long. Fielding, Sterne, Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, Tolstoy, James, Joyce, Musil wrote very long novels. Proust, I think, overdid it. With few exceptions (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kafka), the canon is about long novels. (The birth of so many long novels in the era of handwriting, way before word processing, never ceases to amaze me, just like the growth of civilization in cold places like London, Stockholm and Saint Petersburg before the advent of modern heating techniques). Or maybe, one suspects, long novels are overrepresented among those that survived in the literary canon; the mass of short, perhaps more popular novels that formed the 19th-century equivalent of the soap opera has been largely forgotten.
I haven’t seen any stats, but I suspect that even literary novels have been getting shorter – J. M. Coetzee comes to mind. Among today’s short novels, there are two I remember as striking examples, because they unfold a story with a strong emotional impact in a compact package: Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers. They don’t take any longer than to read than the time it takes to go out to the movies and come back, and they stick in your consciousness for years after you’ve read them.
And you? What are your favorite short novels?