Although each novella is worthy of a post all its own, I'm afraid I might never get caught up if I keep making plans to write them (and then don't). So, my last three Melville House novellas read are going to be lumped together today. I wish I could find threads of commonality to unify my post, but other than each being written in the 1800s, at least two of the three being a lesser work of the author, and two being comic tales--one rather on the absurd side, the one thing that all are are shorter works by classic authors.
Sadly, my experience of Thomas Hardy's work is limited to Tess of the D'Urbervilles, not a particularly happy story, but a fine one in my estimation. Perhaps what keeps me from reading more is the generally bleak outlook that is so often associated with his work (I know not all his books are so dark). It was quite a surprise, then, to read his 1879 novella, The Distracted Preacher. While not without a hint of moralizing to it (and what self-respecting Victorian novel doesn't have a little of that?), it is indeed a somewhat comic tale.
What is a young preacher to do when confronted with a beautiful woman whose nocturnal activities are mysterious and questionable? Mr. Stockdale, a Wesleyan minister, has arrived in the small village of Nether-Moynton to temporarily fill in for the resident preacher. He takes up lodging in the household of the "comely" Mrs. Lizzy Newberry, a very young widow. Although hospitable she's often dashing about, busy attending to other duties that she mysteriously won't identify or remark upon. Mr. Stockdale, being an eligible bachelor with a suitable profession and income has designs upon Lizzy, but he can't seem to pin her down. He sets about unravelling the mystery that is Lizzy Newberry--where does she go at night, just who does a muddy man's overcoat belong to, and when he finds out, will he give her secret away to lawmen who have been interested in surreptitious activities occurring along the coast?
"Poor Stockdale was dreadfully depressed all the next day by the discoveries of the night before. Lizzy was unmistakably a fascinating woman, but as a minister's wife she was hardly to be contemplated. 'If I had only stuck to father's little grocery business, instead of going into the ministry, she would have suited me beautifully!' he said, sadly, until he remembered that in that case he would never have come from his distant home to Nether-Moynton, and never have known her."
What's a man to do? Follow his heart or his vocation?
Heinrich von Kleist's The Duel is one of five "Duel" novellas in the Art of the Novella series. I suspect that by the time I finish with this year's subscription I will have read most of them (and will read them all eventually in any case). This is my first encounter with Henrich von Kleist and won't be my last. I'm afraid I don't know much about him, though I believe he is known for his shorter fiction works. I think this 1810 novella is one of my favorites so far of the novellas I have read, which surprises me as I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Not least as the action takes place during the fourteenth century and von Kleist takes as his subject the "inscrutability of God". It sounded all heavy and moralistic. A dark story perhaps but it does, however, have a happy and properly fitting ending. I have a feeling some of his other stories are better/better known, but this has been as good a place as any to start with his work.
The duel in this story is known as a "trial by ordeal", which means the victor has God on his side and truth (though not necessarily justice). In reality it is chance and ability and really the victor can only claim luck, though we're talking about the Medieval mentality here where God is a guiding presence in everyone's life. It's God's will that whoever wins is meant to win. The duel arises in a twisty manner, which is what I liked so much about this story--the complexity of how it unravels. It begins with a political murder. The likely culprit appears to have an airtight alibi, but it comes at the cost of besmirching the reputation of a noblewoman. In Medieval times a woman's honor was all she had. To claim something as contemptible as sexual impropriety out of wedlock means she will be abandoned by all, friends and family alike. Luckily for Littegarde, however, her most loyal friend defends her in the only way he can--calling the accuser to a duel. I won't give the ending away, but I will say it is a rocky way to clear one's name of a crime. What happens if the victor also ends up being the liar?
" . . . no amount of wisdom could possibly make sense of the mysterious verdict which God intended through this duel."
"Foolish boy, don't you know that a duel may not be fought twice--not for the same purpose, not after a judge deems it settled, and certainly not to repeal God's verdict."
My introduction to Nikolai Gogol's work has been through the 1835 novella How the Two Ivans Quarrelled which is another comic story, but this one verges on the absurd. This is a story of what happens when two lifelong and close friends take a quarrel to the extreme. And worse, it all came about because one of the Ivans called the other a "goose".
Actually there is more to the quarrel than simple name calling. Gogol goes into great detail describing the two Ivans who live next door to each other. "They are such friends as the world never saw." One July afternoon the servant of one of the Ivans was laying things out on the lawn in order to air them. Amongst the clothes there is an unusual but in the eyes of one of the Ivans a splendid things--a gun. He likes it so much that he wants it. His friend, however, is not willing to part with it. Ivan offers his friend a number of things in return for the gun--a sow, two sacks, not empty sacks mind you--but two sacks filled with oats. An argument breaks out that results in a heated verbal exchange.
"Kiss your sow, and if you don't like that, then go to the Evil One!"
"Oh, get angry now, do! See here; they'll stick your tongue full of red-hot needles in the other world for such godless words. After a conversation with you, one has to wash one's face and hands and fumigate one's self."
"Excuse me, Ivan Ivonovitch, my gun is a choice thing, a most curious thing, and besides, it is a very agreeable decoration in a room."
"You go on like a fool with that gun of yours, Ivan Nikiforovitch," said Ivan Ivanovitch with vexation, for he was beginning to get really angry.
"And you, Ivan Ivanovitch, are a regular goose!"
If Ivan Nikiforovitch had not uttered that word they would not have quarrelled, but would have parted friends as usual; but now things took quite another turn. Ivan Ivanovitch flew into a rage.
Of course things escalate over time. One Ivan builds a goose shed right up against the property of the other. Both bring suits against the other. A sow of one eats the paper with the accusation written out for the court of the other. And you wonder how wars are started!
It all verges on the extreme and the ludicrous, but how many times has this happened between friends and worse among family members. Ludicrous it may be, but not so far from reality really, and guess that is Gogol's point.
I'm not sure I have entirely settled on my next novella, but at the moment Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Eternal Husband is sitting on my nightstand.