Saturday 22 July 2017

When is a novel not a novel? Here's the long and short of it

When is a novel not a novel? That's the question being asked of Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, which runs to a modest 160 pages and has just won this year's Man Booker Prize.

It was too short for such a weighty award, some of its critics have been saying.

The same question arose last May when I was co-judge with Kate O'Toole of the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, which is presented in conjunction with Listowel Writers' Week.

We gave the prize to Neil Jordan's 314-page Mistaken, but very much in the final reckoning was Claire Keegan's Foster, which at 86 pages of large type isn't even a novella -- whatever that might exactly be.

Brevity, as Polonius said, is the soul of wit and I confess to shuddering when I have to confront thick novels, most of which don't deserve their length -- I was mightily impressed last year by the ambition of Roberto Bolano's 2066, but getting through its 891 pages was something of an ordeal and I can't see myself revisiting the book. And I simply caved in a third of the way through Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, which certainly didn't deserve 1,346 pages.

Some huge books I wouldn't wish shorter, Tolstoy's War and Peace being an obvious example, but the same author was also able to encapsulate a whole world of incident, character, politics and feeling in the marvellous Hadji Murad (124 pages); and if Anna Karenina warrants its 950 pages (which it does), Tolstoy offered equally absorbing accounts of sexual passion in the 82 pages of Family Happiness and the 93 pages of The Kreutzer Sonata.

And there are many other fictional masterpieces which are longer than the usual short story but briefer than the conventional novel -- including Conrad's Heart of Darkness (130 pages), Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (150 pages), Camus's The Outsider (110 pages), Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat (70 pages) and Maeve Brennan's The Visitor (80 pages).

So, please, no more whingeing about Julian Barnes.

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