Dan and I went to a reading a couple of months ago for a book called Play by the poet Liz Waldner, put out by our friend Katie Fowley’s Lightful Press. The poem was performed by two actresses who truly brought out the humor and life of the work. (See the new reading series Sweet: Actors Reading Writers, curated by the wonderful Shelly Oria and Annie Levy for more instances of actors reading writers to great effect. My story was up last month and my actor rocked it.) Back to that first reading, though–it was at Melville House in DUMBO, which is a lovely venue and an even better publishing house. They publish a series called The Art of the Novella, of which they say:
Too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story, the novella is generally unrecognized by academics and publishers. Nonetheless, it is a form beloved and practiced by literature’s greatest writers. In The Art of the Novella series, Melville House celebrates this renegade art form and its practitioners with titles that are, in many instances, presented in book form for the first time.
Each slim volume is designed in the same way: 5″ x 7″, solid color, the title in black, the author’s name in white. The colors are beautiful and they look very, very good when stacked together. Because aesthetics are important to us, Dan and I purchased three novellas and they are definitely striking on our bookshelf.
Novellas make a lot of sense to me–some ideas are more expansive than a short story but not so long as to be a novel–so it’s unfortunate that they don’t often appear in the world in their own right. This is one of the fun aspects of this series. Another is that, presented in such small, appetizing little packages, scary authors become more accessible. George Elliot, to me, is one such scary writer. As a writer myself, should I read Middlemarch? Hell yeah, I should. But man oh man, do I not want to. (Forgive me, Katherine).
Yet, presented with a seventy-five page candy-colored novella…I felt like it wasn’t too much of a commitment and like I was capable of digesting the material, but could still put a faint check mark next to George Elliot on my must-read list. Plus, the premise actually sounded pretty intriguing: a young, feeble clairvoyant foretelling his own demise.
Poor Latimer opens his story with that horrifying vision–he describes in detail the death he knows is coming. He then backtracks to tell the reader the miserable path that brought him to his end. And when I say “tell the reader,” I mean he’s really speaking right to us. George Elliot, through Latimer, explains her narrative process, letting us know when she is skipping details because she feels like we don’t need them, when she’s speeding up the story to help us get to the juicy part, when she feels like we know enough to start filling in Latimer’s inner life ourselves so she can go ahead and deliver us with the plot. On page 53, she writes:
I shall hurry through the rest of my story, not dwelling so much as I have hitherto done on my inward experience. When people are well known to each other, they talk rather of what befalls them externally, leaving their feelings and sentiments to be inferred.
Intrusions like these made The Lifted Veil doubly interesting to read; I was drawn in by the narrative guidance as well as by the story.
The story itself was pretty kooky. Latimer, a young man of delicate constitution, lives in fear that his clairvoyance will be revealed. As someone who is already dismissed and discounted by his father and those around him, it follows that he wouldn’t want the added stigma of having some sort of freak-show condition. A cold, beautiful young woman named Bertha, who is soon betrothed to Latimer’s charmed older brother, enters the scene and complicates matters. Fate twists and turns, sinister maids are introduced, post-mortem blood transfusions occur and then, boom, the story is over, leaving us narratively where we started. Latimer knows he is doomed from the start, but he doesn’t do a thing to change the course of his life. Not because he can’t, but because, he explains, young men want what they want, even when it’s stupid.
And what twenty-one year old doesn’t see a someone that he or she wants do something that foretells exactly what a disaster that person will turn out to be in the future (peeing on his own house? only calling when she’s drunk? cheating on his girlfriend?) and yet, consequences be damned, go for it anyway?
By the end of the novella, you, the reader, know that if you were Latimer, you would be doomed, too.