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Memory and Desire: Representation of Passion in the Novella.

PETER MUDFORD, Pp. vii + 200. London: Duckworth, 1996. [pounds]35.00 (ISBN 0-7156-2714-7).

For over three centuries questions have been raised repeatedly about the novella - the literary form which Boccaccio supposedly invented in the Decameron. Shorter than the novel but longer than the anecdote or short story, is the novella a genre in its own right? Has the novella distinguishing marks which enable us to identify it as a particular form of short narrative? Goethe, who entitled one of his shorter fictions simply Novelle, did his best to define the novella's main features: he said that it described an event which was 'unprecedented' and unique and had actually taken place. The debate about the novella was international though Germany played a dominant part in it. It continued through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, and among the participants were Ludwig Tieck, Fr. Schlegel, Poe, Baudelaire, Henry James, and Lukacs.

Peter Mudford's Memory and Desire reflects the crises of identity undergone by the novella in modern times. In a significant end-note (184) the author disowns any intention of becoming involved in a 'conceptual debate about what the novella is'. He aims rather 'to show how works of fiction which fall appropriately within the scope of this term (i.e. works which are clearly not short stories, or novels of a discursive kind) have been used for telling a particular kind of narrative in particular ways'. Although this statement contains a description of the novella in negative terms, Dr Mudford is right to be uneasy about any attempts at watertight definitions, if only because the very meaning of a literary term (or its translation) varies from one literature to another. Thus Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas, usually regarded in Germany as a 'Novelle', would be classified on grounds of length as a novel in England. So too would The Princess of Cleves to which Mudford devotes his second chapter. The ambiguity of the critical vocabulary for fiction is clearly shown in a recent supplement to Le Monde which advertises the French translation of Somerset Maugham's short stories as Les Nouvelles Completes (see 'Eloge de la Nouvelle', Le Monde 26 June 1997).

If it is difficult to discuss the technical aspects of the novella in a rigorous way it is still profitable, as Mudford shows, to explore the themes of the novella and the ways in which they have been treated in different ages. Seen historically, a wide variety of themes (e.g. vanity, revenge, ambition) have featured in novellas, but by far the commonest appears to be passionate love, heightened by memory or desire, and often culminating in sexual obsession. This is love portrayed as a violent and 'isolating experience' which often tends towards death as in The Sufferings of Young Werther. Like Anna Karenina but on a smaller scale, many novellas of passion, for example The Kreutzer Sonata, describe the destructive element in love, where the lover under the spell of the beloved, is caught up in an affair which has to be gone through or 'burned' through, as Mudford puts it, to the bitter end.

Because Memory and Desire concentrates on a small number of novellas from various periods and countries it is a somewhat different book from the one which is held in prospect on the rococo dust cover and in the Introduction (1-19). Instead of exploring the title-themes of memory, desire, and passion exhaustively Mudford subordinates these to more traditional accounts of the author's life and works, the age in which he or she lived and synopses of the narrative. Where possible he draws parallels or contrasts between novellas which are widely separated in time or culture. for example The Princess of Cleves and The Lady of the Camellias; Mann's Death in Venice and Prevost's Manon Lescaut. Only D. H. Lawrence's The Fox stands alone, apparently without showing much affinity with earlier novellas.

The best sections of Memory and Desire are those which convey the author's enthusiasm for his subject, European Literature, or which give the reader new insights into the novella's raison d'etre (see ch. I, 'Form and the novella'). Our acceptance of Mudford's literary assessments depends partly on the quality of the translations of foreign novellas which are quoted. In this connection it is worth noting that the translation of Death in Venice by Lowe-Porter is generally agreed to be patchy. On the other hand Magarshack's version of Turgenev's First Love, like his other translations, is excellent.

It is curious that half of the novellas dealt with in Memory and Desire are French and that Germany, where the novella was most popular, is only represented by Death in Venice and Werther, discussed in the 'Introduction'. If a second edition of this book is considered it might be improved by the inclusion of additional material from Italy and Germany.

K. G. KNIGHT Canterbury
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Knight, K.G.
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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