(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

At one end of the fiction continuum is the short story, accorded new respect thanks to the influence of Donald Barthelme, the critical and commercial success of The Stories of John Cheever (1978), and the understated artistry of Raymond Carver. At the other end is the novel, for many reviewers and critics still the measure of a fiction writer’s stature. Then, at that more or less theoretical point where the short novel and the long story meet, there is the novella, also (pejoratively) known as the novelette. Given its relatively brief if venerable history—one that includes Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Fyodor Dostoevski’s “Underground Man,” Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilich,” Stephen Crane’s “The Monster,” Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle,” Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” Bohumil Hrabel’s Closely Watched Trains, John Gardner’s Grendel, and Samuel Beckett’s Company—it seems both ironic and unfortunate that the novella should be going the way of the dinosaurs.

Novellas are still written. Some are still published separately—Robert Coover’s A Political Fable(1980) and Spanking the Maid (1981), John Cheever’s Oh What a Paradise It Seems (1982; a novella by default, a fatal bout with cancer having cut down the “bulky novel” Cheever claimed to be writing in size, if not in impact), and Malcolm Bradbury’s aptly titled Cuts (1987). Others appear in collections of short fiction—E. L. Doctorow’s Lives of the Poets (1984), several of Guy Davenport’s books—or more rarely in collections of novellas—Stanley Elkin’s triptych Van Gogh’s Room at Arles (1993). Yet as the entrepreneurial spirit continues its rapid advance in Hrabel’s Eastern Europe, as the number of outlets for novella-length fiction continues to decline in the United States and the United Kingdom (TriQuarterly and Granta being the most notable of the handful of holdouts), and as readers, particularly American readers, continue to demand more pages of bang per buck, the novella becomes less and less viable, first commercially, then aesthetically.

Thus there is something akin to poetic justice in the fact that a book that measures only 4½ by 7½ inches and that contains 115 less-than-densely-printed pages should have had a notable success in this postindustrial age of corporate downsizing, of minimalist stories and maximalist novels. The title of Cees Nooteboom’s The Following Story plays a variation on the “who’s on first” routine made famous by the comedy team of Abbott and Costello. As popular in his native Holland as he is prolific, Nooteboom has since 1956 written more than thirty books—novels, poetry, essays, travel writing—in addition to a film and two plays. Seven of the books have been translated into English, the majority published by Louisiana State University Press. The eighth, The Following Story, published by a major commercial house (Harcourt Brace) and thus assured of reasonably wide circulation, arrived on American shores by an even more curious route. Commissioned by the organizers of the Dutch Book Fair to produce a work that would be given free to anyone who spent a specified amount at participating booksellers, Nooteboom had to keep his story short in order to keep the sponsors’ production costs down. Unlike music, books written to order on commission, like those written by committee, seem destined for failure: they may be curiosities but are not expected to become classics. Thus it is passing strange that Nooteboom’s small gift book soon metamorphosed into an international hit winning the European Literary Prize for Best Novel and shortlisted for the English newspaper The Independent’s Foreign Fiction Award.

All this leaves readers who have been looking for a good contemporary novella rather nicely situated—far better, certainly, than The Following Story’s understandably confused though generally genial narrator, Herman Mussert. In brief, his dilemma, or story, is as follows. Having gone to bed as usual in Amsterdam, he wakes up the next morning in a hotel in Lisbon, with his wallet full of Portuguese money. In fact (which is to say in this fiction), the room is the very one in which he had stayed twenty years earlier with his lover Maria Zeinstra, a colleague as well as a colleague’s...

(The entire section is 1851 words.)