On the size of a story

I’m currently in the middle of reading Cathi Unsworth’s Weirdo, which is just over 400 pages long. This is at the longish end of what I’d usually read; but as I’ve previously enjoyed her Bad Penny Blues, I’m willing to take this one on trust. As with the previous novel, Unsworth uses the story’s length to explore a broader historic sweep  – in Weirdo, it’s small town England of the mid-1980s, whilst Blues looked at London in the late 50s/early 60s. This helps to both flesh out the characters, and put their particular story into context; and I’m looking forward to posting a review here shortly.

The-Count-of-Monte-CristoWeirdo is not the longest book I’ve ever read. That was The Count of Monte Cristo, which weighs in at a mighty 1,000+ pages. Not only is it the sort of book you could do someone serious damage with, it’s also a novel you really have to commit to.  I managed this because it is one of the best books I’ve ever read, largely because the over-riding theme of revenge is so well developed, and so controlled – the slowest of slow burns.

But that’s very much the exception, and I find that the older I get, the less patience I have. I’d say that my optimum length for a novel is somewhere between 150 and 350 pages. Go above that, and I’m weighing the book in my hand, giving it some serious consideration and wondering if it’s worth the time investment. This is probably the wrong thing to do; but I’m now at the point where I don’t want to waste time on bad books, or books I don’t enjoy, however ‘good’ they might be for me. I used to feel awful about not finishing a book, as though it was some personal slight on the author. I remember carrying them around in my bag for weeks, even though the chance of ever again cracking the covers was nil. Now, at least I’m more honest with myself – if a book is not working for me after the first 50 or so pages, I’m on to something else. No hard feelings.

I’ve also now come to the conclusion that the successful, shorter novel is much harder to do. There’s literally no place to hide – the author has to look the reader right in the eye, naked in their brevity. It takes balls to do something like that, to go small and just tell the story. George Orwell wrote that ‘good prose is like a window pane’, which I take to be transparent, almost invisible – it shouldn’t distract the reader, or obstruct the central ideas and themes of the story – or, indeed, the story itself. As Orwell himself proved with Animal Farm, you don’t have to go big (or use complex language) to explore important ideas and grand themes.

Indeed, you can go ever shorter. One of the boldest statements on the subject of (literary) size is from the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges. A translator, editor and essayist, Borges’ reputation rests on his short stories, the longest of which is 14 pages. He explains why in the preface to his collection The Garden of Forking Paths:

It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books – setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes.  The better way to go about it is to pretend that these books already exist and offer a summary, a commentary on them… A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books.

It’s a startling, but also incredibly refreshing thing to say. It’s not the story that Borges is interested in, but the idea. And why go to the trouble of writing the whole book, if you can express it in a handful of pages? What’s also interesting is that Borges clearly didn’t think he’d run out of ideas. His stories are startlingly original, and unlike almost anything else you’re ever likely to read. They are to the point, playful, and they don’t mess around. Well, not as far as word count is concerned, anyway.

borges labyrinthsI first started reading Borges in my teens, picking up a battered copy of Labyrinths in a secondhand bookshop in Camden Market. I’ve dipped into him ever since; if I had to choose three stories for the novice reader, I’d probably go for the following. So, in no particular order:

‘The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero’. This first story also has one of my favourite ever titles. Somewhat oddly, it’s the story of a man who is thinking about writing – a story. The narrator describes a narrative ‘which I will perhaps commit to paper… It needs details, rectifications, tinkering – there are areas of the story that have never been revealed to me.‘ That strikes me as quite brave, admitting at the outset that you’re going to busk it. But as we’ll see, uncertainty and mystery are key features of Borges’ writing, as are the multitude of layers which the story also contains.

For all his equivocations, the narrator is nevertheless able to describe the action in some detail. It ‘takes place in an oppressed yet stubborn country – Poland, Ireland, the republic of Venice, some South American or Balkan state… in 1824, let us say, for convenience’s sake; in Ireland, let us also say.’ ‘For convenience’s sake’? ‘Let us also say’? If this story was a drunk in a pub, I’d be finishing my beer, making my excuses and leaving. What is this story that is so full of doubts? Surely it cannot come to anything significant?

Nothing could be further from the truth. Our narrator goes on to outline a story – a conspiracy – which is extraordinary in its scope and daring. It involves a hero of the revolution, whose true motives may not be so benign, but who is given the opportunity to seal his reputation and take his place an history. What’s particularly extraordinary is that Borges manages all of these feats in the space of just 4 pages. All of which gives you absolutely no excuse not to hunt down a copy and read it RIGHT NOW.

‘Death and the Compass’. Another reason that Borges is one of my favourite writers is because of his love for the detective story. Borges is familiar enough with the conventions of the genre to play around with them – which is where it gets really interesting. In ‘Death and the Compass’ the famed detective Erik Lönnrot is pitted against an unknown serial murderer. The killings are obviously linked, and seem to be building to a climax; through his reasoning Lönnrot is able to foresee it, and attempts to disrupt the outcome.

However, the resolution is far from straightforward, and it is here that Borges pulls the rug from under us. Rather than a benefit, the great detective’s powers become a liability. The mystery mirrors one of Borges’ other fascinations, the labyrinth; and not only that, but one into which Lönnrot at first willingly abandons himself. At one point, he says ‘Thanks for that equilateral triangle you sent me last night. It was what I needed to solve the puzzle. Tomorrow, Friday, the perpetrators will be in prison; we can relax.’ But his certainty turns out to be premature, and the end of the case much less neat than one might expect from a detective story.

death compass posterI’ve already said too much – go away and read it. If I haven’t persuaded you, and 10 pages is just too much – well, first I’m amazed you made it this far; but second, you could check out the film version, directed by Alex ‘Moviedrome’ Cox, and starring the mighty Peter Boyle as Lönnrot.

‘The Library of Babel’. Borges spent much of his life working in libraries, eventually rising to become Director of the National Library in Buenos Aires in 1955. This was his dream job – but by this point in his life Borges was nearly blind, his sight having begun to fail many years previously. With typical understatement: he remarked ‘I speak of God’s splendid irony in granting me at one time 800,000 books and darkness.

Libraries feature prominently in his work, but Borges takes the idea to its [il]logical conclusion in ‘The Library of Babel’. Here, he describes a whole universe, a whole reality contained within a library, made up of an almost infinite number of hexagonal galleries. This idea is not as seductive as it may first appear; as the story progresses, the Library becomes increasingly unnerving, and ‘sentient’. By which I mean that it is so vast, that it contains ‘all that is able to be expressed, in every language… the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those false catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog… the true story of your own death.’

And within all of these books, ‘there must exist a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books, and some librarian must have examined that book; this librarian is analogous to a god.‘ I’ve met a few librarians who take this idea altogether too literally; but the power of Borges’s story is perhaps also in describing that slightly unnerving feeling that I (and perhaps others) have had, wandering through the stacks of the library in which I work. I am sure I am alone, and yet… the feeling that there is a vague hum in the air, like heat-haze shimmering above a desert road, is impossible to shake off. And that’s in a library that I know I can escape from.

So that’s my top three – and in each case, small is indeed beautiful. If you’re looking to purchase some Borges, I can thoroughly recommend the Collected Fictions, which brings all of his short stories into a single, hefty volume. The translation is by Andrew Hurley, whose words I have used for all of the quotes from the stories included above.


      • I am always amazed at writers like Borges who have changed writing, thus changing humanity. He is someone who truly made a difference in the world.

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