Since getting serious about blogging last spring, I’ve started visiting other blogs to gain insights and inspiration. In doing so, I’ve discovered a vast and varied online community of people that typically write well about their passions and perspectives. One popular subgroup contains book enthusiasts that read scads of books each month, write reviews, and provoke countless conversations about every aspect of bookwormitude you can imagine. A prevalent theme this month is Novellas in November, #NovNov. Across the blogosphere, people are sharing long lists of short fiction that they plan to read before the month is out. I appreciate their energy and am awed by the tall stacks they intend to devour. I thought I’d add my two-cents to these piles of treasure. Below are my reviews of two short, humanitarian works that I’ve recently read. If you plan to join the #NovNov challenge, hosted by Cathy746books and Bookish Beck, good luck with your quest.
To a God Unknown, by John Steinbeck
Last month I read the novella, To a God Unknown, by John Steinbeck. Like everything else I’ve read by Steinbeck, I found this book to be exceptional. The story follows the life of Joseph Wayne, who leaves the security of his father’s farm in Vermont to strike out on his own and establish a ranch in California. Steinbeck’s imagery, as well as his main character’s introspection, transport the reader to another time and place. It’s mind-boggling to consider how it must have felt for men like Wayne to head into a vast wilderness and stake out a homestead without much more than a horse, some hand tools, and a rifle.
Wayne’s vulnerability, determination, solitude, and devotion to his land gradually lead him to create his own personalized version of pantheistic worship. His three brothers, who join him after the ranch is established, are also devoted to their own unique idols. Steinbeck examines man’s natural tendency to explain the unexplainable and ward off misfortune through ritual, prayer, sacrifice, and other spiritual rites. At the same time, his characters are more tightly connected to concrete aspects of reality—land, work, survival, nature—than are people living in today’s high-tech, fast-paced world.
Steinbeck spent five years working and re-working this story, basing it on an unfinished play that one of his close college friends had written. Human spirituality is a complicated subject to get right but Steinbeck navigates a variety of conflicting beliefs with delicacy and compassion. I’m not sure he gets everything right, especially with respect to his female characters, but the setting, struggles, and ideas of this book are well worth lingering over.
A Fine of Two Hundred Francs, by Elsa Triolet
I learned of this book last month while reading several good reviews on Heavenali. Intrigued, I then ordered the original title in French, Le Premier Accroc Coûte Deux Cents Francs. This book, published in 1944, is actually a collection of four novellas by Elsa Triolet. As a result of her work, Triolet was the first woman to win Le Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary prize. The title refers to a secret code phrase broadcast by the BBC to announce the arrival of allied forces in southern France. So far, I’ve only read the final story in the compilation which goes by the same title.
Triolet was born in Moscow in 1896 to a family of Jewish intellectuals. In 1918, she left Russia with her first husband, Andre Triolet, and settled in French Polynesia. The marriage was shortlived. Triolet spent a few years traveling but by 1928, she was well ensconced in the Paris art scene. One of her favorite hangouts was the famous café La Coupole (mentioned in my post on Kiki de Montparnasse). Triolet initially wrote novels in her native Russian and produced Russian translations of works by leading French authors. By 1937, she had begun writing in French. During WWII, she joined the resistance and began writing stories for an underground press in unoccupied Southern France. Portions of that effort went into creating this book.
After reading the book’s title story, I’m eager for more. Like Steinbeck, Triolet vividly conjures a sliver of time and place from the first half of the twentieth century. In this case, the ravages of war create the deadly conditions that are testing man’s will to survive. Through Triolet’s writing, the reader has a sense of the unimaginable. Namely, what it was like waiting for allied troops to reach Provence after living through four years of hardship under Nazi control.
Triolet brings us images from everyday life. We see what it might have been like for farmers, bakers, clergymen, doctors, and countrymen of varying stripes to carry on the semblance of a normal routine in the midst of hardship and disorder. At the same time, such villagers needed to hide their allegiance to a beleaguered resistance movement that seemed destined to fail if left to continue unaided. On the cusp of salvation, many suffered loss of life, limb, and property as the fleeing German army left a path of destruction in its wake. A Fine of Two Hundred Francs is fiction that poignantly illustrates the often hidden costs of war.
Share your favorite short reads
Whether or not you plan to take up the Novellas in November challenge, I’d love to hear about short fiction that you’ve enjoyed in the past or hope to read in the future.