Why you should care
Shorter reads can reward you with more intensity, more quickly.
I love novellas, both as a reader and as a writer. I like to read them because I can finish a book in a single sitting. Moreover, reading for me is a creative act. I don’t want to be spoon-fed. A literary text should serve as a springboard for my imagination. As a writer, I love the novella form because I am forced to focus. There is no space to meander or lose the plot. A novella, with its obligation to concentrate on one key emotion or image or idea, has more in common with poetry than with a full-length novel.
There are many novellas from different languages that have inspired me. But because my first language is German, here are five of my favorite novellas translated from the German.
The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann, translated by Peter Wortsman
First published in 1848, this is the gothic horror story par excellence, with a surprisingly 21st-century topic. The young student Nathanael falls in love with the perfect woman only to discover that she is a man-made humanlike machine. Sigmund Freud used the story to explain the origin of fear.
A beautifully haunting tale about man versus nature.
The Rider on the White Horse by Theodor Storm, translated by James Wright
This spine-tingling ghost story evokes the desolation of a small town on Germany’s North Sea coast not far from where I grew up and where we constantly battle for our land not to be reclaimed by the sea. Hauke Haien, the new dike administrator, is the rider on the white horse. He has innovative ideas on how to build better dikes, but the people don’t trust him. Eventually, during a bad storm the old dike breaks and Hauke’s wife and young daughter drown. The town now fears he will seek revenge. A beautifully haunting tale about man versus nature.
The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun, translated by Kathie von Ankum
It’s Berlin in the late 1920s. Doris is a working-class young woman who wants to become a “star” in the movie world. However, she soon realizes that unless she finds the “right” boyfriend, doors will always remain closed for the girl from the countryside. Doris reminds me of what I imagine my grandmother to have been like: talented, fun-loving and ambitious, and yet, as a working-class girl, somewhat naive about the superficial glamour of 1920s Germany.
The Wall by Marlen Haushofer, translated by Shaun Whiteside
An unnamed middle-aged woman wakes up one morning to find herself the sole surviving human on Earth. Her only companions are a dog, a cat and a pregnant cow. In addition, she soon discovers that she is surrounded by a glass wall. Can she survive? Does she want to survive? And if so, how? She creates a domestic routine and records it with the only pencil that she can find. I love this book because it explores how our humanity is linked to our domesticity. A very quiet, beautiful sci-fi novel.
Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe, translated by Jamie Bulloch
On the surface, this is a short novel about the life of 17th-century Chinese painter Bada Shanren. On another level, however, it’s the most exquisite tale about artistic inspiration that I have ever read. What is inspiration? What is creativity? Simplicity and focus. And the last chapter in this book is the quintessential expression of that truth. However, if you read it as an e-book, the last chapter will be lost on you.
Meike Ziervogel is a writer of novellas and a publisher of foreign literature in English translation. Her latest project is a collaborative work of fiction with nine Syrian refugee writers living in the Shatila camp in Beirut.