3 novellas by Nawal El Saadawi, Olivia Laing and Roland Schimmelpfennig

I do love a good novella.

Wikipedia defines these books as “somewhere between 17,500 and 40,000 words”, but I generally think anything under 150 pages qualifies. Alternatively, anything I can read in around two hours is a novella to me.

Here are three excellent novellas I’ve read recently, all of which I highly recommend.

‘Memoirs of a Woman Doctor’ by Nawal El Saadawi

Fiction – paperback; Saqi Books; 128 pages; 2019. Translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

First published in Nawal El Saadawi’s native Egypt in 1960, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor is a fictionalised account of growing up female in a restrictive culture where women are second-class citizens and often denied a chance of an education.

In this first-person story, our narrator defies tradition — and her family’s claustrophobic expectations that she’ll marry and produce children — to go to medical school. Here, in the autopsy room, she dissects a male body — her first encounter with a naked man — and “in the course of it men lost their dread power and illusory greatness in my eyes”.

Later, she forgoes her independence to marry a man, but that turns sour when he tries to control her at home. She wastes no time in divorcing him — a huge no-no in Egyptian society — wondering if she will ever find a partner who respects her as a person and not as a “chattel” to own and objectify. The ending, I’m happy to say, is a satisfying one.

This fast-paced novella, which spans decades in less than 120 pages, reveals the sexism at the heart of Egyptian culture and the courage required for a woman to be accepted in a profession long dominated by men. It has proved an excellent introduction to this author’s work, which has just been reissued by Saqi Books as part of a new series of classic work by writers from the Middle East and North Africa.

‘Crudo’ by Olivia Laing

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 176 pages; 2018.

I ate up Olivia Laing’s Crudo in an afternoon. It is an amazing little book about the power of now — or, more specifically, the summer of 2017 — when the main character, Kathy, turns 40 and falls in love but is scared of committing herself to the one man. She goes ahead with the wedding regardless.

It is all stream-of-consciousness, written in a fast-paced, fragmentary style, but riveting and so akin to my own line of thinking about the modern world — Brexit, Trump’s America, politics, social justice and climate change et al —  that it almost feels as if it fell out of my own head.

Supposedly based on the work of Kathy Acker, whom I had to look up on Wikipedia (her entry is a fascinating read in its own right), it took me on a short but jam-packed journey about art and love and life and everything in between. A wow of a book that I hope to read again sometime soon.

‘One Clear Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century’ by Roland Schimmelpfennig

Fiction – paperback; MacLehose Press; 240 pages; 2018. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

This German novella has been reviewed favourably by Annabel at Annabookbel and Susan at A Life in Books, but I think I probably saw it first at Winstonsdad’s Blog.

It’s a highly original story that follows a diverse group of disparate characters living in Poland and Germany who are all united by one thing: they have spied the same rare wild wolf in the snow en-route to Berlin.

Written by a German playwright, the book is intensely cinematic and told in a fragmentary style using sparse prose and small vignettes which provide glimpses into the lives of those who people it, including two young people on the run, a Polish construction worker and his pregnant girlfriend, a small business owner who runs a kiosk with his wife, and a woman intent on burning her mother’s diaries.

It’s an absorbing, if somewhat elusive, read, one that requires a bit of focus to keep track of who’s who as the narrative twists and loops around itself, a bit like the wandering wolf at the heart of the tale. But on the whole, this is a fascinating portrait of modern Berlin and its diverse population after unification.

Have you read any of these books? Do you like novellas? Do you have any favourites you can recommend?

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17 thoughts on “3 novellas by Nawal El Saadawi, Olivia Laing and Roland Schimmelpfennig

  1. I’ve just discovered Laing through her non-fiction but I was feeling drawn to this (apart from the cover…) especially as I used to read Kathy Acker back in the 1980s. I’m even keener after your review… 😀

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  2. I do like novellas, they’re meatier than short stories and they offer more in the way of character development.
    Defining them is the tricky part: totting up the number of words is not the sort of a thing a reader can be bothered to do! As a rule of thumb I say 100-200 pages, but of course books are all different sizes so it’s a bit rough and ready.

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  3. I love a novella and I’m hoping to blog on a novella each day in May, which I did last year, again this year but I’m not sure I’ll be organised enough! I’ve not read any of these and they all sound great – novellas can pack a real punch.

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  4. A novella a day is such a big commitment but sounds like a fascinating project. You could do worse than add one or two (or all three) of these to your schedule.

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  5. Thank you for the link, Kim. I really enjoyed the Schimmelpfennig. I love novellas and short novels, more so than short stories which often I don’t find meaty enough or the other extreme of chunksters which can be so overblown.

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    • I think novellas or, at best, slim novels are my preferred option these days. I can’t be doing with big chunksters unless they are completely unputdownable.

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  6. Thanks for the mention I’ve read the sadaawi the other day amazing how she write that book in the sixties I remember in the imagine show they did with her she went back to the clinic that she worked as a doctor

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    • Oh, I hadn’t realised she had worked as a doctor… makes sense though. And I haven’t seen the Imagine program on her (I loved the one on Orhan Pamuk) so will see if I can find it online.

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  7. Crudo got me at ‘based on the work of Kathy Acker’ whom I admire greatly. Trouble is I still have Solar Bones unread on a shelf, and a hundred Australians new and old, so what’s the point of buying more.

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    • That’s what I try to tell myself too. I came back with 15 new books from
      Australia. And in the two weeks since I’ve been back in London I’ve bought another 6 (to be fair, when I left my job at Christmas my colleagues gave me £150 book token, so I’ve got to spend it, right?)

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