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'A Renegade Art Form'

February 5, 2009 By:
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Every so often, I've used this space to praise small independent publishers who, no matter the economic foolhardiness of their endeavors, forge ahead and never compromise their principles. I'm thinking particularly of one-person operations like Dryad Press down in Maryland and Turtle Point Press right in the thick of things in Manhattan, as well as ventures like New York Review Books, which, though tied to a powerful biweekly literary publication with lots of clout, continues to go its own way by publishing quirky, nearly unheard of but distinct "classics," favorites of its editor Edwin Frank and many of his readers.

So when I heard that Melville House -- a small venture founded in Hoboken, N.J., and now residing in Brooklyn -- had decided, like NYRB, to stake some money on backing a less-than-surefire (in terms of revenue-generating) fictional genre -- in this case, the novella -- I thought it was a natural for this column. And I wasn't wrong.

First, some information about Melville House and its history. One look at its Web site (www.mhpbooks.com) lets you know it's hardly a one-person enterprise. Lots of money's been spent on the site, which has a fairly well-known blog called MobyLives connected to it; and there's been money spent on the production of its books as well. In a statement of purpose, the editors note that they're interested in "good, solid literature, especially literary fiction, nonfiction and poetry." In their new digs in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn -- itself a very hip place -- Melville House not only has the expected editorial offices but also supports a bookstore.

The novella project comes in two parts: the Classic Novellas and a more recent addendum, the Contemporary Art of the Novella series. As an entry on the Web site states: "Too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story, the novella is generally unrecognized by academics and publishers. Nonetheless, it is a form beloved and practiced by literature's greatest writers. In the Art of the Novella series, Melville House celebrates this renegade art form and its practitioners with titles that are, in many instances, presented in book form for the first time."

Three new works in the contemporary series were sent to me since they have Jewish themes. In order of preference, they are Close to Jedenew by Kevin Vennemann; Steven Stern's The North of God; and The Pathseeker by Imre Kertész. All three are challenging and uncommon works with, quite often, overlapping themes and similar ways of attacking their material.

Perhaps Close to Jedenew by the young German writer Kevin Vennemann -- he was born in Dorsten in 1977 -- struck a particular cord for me because it echoes events that actually occurred in Jedwabne in northeastern Poland during World War II. As you may recall, the gentile citizens of that small town, without much prompting from the Nazis then occupying the region, went on a rampage and killed the majority of the Jews, their longtime neighbors. For years, there was a single stone marker in the middle of a wide open field -- a barn had stood there into which Jews were herded and then burned alive. This marker referred to the incident, but blamed the Nazis. More recent investigations by Polish journalists and academics disclosed the truth; then the marker was replaced with a somewhat more accurate description of the event. Its unveiling unleashed a media frenzy, with print journalists and TV crews from across Europe and the world descending on the small town. I was one among that throng of people, and saw for myself the reaction of the Jedwabne's citizens to these "intruders" searching for the truth.

Images From Reality

Remembering the sight of people peeking from behind the curtains of their homes as survivors of the massacre and their relatives, and the mass of media representatives marched out to the field -- those images kept popping into my head as I read Close to Jedenew. I remembered as well the groups of drunken males on street corners leering as we made our way through the town.

If, by chance, you make your way to Vennemann's novella, you will understand exactly what I mean.

The work tells of a group of children hiding in the woods around the town of Jedenew as they hear the townspeople go on their wild marauding. That is as much plot as there is; the rest is the creation of an atmosphere of mounting terror that draws on every one of our childhood fears and plays on some of the grimmest images from the Grimm's fairy tales, except for one pertinent element -- there is no happy ending here.

The story is told in a rush of words, with long sentences and thick paragraphs appropriate to the sense that danger and terror are only a step away.

Stern's The North of God is also told in a rush of language, parts of it handled masterfully, with a wild inventiveness that fans of the writer have come to cherish; and this author, too, has a Holocaust story to tell in his brief work. In fact, this is the first time that he's approached the subject.

Jews are crammed into a boxcar heading for a concentration camp. One man, Velvl Spfarb, keeping his promise to a young mother and her child whom he's just met haphazardly at the umschlagplatz -- the railway station for the doomed -- is telling a story.

The tale is a wild and woolly fable of Eastern European Jewish life rendered in true Stern fashion. There are shtetl inhabitants and yeshiva buchers and fearsome rabbis everywhere you look. And though I am aware of all of Stern's undeniable creativity, sometimes it seems that he's drawing attention to his inventiveness far too insistently. I understand that that's part of the point behind his style, but I find it overwrought, something like the postmodernist equivalent to an old-time Borscht Belt tummler grabbing you by the lapels and insisting that you admire not only his jokes, but also how much energy he's expending in putting them across to the audience.

The Pathseeker, for me, is the weakest of the trio, and that may only be because I think that Imre Kertész is overrated, despite his Nobel Prize. He's gotten a pass from the critical world because of his history as a survivor and his suffering as a child. No one would deny the horrors of his past, but suffering in itself does not immediately convey stature upon works of literature.

His new novella is about another kind of totalitarianism -- the post-World War II Communist kind that was imposed by Stalin upon Eastern Europe. Kertész, a Hungarian, writes of an unnamed commissioner who travels to an unknown middle-European country, and the visit, always unexplained, begins to take on ominous overtones.

Where Vennemann and Stern deal in great reams of words, Kertész's prose, while also abundant, has been purposely flattened out until it has reached the point of a maddening banality. Again, I am aware that this is part of the overall point of the work, but I would also say that Kafka and others have done it better.

My reservations in no way should stop you from delving into these works and the others in the contemporary series. They are better than almost any other new fiction out there right now.

And if that selection doesn't necessarily appeal to you, you can always turn to the classic novellas that Melville House offers, which include the great staples, like (appropriately enough) Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, The Lessons of the Master by Henry James and Flaubert's A Simple Heart.

But even here, mixed in with the expected, more standard titles are works by classic writers that may not be as familiar to you, novellas like The Touchstone by Edith Wharton, The Lifted Veil by George Eliot, A Sleep and a Forgetting by William Dean Howells, Mathilda by Mary Shelley, Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance by Sholem Aleichem and Freya of the Seven Isles by Joseph Conrad, to mention only a few.

To say that Melville House is as courageous as it is tasteful is something of an understatement.

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