Recommendation: Bring it with you to the beach. Dip your toes in the water. Close your eyes.
Let us join hands now and sing the full hymnal for that most curious, most liminal genre: the novella! Small but whole; not so nebulous as a poem nor so limited as a short story, and with none of the commitment of a novel, the novella may be writing’s platonic ideal. An effective novella demands a complete world in which to unfold, but won’t demand that you refer to maps or glossaries, won’t ask you to invest time you don’t have. You could read a novella in an afternoon without fear of accomplishing anything else—if someone asks for a favor, say:
“I wish I could, but I’m reading a novella today.”
Or, if a frustrated editor asks what you’ve been doing with yourself, quip:
“I read a fantastic book yesterday…” which will technically be true, provided that you select a thin single volume, rather than a collection.
If a coworker suggests an evening of extroversion, parry:
“I’ve made a hefty emotional investment in the novella I’m reading, and need an evening to mull.”
Truly, the form for saints and savants.
Also, Melville House’s Contemporary Art of the Novella series is a fat stack of brilliant authors and elegant covers. Yes—everyone on my list will be getting a novella this holiday season, and yes—I am allowed to talk about it, because it’s after Halloween, so the ban is lifted!
A Happy Man is one of the great victories of this series. It follows This Studer, the eponymous riant, through a handful of contented days. He plays trumpet in a friend’s jazz band, walks in the park, and stays out late. He travels with his wife, and teases her, though more often she seems to get the upper hand. Interspersed are his childhood memories, memories of family and work and summers off from school—a deep shadow is buried there, a patch of starless sky; one that provides contrast enough that the moments of happiness bloom all the more merrily.
Ostensibly, the conflict and drama that propels the narrative is the frustration that Studer’s family and friends feel when exposed to his constant jollity. The publisher’s summary suggests that even happy people are surrounded by unhappy people, which can make for considerable stress…they find his contentedness more and more irritating. But in truth, their frustration amounts at most to a heavy sigh—exasperation, rather than frustration, if you’ll allow for that level of nitpicking. The narrator flits for a moment into his wife’s mind:
She’s often reproached him for it: he should just let her feel the weariness and darkness, she whom the wind directs and doubts assail. Her secret wish at such times is that he, too, would have his bad days.
This is not the sort of book that leans into interpersonal drama. There are neither stormy battles of wills nor climactic, revelatory tantrums. A Happy Man is portraiture: here is a happy man, here a loving couple—their taunts and teases, their inside jokes (no need for us to understand the tissue of memory attached to each one; just know that their history is a pleasant one that still causes them to giggle)—here is a happy man, and here is his work; here are his unhappiest memories. Schertenlieb pays close attention to the glories of the world and in so doing conjures a full world.
When A Happy Man attempts to be a manual for contentment, it loses its grip ever so slightly. To be sure, the philosophical reflections are interesting! Engaging! Thought-provoking! Only a handful of statements seem to miss the mark entirely, veering far too close to fridge magnets for my liking.
Life is easy. Only the fear of it is hard.
Most, though are more open-ended: curious, rather than declarative.
“Happiness? What is happiness? A sudden, unexpected attack that makes you forget life’s burden? A rapture lasting only a second? A smell, a color, a touch? A permanent state? Or is it perhaps just a word? Are we even aware of being happy? … May the earth be light upon you—and you be light as well. That’s what This Studer would have called happiness if anyone had asked him.”
Still—these hardly compare to the moments of untroubled imagery that occasionally peek through all the thinking. These brief scenes are the best parts of the novella; surefooted and lovely throughout.
In whatever time was left to him, he would recall this moment. Isn’t it too cold? The stranger’s cheerful face and her feet gleaming like fish in the morning sun. Isn’t it too cold? Her slim calves with water dripping from them. Isn’t it much too cold? The wriggling, tanned female feet as they disappeared into the armpits of the man sitting next to her, who cried out since the feet must have been ice cold, but still looked at the woman full of admiration and then hugged her to him.
One of This’ new acquaintances—the young bassist in the jazz band—launches an accusation at him:
Only ignorant people can be happy!
It’s a familiar accusation these days, as it has been, I expect, since we started counting days. “If only you were paying attention, you’d be unhappy.” And maybe that’s true. Maybe all the smartest people are depressed, and ignorance is the only bliss…
But it seems more likely that we can have good and bad that are not weighed directly against each other—that we can enjoy the smell of bread or the sound of rain while also acknowledging ICE and the local Nazis. They can both exist—they do—and it is very much up to us to notice the smells and sunbeams of our lives, the subtleties, wonder, and wonderment of the people we love, and to acknowledge that they might be cause enough for happiness.
He has a lot of friends who waste time waiting for a miracle that will redeem them, transform the life they perceive as a melancholy pencil sketch into a richly-hued oil painting, friends blind to moments of happiness while waiting for that miracle to arrive.
Don’t wait for the miracle. It cannot arrive—it is here, always.
Yes, much too cold. But marvelous!
- This is a confusing name for a protagonist. Every other sentence felt like a double take, and while I try not to hold grudges I’ve got to believe that there might have been literally any other option.