Some time back, I posted a tasting flight of shorter works by important authors, in the interest of giving readers a way to decide whether or not they liked a particular author enough to go on and tackle one of that author’s signature doorstop volumes. Now, as a follow-up to that round, here’s another quartet of shorter pieces by authors of important longer works.
Henry Fielding – Joseph Andrews. Tom Jones is the doorstop (and well worth reading for its own sake); Joseph Andrews is the short one, written in response to that other blockbuster of the eighteenth century, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. Richardson’s novel featured a virtuous maidservant who attracts the lustful attention of her employer, Squire B, possibly the world’s most incompetent rake. He tries everything, including abduction and a fake marriage, but never works himself up to doing the actual deed; meanwhile, Pamela steadfastly holds out for honorable matrimony or nothing, and – spoiler alert! – gets her way in the end. Fielding, for his part, found the entire plot so silly that he responded to it first by writing Shamela, an outright parody, and then by writing Joseph Andrews, which was what we’d probably call today the genderflipped version, with the title character being the handsome young footman who resists the advances of his employer, the licentious Lady Booby, widow of the late Squire Booby (hey, no one ever said that Fielding was subtle!), and is dismissed from his position and forced to go on the road as a result.
Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens was the Stephen King of his day (or maybe Stephen King is the Charles Dickens of ours): He wrote big fat novels, and he wrote a lot of them, for a long time. A Christmas Carol is short, but it’s got enough of the Dickens flavor that you can figure out whether you want to go for one of the doorstops – Bleak House, say, or Oliver Twist. (You can avoid Great Expectations, if you like, and I won’t blame you a bit. It’s the one most often inflicted upon long-suffering high school students, and has probably turned a lot of them off of Dickens for life. Lord knows, it nearly did it for me.) Dickens also managed, with A Christmas Carol, to come up with one of the great recyclable plots. Hollywood, in particular, has been running riffs and changes on it for decades.
Thomas Pynchon – The Crying of Lot 49. Pynchon’s another author best known for doorstop novels like V and Gravity’s Rainbow. The Crying of Lot 49 – the title refers to an item being put up (or “cried”, as the terminology has it) for auction – is short and fast-moving, an ideal way to find out of you like Pynchon enough to try the big stuff. Highlights include a centuries-old conspiracy of uncertain intent, a (fictional) Jacobean revenge tragedy, and one of the funniest games of strip poker ever written.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Russian novels are notoriously long as it is, and Solzhenitsyn carried on with the tradition. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an exception, being short enough to be published in 1962 as a complete-in-this-issue novel in the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir. If you don’t feel up to tackling Solzhenitsyn’s mega-doorstop nonfiction work The Gulag Archipelago, One Day in the Life will give you enough about life in a Stalinist-era Soviet prison camp to be getting on with.