The Intersection of Poetry and Prose: Summer of the Novella

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the intersection of poetry and prose. Although my background is in poetry, I’ve always loved reading novels, and recently finished writing a novel-length book myself. Genres aside, what I’m really drawn to is sharp, rich language, usually with a philosophical bent that tells a good story. Naturally, I gravitate toward the novella, which is roughly a work of fiction that’s anywhere from 17,500 words to 40,000 words (exact definitions will differ). Over the last year, I’ve read some fascinating novels and I wanted to share a few that I thought were nothing short of brilliant.

Adolphe by Benjamin Constant
This slim novel is something I found in a Borders Bookstore in Chicago in 2010. On the shelf, it looked like it could be a poetry collection, but it was the prominent quote on the back “we are such volatile creatures that we finally feel the sentiments we feign” that prompted me to open the book and it was the way the author told the story—almost like reading someone’s most intimate report on love gone wrong—that sealed the deal.
The book touched on the themes you encounter in Flaubert, Goethe, and Tolstoy—love and destruction, love and time, and what happens when the balance between hearts is askew—even if just a little bit? How do we reconcile the moods and weather of our volatile hearts? In this case, it’s a deeply poignant, definitely poetic story of a man and a woman who launch themselves into an affair, finding out too late that though you may break from other people, you cannot break with yourself.
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
Who remembers being 18 and deeply confused about whether or not you were a grown-up yet? Sagan was only 18 when she wrote this book—and it’s probably her masterpiece. I was in Colorado Springs, browsing in a bookstore when I came across a tattered copy of this book, which was published in France during the fifties. It’s steeped in a French brand of melancholy and it’s a young woman’s coming of age story.
The book is a framed narrative and from the very first line, I was hooked, “A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the name of sadness.” Basically, the book grapples with sexuality and the in-between years when you’re not quite a kid, but also not yet an adult. It’s a gorgeous meditation on the angst of growing up, which we all know so well. It’s a bittersweet gem and is easily read in an afternoon.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
If you’ve not yet read this book, please do so now. This book recently received the Man Booker Prize and I can see why: it’s a gorgeously written, slim novel that investigates the nuances of time and the fickleness of memory. In short, it’s immaculate. I loved how poetic the work itself felt and how Barnes masterfully took us through the life of his main character, Tony Webster, whose life was simple enough, until an unusual bequest forces him to reconsider the past—and the part he played in the lives he’d long since distanced himself from.
I’d encourage you to read the book in one sitting. It’s a deeply philosophical tale that left me wondering about the past we all imagine for ourselves and how there are spaces in our own lives that are rich in mystery—some to be explained, some to be left forever untold.
PQ welcomes Tasha as our new Reviews Coordinator.
Tasha Cotter’s work has recently appeared in or is forthcoming in Booth, The Rumpus, Contrary Magazine, and elsewhere. Her fiction was recently nominated for a storySouth Million Writers award, and her poetry has been nominated for Best of the Net Anthology 2011. She received her MFA from the Bluegrass Writer’s Studio. In 2010 her fiction received agency representation with AKA Literary. She is the Reviews Coordinator for Poets’ Quarterly and is a current member of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference.