Winter 1996 • Vol. XVIII No. 1 NonfictionJanuary 1, 1996 |

Disorders of Reading Short Novels and Perplexities

Goethe defined the short novel, the novelle, as a contest between the order of dailiness and the chaos of unprecedented incursions. He had in mind a daunting struggle to make meaning out of happenings and impulses that seemed to defeat the faith required by culture, relationships, and selfhood. Martin Swales, in an excellent study of the German novelle, terms the challenge a "hermeneutic gamble": the wager that moral sense can survive egregiousness. Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener enacts this gamble, as do Dostoevsky's The Eternal Husband, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and innumerable other nineteenth-century short novels. Mystery upends interpretation, placing narratability and the safety it represents at hazard. As the challenges of the modem encroach, the contest becomes ever more deadly. Conrad's frame narrator can acknowledge and survive Marlow's forbidding message that moral darkness flows into the tranquil Thames. But even so equivocal a vestige of the education once synonymo

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