Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge: The North of God, by Steve Stern

One of my favorite bloggers, Frances of Nonsuch Book, is engaged this month in a challenge that I think is just fabulous: she's reading all 42 of Melville House's Art of the Novella books, and blogging about them! She's attracted Melville's House's attention, not surprisingly, and they're promoting the challenge with a host of giveaways throughout August. To participate, go to Melville's page here.

I'm participating at the "Curious" level- one book- and the book I've chosen is Steve Stern's remarkable The North of God. Part of The Contemporary Art of the Novella series, Melville published it in 2008. It's the story-within-a-story of Velvl, trapped in a cattle car with an unknown woman and her child, on their way to God-knows-where during the Holocaust. To keep them all sane he tells her the story of Herschel, a young shtetl scholar set to marry the daughter of a rich man, then seduced by a succubus. He loses his mind and runs out of his wedding ceremony only to be haunted by his passion for this elusive demon. Part one is wholly Herschel's story; Velvl appears only as a supporting character, one of the boys at Herschel's cheder.

The theme of this brief tale is the power of storytelling to save. First and most obviously, Herschel survives because Velvl is there tell his tale. But storytelling saves Herschel, too; he meets a traveling theater man, and storytelling becomes his way out of his life of wandering when he gets the idea to go to America and put on Yiddish plays: "He thought he might be able to do something interesting with the story," he thinks to himself. Herschel's stories therefore have a power to save him that may be denied to his storyteller, on his way to a concentration camp. For his part, trapped in the train, Velvl believes that his stories will help ensure the survival of his little trio: "So long as he could keep the mother and daughter captivated, he could keep them safe." Later, when Velvl tries to bargain with a Nazi officer using storytelling as a chip, he's rebuffed: "What am I thinking? This is the place where all stories end."

Stern is an exuberant writer and this story is heartbreaking as well as full of bluster, sex, scatology and violence. If you've read his novel The Frozen Rabbi you'll have a little idea of what to expect here- a mixture of legend and realism, flights of fancy combined with raw, moving and unexpected expressions of human nature. It's a little gem! I wish I had more of these books around!

7 comments:

bermudaonion said...

This does sound like a gem!

JoAnn said...

Wish I had more of these books around, too... there are surely many more little gems just waiting to be discovered!

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

I've been following Frances's progress with her Novella Reading. Though I cannot participate by active reading, I'd by commenting. Thanks for this one, Marie.

Zibilee said...

This novella does sound rather interesting, and though it's not exactly PC, it sounds like something that I would be greatly interested in. Thanks for sharing this. I had no idea the challenge was even going on!

Col (Col Reads) said...

Now you and Frances have me all excited to read a novella this month. Oh where, oh where, will I find the time? Thanks for your review!

Marie said...

Col, the best part about a novella is- it's short! One day for one novella! You can do it!

Frances said...

Yes, to your comment to Col. They are short, and there is something so satisfying about ingesting a read in one sitting as I have been doing. I am finding that I am much more in the story and the posts come together very quickly. And thanks so much for reading along, Curious one! And for the kind words too. Hope we tempt you with another before month's end.