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Trouble Every Day: The Novella and its (Ordinary) Terror

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Organizer: Marie-Luise Goldmann

Co-Organizer: Anna Hordych

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Narrating against the crisis: a constitutive element of the novella and an effective way of coping with the catastrophe. As the European novella’s origin highlights, by narrating, the novella confronts and aims to overcome an external crisis. For example, in Giovanni Boccaccio’s paradigmatic Il Decamerone, the horrors of the plague call for diversion in the form of entertaining narratives. Similarly, in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten, the terrors of the French Revolution generate a need for distraction through fiction. In both cases, the protagonists’ narration is defined by their confrontation with a disastrous event marked by its extraordinary, unprecedented singularity.

During the 19th century, a major shift occurs: The novella’s entanglement with mass media, newspaper production, and journalism, as well as its engagement with topics like class and gender, spawn new and exciting ways of writing, reading, and consuming literature. Out of a newfound concern with the representation, production, and construction of reality, literature in the second half of the 19th century becomes obsessed with the ordinariness of everyday life. The singular turning point – an essential characteristic of the traditional novella – becomes entangled with the base motives and little troubles of a daily grind, which defines the novella’s temporality via seriality and repeatability. The novelistic event is pervaded with mundane routines (eating, cleaning, gardening, etc.) and their quotidian venues. A bourgeois way of life – its concern with economic issues, idyllic domesticity, natural landscapes, and creeping boredom – moves into the foreground as depicted in the work of authors such as Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, Theodor Fontane, Adalbert Stifter, and Guy de Maupassant.

For the novelistic genre, the consequences of this transformation are tremendous: According to contemporary criticism (e.g. by Paul Heyse and Rudolph Gottschall), the novella is perceived as short, short-lived, accessible, superficial, diversionary, lowbrow, popular, and, in a word, inferior to other genres. But does this criticism miss the revolutionary and infectious threats of and within the novella? For what lurks beneath the smooth superficiality and the calm coziness of bourgeois domesticity? Which epistemological, aesthetic, and rhetorical operations are at stake when we approach the novelistic genre from the perspective of the troubles and terrors of everyday life?

The seminar seeks to investigate a concept of the novella as defined by its omnipresent potential to break through the ostensibly clean and harmless surface and reveal the latent uncanniness and horror lurking below. We encourage papers from all language traditions that explore the various ways in which the novella produces an innovative poetics of the threatening everyday.

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