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Four Novellas Offer An Opportunity to Sample

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John Barth

176 pages, Houghton Mifflin, $23


Gabriel Garcia Marquez, translated by Edith Grossman

128 pages, Knopf, $20

It used to be only English majors who loved the novella. Shorter than a novel, taking as long to read as a movie treatment on a commuter-plane ride, the novella has grown in popularity as busy lifestyles and the demand for quick literary fixes have pressured publishers to find ways to deliver fiction to audiences with limited time and patience.

Two writers of established reputation and advancing age, John Barth and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, offer novellas in books that are under 200 pages (Garcia Marquez's consists of one novella; Barth's, a collection of three), allowing readers to sample the famous styles without the commitment of time and attention their longer works require.

John Barth's "The Sot-Weed Factor" and 1972 National Book Award winner, "Chimera," simultaneously make fun of and exult in American culture. Now retired from Johns Hopkins, Maryland-based Barth has created a trio of novellas about a young writer much like he was, told in manically clever language and filled with narrative tangents about narrative art.

"Tell Me" introduces innocent undergraduate Fred (his two roommates are also named Fred), who discovers that writing is more rewarding and living more difficult than he imagined. In "I've Been Told," Fred is older, and his riff on writing turns into a rant. "As I Was Saying" looks at Fred, past his peak, from the points of view of three sisters who knew him. All three novellas are aimed at readers as fanatic about language and as well versed in the classics as Barth.

Garcia Marquez's 1967 masterpiece, "One Hundred Years of Solitude," may have won him the Pulitzer Prize, but his novellas, including "No One Writes to the Colonel" and "The Autumn of the Patriarch," are also classics. His latest novella, "Memories of My Melancholy Whores," is a minor piece about a 90-year-old journalist who seeks rejuvenation in a young virgin whore with whom he falls in love.

The most memorable feature of this novella is not its occasionally seedy plot but rather its lucid, clean-flowing, unsentimental yet achingly intimate prose, drawing the reader in despite any misgivings about the subject.

Both Barth and Garcia Marquez surprised readers of the 1960s and '70s with innovative fiction that teetered between literature and social commentary, magical realism and storytelling magic. Decades later, in writing that is more wistful than surprising, they prove they are still unrivaled masters of language and astute students of human nature.

(C) 2005 Richmond Times-Dispatch. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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