I’ve just been reading Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. I saw the TV film of this, starring Peter O’Toole, when it was first shown back in the nineteen seventies. The story is that of a big game hunter who decides to take a pot shot at Hitler. He is captured, interrogated under torture, and left for dead in a faked accident. He survives however, and escapes across Europe to England. Pursuit is not far behind, in the shape of Major Quive-Smith an English Nazi. The Rogue Male goes to ground, where he is brought to bay, and to the final denouement.

            Such stories, of escape, of pursuit, of man versus the wilderness, are not uncommon. Frank Herbert’s Soul Catcher springs to mind, an out of genre offering from the master of Arrakis, or Dune. In Herbert’s story the protagonist is a North American Indian, driven by revenge to kidnap a white boy, whom he takes off into the wilderness. Unlike Household’s white hunter though, Herbert’s does not adapt well to the great outdoors, and the story follows his slow deterioration to an unexpected conclusion.  Household’s Rogue Male, on the other hand, adapts well to his environment, and plans to slip the moorings of society entirely, with the intention to return to Germany, and stalk his greatest prey once again.

            The film, as you might expect, concentrates on showing us the action, but the book, written in the form of a journal by the nameless eponymous hero (if you can be both nameless and eponymous), focuses on his internal struggles: his explanations of and justifications for his actions.

            The journal form raises an interesting issue, for it means that the just short of two hundred pages are presented without chapters, in three large chunks, purportedly written at three different stages in the story. The whole is finished off with a relatively short letter, explaining how we have been able to read it.

            The lack of chapters, for the three chunks, at 60 pages plus, are too large to be regarded as such, makes the significant structural unit of the book the paragraph. I’m sure I read somewhere, probably in one of those Paris Review Interviews I’m always going on about, that in the opinion of some author or other, the paragraph is the most significant unit in prose fiction, even when chapters are present. Lack of chapters certainly threw my attention onto the paragraphs here.

            In fact it is 87 pages in (on the Penguin 1978 edition) where the first chunk ends, with the writer referring to his journal: ‘Even this journal, which I was sure would exercise my misgivings has settled nothing.’ He begins the next long section with another reference to it: ‘I start this exercise book again for I dare not leave my thoughts uncontrolled.’ He reminds us that it is a journal at the beginning of the third section too: ‘I have a use for this record, so I finish it.’ It is always a matter of concern, and perhaps more so with first person narratives, as to where the story is being told from, and how we get to read it. I suppose the classic case of that is the confessional letter left in the cell of the protagonist at the end of Kind Hearts & Coronets. This issue is tied up at the end of Household’s story by the device of the letter: ‘I want these papers published.’

            I have avoided referring to Rogue Male as a novel, because I have the suspicion that is in fact a novella. I got interested in the distinction when I found myself in the position of, perhaps, having written one. It’s not merely the length that is important in deciding. You can have long novellas, and short novels, with a considerable overlap in terms of thousands of words.

            Traditionally it is the focus of the story, on one event, or on one thread into which events are knotted, that makes a story a novella rather than a novel. In a novella there are none of the subplots, sideplots, parallel plots or counterpoint plots that make a novel so rich and complex. What there is, according to the Penguin dictionary of Literary Terms at any rate, is the distinct and Germanically named Wendepunkt. It’s always heartening to find a concept that needs to be cast in language that you can be fairly sure that most of your readers will not have as their first, if have at all. German is good. Greek is probably better, and way above my head! A favourite of mine, from my military bookselling days, was Shwerpunkt, but that’s another story.

            The Wendepunkt, which I shall resist pronouncing as the Wendy Punk, although I am tempted, is an unmistakeable turning point in the novella, leading on to consequences that are unseen, but inevitable. In my novella there is such an event, and its impact, though indirect in some cases, is felt by all the characters. It unlocks the story in a way that enables, perhaps even demands, the eventual outcome. Novels of course have turning points, but not usually one that affects all the characters, and all the plots, and quite often there are multiple turning points, linked together and perhaps dependent upon one another, more like milestones on the path than turning points in it.

            A rather more nebulous distinction might be that between the novella and the short story. My dictionary of choice is not at first glance helpful here. It asserts the distinction between the novella and the short story, but doesn’t go on to explain it, except in terms of length. Following one of the longest entries in the dictionary, encapsulating a very thorough history of the genre, it is the opening sentence that rings truest: ‘When it comes to classification this (the short story) is one of the most elusive forms.’

            Edgar Allan Poe provides the nearest we get to a definition here: ‘a prose narrative….requiring anything from half an hour to one or two hours in its perusal; a story that concentrates on a unique or single effect and one in which the totality of effects is the main objective.’

            Perhaps the distinctions are useful, if at all, only as guides to what we might expect. A short story is a fiction to be consumed at a sitting. A novella is a fiction that focuses tightly on a single theme or event. A novel is a fiction that is rich and complex. Rather than being hermeneutically sealed from each other they flow one into the other, and represent what we, in approaching them, might think of as their dominant quality. Implicitly, to sustain a short story beyond a certain length would make it impossible to read in the envisaged timescale, and to sustain the novella beyond its putative length without developing subplots would be similarly unusual. Perhaps, however rich and complex a story might be, we would not regard it as a novel if we could read it at a single, and not prolonged sitting.

            Look away now, if you don’t want spoilers in the case of Rogue Male, for this story has a clear Wendy Punk. It is the moment when the hero discovers the body of the cat Asmodeus, which Quive-Smith, the villain of the piece, has forced down the ventilation hole and into the den in which the Rogue Male has gone to ground.

‘I poked with a stick, and found the thing to be soft and stiff. I advanced my fingers inch by inch until they brushed against it and I snatched back my hand. I had touched, as I thought, an arrangement of wires and teeth, but before my arm was fairly out of the tunnel I realised what it really was. The simultaneous mixture of terror and relief and anger made me violently sick.

Taking Asmodeus’ head in my hand, I drew his remains into the den.’ 

That this is the key turning point in the story is made clear, only a few paragraphs after it has happened.

            ‘It seems ridiculous to say that by shooting Asmodeus Quive-Smith condemned himself to death; it was in a sense so slight a crime. (…….) I can neither defend nor explain the effect that the shooting of this cat had upon me. It released me. (…..) I was at last able to admit that all my schemes for escaping without violence were impossible. The only practical method was to kill the man on duty before, not after I started digging.’

            This is a good place to hark back to those units of fiction, the paragraphs, for these two crucial elements of the story are carefully paragraphed. In the first the paragraph limits itself to describing his experience of examining the blockage in the ventilation shaft, and to revealing that he realises what it is. I included the changeover to the next paragraph in the quotation, for it begins with the revelation to us, of what has caused the physical reaction in him that ends the previous paragraph.

            If well constructed paragraphs have distinct beginnings and endings, then well constructed stories, built of paragraphs, have well constructed changeovers from one paragraph to the next, and here I think, is a fine example.

            The second piece quoted, also a paragraph, begins by telling us the importance of what has happened, and ends with its consequences.

            Soul Catcher too, on the face of it, has no chapters, but it has sections made up of grouped paragraphs and divided by white space. These are, in effect, chapters, though they carry neither titles nor numbering. Without spoiling the story, I can point out that the sections are quite small to begin with, around half a page, but develop into regular two and three page chapters as the story progresses, albeit interspersed with small sections. It is as if Herbert began with a series of story threads, which he wove into the main narrative. The issue of the novella versus the novel is even harder to resolve here, there being several different themes that are explored through the single act of the kidknapping and the flight through the wilderness, and though other characters pop up, to give short accounts of the case from their perspectives, the book is overwhelmingly focussed on the kidnapper and his victim.

There are few characters in Rogue Male, and only a vestigal backstory to the main protagonist, explained long after the Wendepunkt, and near to the very end. There are no sublots, or other diversions from the single thread of the pursuit, the hunting, of the Rogue Male himself. It is classically in the novella mode, as laid out in the Penguin dictionary, although in that reference book the genre is referred to as being archaic.

            So, my three good things, are Rogue Male, the novella, Rogue Male, the TV film, now available on DVD, and Soul Catcher, which I have left for your exploration.

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