• Bryan Walpert.
  • Late Sonata Book Cover.

Massey poet’s winning novella weaves language and music

A novella (short novel) exploring memory and ageing, by Massey University’s Professor Bryan Walpert, has just won a trans-Tasman literary award. Poet/author and creative writing lecturer Professor Walpert was inspired after doing an online course about Beethoven’s music – motivated by a wish to better understand his own students’ experiences of distance learning.

Based at the Auckland, Albany campus, he was announced as one of two winners of Australian publisher Brio Books’ Viva La Novella 2020 award in September for his novella manuscript, Late Sonata. His work was shortlisted for the 2020 Seizure (an imprint of Brio Books) award in February, from 125 entries by New Zealand and Australian authors.

The publisher describes the book: "Inspired by the structure of a piece by Beethoven, Late Sonata follows musicologist Talia and her novelist husband as they deal with the effects of dementia, revelations of infidelity and the death of their concert pianist son. This is a formally sophisticated and emotionally engaging novella.” Professor Walpert, who supervises Master of Creative Writing and doctoral students and teaches undergraduate poetry and creative writing courses, is the third New Zealand-based writer to win the award since it was launched eight years ago.

“My inspiration for this novella came from taking a massive open online course (MOOC) on Beethoven’s sonatas. I took the course both out of interest in the subject matter and to have a sense of what it was like to be a student in a large distance course offered by a major MOOC provider, Coursera.

“I loved the feeling of freedom in taking the course on something completely new – there’s no pressure to be good at it, or to have the responsibility of being an expert. There is a great pleasure in being a beginner – there’s a feeling of risk and a little nervousness, but at the same time a great pleasure in entering a new subject -  no ego, nothing to prove, just there to learn.”

He started in 2014 but had to put the project on hold for four years due to other demands, including writing a scholarly book on poetry and mindfulness. He resumed the writing four years later, completing the 40,000-word manuscript last year with the support of a Massey University Research Fund (MURF) grant.

It was the emotional range of Beethoven's piano sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109 that made an impression on him, evoking for him a sense of yearning as well as anger and quiet acceptance that sparked the idea for the novella pivoting on memory, meaning and growing old – topics that have long fascinated him.

Short novel or long short story?

A recent resurgence of the novella – “an ambiguous beast” as he calls it – is due, in part he suspects, to the prevalence of electronic publishing. While the line between a short novel and a long short story can be blurred, novellas can range from 20,000 to 50,000 words. Celebrated examples include The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, The Stranger by Albert Camus, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Animal Farm by George Orwell and The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka – though all of these books are sometimes referred to as novels.

The appeal of the novella? “It’s really concentrated. It’s not as expansive in scope, but it is more dense and compressed than a longer novel – so it lends itself to the lyric and evocative nature of the short story,” he says.

Late Sonata will be launched in Auckland on November 8th, at Open Book bookstore on Ponsonby Road, with a live performance of the sonata by pianist Ludwig Treviranus. Professor Walpert also receives a $1000 cash prize and publication by Seizure. 

“Happily, its focus on Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109 corresponds to celebrations of his [Beethoven’s] 250th birthday this year,” he adds.

US-born and educated, and a New Zealand citizen, Professor Walpert has published non-fiction, short stories and poetry, including Native Bird (Mākaro Press) in 2015, his third poetry volume.

Read more about Professor Walpert's writing:.

More details here: http://www.seizureonline.com/content/2020/2/25/viva-la-novella-viii-shortlist

Issue 114 October-November 2020