‘It seemed December still possessed his garden. The ground was hard as iron, the skirts of the dark cypress moved on the chill wind with a mournful rustle and there were no green shoots on the roses as if, this year, they would not bloom. And not one light in any of the windows, only, in the topmost attic, the faintest smear of radiance on a pane, the thin ghost of a light on the verge of extinction’.
Not strictly a Christmas story, but for some reason fairy tales seem to have more resonance at this time of year. Angela Carter’s clever, sensual update of 18th-century French classic ‘La Belle et La Bête’ from her 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber owes more to its (female) originators and popularisers than to any Disney adaptation. The story of the merchant (in Carter’s version, a debt-laden lawyer with a broken-down car) who steals the single white rose he promised his daughter from a mysterious wintry garden, incurring the wrath of its leonine owner, and a forfeit – a reluctant agreement that Beauty will become the companion of the Beast – has several troubling interpretations. In Carter’s hands, Beauty, rather than simply being a chattel of her father, responds to the strange, enchanted world of the dignified and passionate Beast and discovers her own emotional and sexual awakening in the process.
First published in The Bloody Chamber and other Stories, 1979. Also available in Burning Your Boats, Carter’s collected stories, Vintage Chatto & Windus, 1995. Chosen by Catherine Taylor.
I’ve gone for Maupassant as my first choice. probably because this is the first short story I remember really sticking in my mind, and it’s therefore acquired a kind of nostalgic perfection. To my great satisfaction I was the only member of sixth form to receive a detention (I misremember the reason) and was locked by my A-level French teacher alone in a classroom for two hours one Friday afternoon. Before escaping via the window, I read this deceptively simple, gallant story of two old friends who meet again by chance during the Franco-Prussian war and the 1871 Siege of Paris. Reminiscing about the fishing trips they used to take together, the men obtain leave to do so one more time. Their excursion is interrupted by four Prussian soldiers and what ensues, despite the patina of propaganda and nationalistic pride, is a story of quiet bravery, the desperate losses of war on both sides and the sheer bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
(First published 1883. Also published in A Parisian Affair and Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2004. Translated from French by Sian Miles)
The 1984 film The Company of Wolves, based on Carter’s stories, had a big effect on me as teenager and led me to her writing. The opening salvo from her first short-story collection, published in 1979, is typical of her baroque, joyous subversion of the fairy tale – while also making significant points about the shifting balance of sexual power, desire, disgust and how the two often disturbingly collide. In this interpretation of ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’, a young ingenue is married off to a rich Maquis, who, after their wedding night, leaves her alone in his isolated castle on France’s bleak Atlantic coast with a set of golden keys and one proviso – do not open THAT door. The prose is gorgeous, full of a perverse longing and indefinable sorrow: ‘Time was his servant, too; it would trap me here, in a night that would last until he came back to me, like a black sun on a winter morning’. This being Carter, the ingenue is not so innocent of course, and has a gun-toting vengeful mother to boot. All the better to eat you with, my dear…
(From The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, Vintage Classics, 1995)
Flannery O’Connor died of lupus in 1964 at the age of 39; this story was published posthumously a year later in the collection Everything that Rises Must Converge.Like William Faulkner , Carson McCullers and a host of others, O’Connor wrote in the Southern Gothic tradition, populating her work with grotesque characters, violent incident and moral debate. I also have lupus; on diagnosis I identified as a shadowy Flannery O’Connor, one without the writing talent or the peacocks (she famously kept many exotic birds), an atheist in thrall to O’Connor’s rhapsodic Catholicism. In this story, a father refuses to empathise with the grief of his young son who has recently lost his mother. Instead, he offers his charity to a manipulative homeless teenager, with tragic consequences for the child. It’s unsettling, unsentimental and never fails to make me weep and rage.
(In Complete Stories, Faber and Faber, 1990)
As a Chekhov devotee it might seem odd I should choose a story about, not by, Chekhov. But in truth, I prefer his plays, and this, about Chekhov’s final moments and death by champagne is classic Carver – or classic Gordon Lish (Carver’s editor), as we might now be led to believe. Regardless of that, it has all the precision, sobriety and exquisite timing of Carver’s best work with an added Russian flourish, and is the last story in Elephant, the collection published in the final year of Carver’s life. (Carver died aged 50 in 1988). My best friend, Sonia Misak, with whom I’ve been sharing stories both real and imagined for most of our lives, gave me my copy of Elephant at New Year 1990. Carver was quite possibly already terminally ill when he wrote ‘Errand’, but in it he is exploring Chekhov the writer rather than Chekhov the dying man; and reading it calls to mind that great line of Virginia Woolf’s: ‘I meant to write about death, but life kept breaking in as usual.’
(Originally published in Elephant. Also in from Where I’m Calling From, Harvill, 1993)
The Australian author Jeanette Turner Hospital’s collection Isobars is uneven in places but its themes of unreliable memory, fugue states and global connections are persistent and powerful. (An isobar, in meteorology, is a line on a map where linked points have the same atmospheric pressure occurring at a given time). All anxieties about flying are fully indulged in this brief ghost story, written about an eleventh-hour passenger who boards a plane at the last minute. The narrator of the story, a woman, is highly apprehensive, with good reason: the previous night a flight on the same route had been blown up by a suicide bomber: there were no survivors. Her seat companion for this flight is a young man who speaks little English and appears distracted and tormented. The woman seeks to comfort him. After they both fall asleep she is ravaged by terrible dreams; when she wakes to daylight, the man has gone. Not to be read on long-haul, unless you’re a complete masochist.
(From Isobars, Virago Press, 1990)
A descendant of Leo Tolstoy, Tatyana Tolstaya’s ravishingly bittersweet stories started appearing in 1983. (I would also point readers to her extraordinary dystopian novel The Slynx, published by NYRB Classics). In ‘Most Beloved’, from her second collection Sleepwalker in a Fog, originally published as part of Penguin’s International Writers series, the life and death of an seemingly unremarkable woman, Zhenechka, a fixture in the household which she serves as devoted housekeeper and governess is sketched in the form of impressions, dreams and wistful – but not whimsical – remembrances of her by those she loved, scolded and taught. It is a supremely Russian story of the Soviet era – yet all the perceived greyness and sterility of that period is transformed, under Tolstaya, into luscious Pushkin-like prose.
(From Sleepwalker in A Fog (Penguin, 1991), translated from Russian by Jamey Gambrell)