‘To Everything There is a Season’ by Alistair MacLeod

I wasn’t always Jewish. I converted as an adult; as a child I celebrated Christmas. At some point, I can’t remember when or how, it became a tradition in my family for me to read this story aloud on Christmas Eve. Reading it now, I can see that it is set probably in the late 1940s, though back then it seemed timeless, almost mythical to me. 

The narrator, writing from the vantage of the 1970s, looks back to the year when he was eleven and living with his family in rural Cape Breton, the beautiful island at the northeastern tip of Nova Scotia. (Little did I know then that I would later go to university in Halifax and take a last vacation after my graduation with my family across the Cape Breton highlands.) This is the year the boy’s wavering belief in Santa Claus, maintained through a determination to remain a child a little longer, will finally be put to rest. The man he is really waiting for is his older brother, Neil, who works on a freighter on the Great Lakes. Everyone in the family—the narrator’s five other siblings; his anxious mother; his father, sitting beside the fire coughing into a handkerchief, an old man at 42 (now I think he must have been a miner suffering from silicosis)—waits on tenterhooks for the golden son to be released from his toil by the vagaries of the weather: the lakes have to freeze first.  

On the morning of the 23rd, a strange car rolls up: out tumbles Neil, along with three buddies who still have to make it to Newfoundland. Neil takes matters in hand: he chops down the tree the narrator has been eyeing for months, he supervises the decorating, he shoes the horse and takes the children to midnight mass over the mountain in a sleigh that is warmed by heated stones, he is solicitous of the father who has clearly declined alarmingly in his absence. When the children return half-frozen and exhilarated from church, the narrator is for the first time invited to stay up. He’s pleased, but also forlorn; he knows a door has closed behind him. The father says, “Every man moves on, but there is no need to grieve.” The boy thinks he is talking about Santa Claus; the adult knows the father is talking about himself. 

I think about myself, leaving one life for another. It’s common for Jews by Choice to miss Christmas, and I certainly did the first years. Now the loss the story evokes for me is mostly about the snow, the cold, the Canadian winter I’ve also given up. Reading the story again, I think about how we’re all giving up this weather, no matter where we’re from, as the planet warms and winters like the one MacLeod vividly describes become scarce. Some things no amount of equanimity can redress; some things have to be grieved.

First published in the Globe & Mail, December 24, 1977 and collected in As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, McClelland and Stewart, 1986. Read the story here or listen to it here.

Chosen by Dorian Stuber. Dorian is the Isabelle Peregrin Odyssey Professor of English at Hendrix College. He writes about books at www.eigermonchjungfrau.blog. You can read his full Personal Anthology here.


Most years, I teach a class on the short story to undergraduates; that experience has guided my Personal Anthology. It’s in the nature of this exercise that I had to leave many worthy candidates off the list (Kafka, Bowen, Bezmozgis, Munro). But my twelve finalists are the stories I most love teaching. They are the stories I have the most questions about. Because to teach is to ask questions. But not any question will do. They have to be just right: neither vague nor leading, with tentative rather than definitive answers, asking things I too want to know. When it’s just twenty or so of us in a room with nothing more than our copies of the texts we learn more than we do when we’re reading on our own. The dynamic that arises from a particular group of people at a particular time is changeable, unpredictable, sometimes thrilling, sometimes deadening, invariably idiosyncratic. It’s as impossible to teach the same text twice as to cross the same river. Something new is created every time. In one way, writing this piece vitiates the experience of the classroom, making the mutable immutable. In another, however, this anthology is yet another creation, this time inspired by those countless fifty-minute class periods.

‘The First Seven Years’ by Bernard Malamud

I could have chosen any number of stories by Malamud, especially those in his marvelous first collection, The Magic Barrel. The title story, featuring Salzman, a ravenous marriage broker (“always in a rush,” he mutters to a client as he takes a smoked herring from an oily paper bag and strips it from its skin), would have made a fine choice. As would ‘The Mourners,’ in which Kessler, a former egg candler no one much likes, refuses to leave the apartment he feels he has wrongly been evicted from. Or ‘The Bill,’ about a man who takes the credit offered him by the proprietor of the corner store across the way (the same kind of store Malamud’s parents owned) without any earthly way to pay it back.
But I had to choose ‘The First Seven Years,’ the story of Feld, a shoemaker, and his assistant, Sobel, a Polish Jew “who had by the skin of his teeth escaped Hitler’s incinerators,” a nebbish who falls in love with the boss’s daughter. ‘The First Seven Years’ has many pleasures: its reworking of the story of Jacob and Rachel; its infusion of Yiddish syntax and diction into its English (Feld, remembering how Sobel came to work for him: “Thinking that with, after all, a landsman, he would have less to fear than from a complete stranger, Feld took him on and within six weeks the refugee rebuilt as good a shoe as he”); its depiction of the American-born Miriam, Feld’s daughter and Sobel’s beloved, who battles lovingly but firmly against her father’s expectations (an unfortunately rare example in Malamud’s work of a fully-realized female character); and its exploration of how selfishness can be mixed with love.
My students and I spend a long time parsing the subtleties of the story’s first sentence: “Feld, the shoemaker, was annoyed that his helper, Sobel, was so insensitive to his reverie that he wouldn’t for a minute cease his fanatic pounding at the other bench.” We note the characteristic Malamud interest in work, such that name and occupation appear as a unit. We consider the connotations of “helper,” as opposed to “right-hand man” or “assistant.” And we think about narrative perspective, the way we inhabit Feld’s point of view. (Who is insensitive, the hardworking helper or the boss who resents the labour being done on his behalf?) And we explore the difference between “reverie” and “fanatic.” The latter sounds worse than the first. But here as elsewhere in the story, Sobel proves to be devoted rather than zealous, while Feld is self-serving instead of dreamy. The pressure to assimilate to American life may be inescapable, but it seems the Old World still has things to teach the New.

First published in Partisan Review, September-October 1950Collected in The Magic Barrel, Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1958, The Complete Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997, and Bernard Malamud: Novels and Stories of the 1940s & 50s, Library of America, 2014. Read the story here

‘A Cup of Tea’ by Katherine Mansfield

Rosemary Fell, fabulously wealthy and dreamily vague, is approached on the street by a pale, thin woman who asks her for the price of a cup of tea. Rosemary decides to take the young woman, who gives her name as Miss Smith, home with her, pushing the dazed, starving “creature,” as Rosemary puts it, into her upholstered car. Rosemary ignores Miss Smith’s protestations—she is, in a peerless phrase, “longing to begin to be generous”—preferring to remain lost in unfinished, perhaps unfinishable thoughts about the lesson she will impart to a woman she already thinks of as her protégé: “She was going to prove to this girl… that women were sisters.” But a cream tea and cigarette so revives Miss Smith that Rosemary’s husband remarks on her astonishing beauty. That’s enough for the older woman to send the younger packing. Students love this story about the paradoxes of charity and the difficulty of affirming what we today would call intersectionality.
I learned of “A Cup of Tea” from David Trotter’s The English Novel in History: 1895 – 1920, which features a brilliant close reading of the seemingly unremarkable line “The discreet door shut with a click.” (Rosemary is leaving her favourite antique shop.) Why, asks Trotter, does Mansfield speak of “discreet door” instead of saying “The door shut with a discreet click”? Wouldn’t the latter make more sense? We can imagine how a click could be discreet—it could, for example, refer to the sound of the door closing. But to call the door itself discreet, what could that mean? Trotter emphasizes the—sometimes mild but always consequential—disturbances of ordinary syntax and good sense that characterizes modernist writing.

I emphasize to my students that the very language used to describe the world of the story, which seems neutral or omniscient, is in fact imbued by the preferences of Rosemary and her milieu. If you’re rich enough, everything is discreet. And yet not every rich person is equally privileged. As Rosemary learns at the end of the story, as a woman she is forced to live by rules designed by and for someone other than herself. The discreet door, then, might be a metaphor for the way even someone like herself, who “would go to Paris just as you and I would go to Bond street,” is in her own way an outsider. Too bad the patriarchy makes it impossible for her to realize she’s as much at the mercy of the world as Miss Smith. 

First published in The Story-Teller, May 1922 and The Doves’ Nest and Other Stories, Constable & Co., 1923Collected, among other places, in Selected Stories, edited by Angela Smith, Oxford UP, 2002. Read the story here

‘Voices Lost in Snow’ by Mavis Gallant

For me, Mavis Gallant is the greatest Canadian prose writer. Of the many choices I might have made from her magisterial oeuvre—’An Autobiography,’ ‘The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street,’ ‘The Fenton Child,’ the list goes on—I’ve settled on ‘Voices Lost in Snow,’ one of her lovely evocations of 1930s Anglo Montreal. I just love how weird this story is: it begins as a kind of essay in interwar child-rearing strategies before becoming more straightforwardly narrative, but even once it does we’re hard-pressed to know what’s going on (which is fitting, since its subject is the power of childhood ignorance). Most of my students don’t really care for this story, but those who do (and there’s always a handful, it’s quite gratifying) care for it a lot.

Gallant is the master of obliquity: not even in the final section, the most dramatic, is it obvious that the narrator’s father has suggested to her mother’s friend, one of the child’s many godparents, that they embark on a long-contemplated affair (more than that, even, that they run away together), but only if the child is part of the package. It takes all our readerly efforts to see this silent offer being first made and then rebuffed. Reflecting on this moment later in life, the narrator announces “I brush in memory against the spiderweb” of lies, half-truths, and evasions that marks adulthood. That description sends us back to an earlier moment in the story, the description of the narrator’s escape from serious illness: the child’s new doctor, French Canadian, and thus a scandal to the story’s Anglo characters, solemnly declares, “Votre fille a frôlé la phtisie”—she had a brush with consumption. ‘Voices Lost in Snow’ is made up of such echoes, which readers brush past in near incomprehension. 
Above all, I love it for a scene in which father and daughter, trudging through the snowy streets of Montreal, hear “a mob roaring four syllables over and over,” “the name of a hockey player admired to the point of dementia.” The father jerks back as if in physical pain, a look of helplessness on his face. He spits out this heartbreaking line (so resonant to any introvert): “Crowds eat me. Noise eats me.”

First published in The New Yorker, March 28, 1976. Collected in Home Truths, Random House, 1985 and Varieties of Exile, NYRB Classics, 2003. Read the story here

‘Nawab Electrician’ by Daniyal Mueenuddin

I love this story of Nawab, a handyman to a landowner in 1980s rural Pakistan, known for his skill (Mueenuddin calls it “his genius for crude improvisation”) in keeping the seventeen tube wells that irrigate the land running. Having inveigled a motorcycle from his employer, Nawab darts about the countryside, threatening recalcitrant motors with wrenches; making deals on the side; “fixing” watches, none of which ever keep time again; and generally busting his ass to come up with dowries for his twelve daughters. The story begins aimlessly enough, mostly intent on showing Nawab as an appealing mix of clever and clueless. But halfway through, it switches gears, as it were, and narrates a single incident in detail. Riding home one night, Nawab is ambushed by a man with a gun. In the ensuing scuffle, Nawab is shot in the groin; the robber, in turn, is shot by some locals who come running to investigate the noise. Taken to a local pharmacy (the district’s equivalent of a clinic), Nawab is saved because he can afford medical attention. The robber pleads with Nawab that he pay for his care too; Nawab loftily and self-righteously declines. 
In teaching the story, I emphasize its use of character. E. M. Forster’s distinction between round and flat characters might be almost 100 years old, but it’s still useful. A round character, he says, has the capacity to surprise. Does Nawab surprise us? He does—and not necessarily for the better. We’re left with a lot of questions. How are we to think of his choice in this moment of life and death? Is he right to reject the pleas of a man who would have, as Nawab says, left his wife and children bereft of their breadwinner? Or has he failed a test of magnanimity? Has what was colourful become checkered? How can we tell what attitude a story takes towards its protagonist?

First published in The New Yorker, August 20 2007Collected in Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Norton 2009. Read the story here

‘Field Study’ by Rachel Seiffert

At the center of ‘Field Study’ is Martin, a graduate student researching water pollution in a neighbouring country. As he takes samples from a river, he sees a young woman and her eleven-year-old son bathing. Later, at the restaurant in his guesthouse, he recognizes the woman as his waitress. Her son is doing his homework at the bar. He strikes up a friendship with them, the boy, Jacek, translating between Martin and the mother, Ewa. The initial results show high levels of a dangerous chemical, and Martin warns the pair not to swim in the river anymore. On the last night of the field study, Ewa invites Martin for dinner. Jacek translates until the wine loosens Martin and Ewa’s tongues; it gets late; the boy falls asleep at the table. Martin leans forward to kiss Ewa, but she gently but firmly rejects him. The next morning, the final results come in from the lab back home. The new data contradicts the old: the chemical’s concentration is normal. Martin thinks about telling Ewa and Jacek it’s ok to swim again, but then he doesn’t. The road home follows the river; soon he is at the border. “His chest it tight with shame, but the border guard is waving him through now, and he is driving on again.”

Seiffert never names her countries—presumably Germany and the Czech Republic or Poland—and I like asking students to think about the effect of this decision. Borders in this story are at once porous, meaningless (they can’t stop pollution) and impermeable, effective (especially so for those who come from poorer parts of the world). ‘Field Study’ isn’t critical of science per se, but it rejects the belief that subjects can be kept rigorously separated from objects. In that sense, it is much more at ease with uncertainty (with mix and muddle) than its protagonist. I love teaching this story, because its straightforward syntax and “relatable” subject matter (they’re always fascinated by the scene of rejection) draw even recalcitrant students in, making them open to seeing how much there is to what appears a simple tale.

First published in Granta 81: Best of Young British Novelists 3, April 14 2003Collected in Field Study, Pantheon 2004

‘The Fight’ by Vladimir Nabokov, translated by Dmitri Nabokov

‘The Fight’ is a story from Nabokov’s Berlin period. Oddly structured, it begins with a lengthy description by the first-person narrator—an émigré in Berlin, presumably someone like Nabokov himself—of the excursions he regularly makes to a lake near the city, where he swims and lolls in the sun. There the narrator regularly sees an older man, with whom he can only haltingly converse, but who seems genial and pleasantly anarchic. Later, while strolling through an unfamiliar neighbourhood, he stops at a bar which, it turns out, the man, one Krause, owns. The narrator becomes a regular, and takes pleasure in watching the developing romance between Krause’s daughter and a young electrician named Otto. On a sultry day, with a storm about to break, the narrator watches as Krause and Otto argue over whether the latter, who thinks of himself as one of the family, should have to pay for his drinks. Matters escalate and in a matter of a sentence or two the men are fighting with bare fists on the street, to the glee of a crowd that has gathered from nowhere. Krause knocks the electrician out. The narrator vainly, rather heartlessly, attempts to comfort the girl with a kiss. And that’s it. The story’s over.
For me, ‘The Fight’ is a parody of the chart known to every high school student, Freytag’s Pyramid, the one that details initial exposition followed by gradually rising action leading to climax and descending to resolution. Instead of these hoary conventions, this story asks instead: In what way does a climactic action need to be prepared for? What happens if that action isn’t resolved?
There’s delight, too, in Nabokov’s language, nicely apparent in his son Dmitri’s translation: as a class, we always linger in wonder over the narrator’s description of a barfly with “appetizing folds of fat on his nape” and his offhanded revelation that the fight reminds him of “a splendid scuffle I had once had in a seaport-dive with a beetle-black Italian, during which my hand had somehow got into his mouth and I had fiercely tried to squeeze, to tear, the wet skin inside his cheek.” Beetle-blackSomehow. Decorous, mandarin Nabokov is, as always, unsettling and sordid.

First published in Russian in 1925. Published in English in The New Yorker, February 10, 1985Collected in The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, Knopf 1995

‘Pet Milk’ by Stuart Dybek

Dybek’s ‘Pet Milk’ is another meandering story that proceeds by association and only reveals itself to have any kind of narrative through-line towards its end. It begins with the narrator “drinking instant coffee and Pet milk, and watching it snow.” The way the artificial milk swirls in the coffee reminds him of his grandmother, who served it to her friends, and of the radio in her kitchen tuned to the Polish station “at the staticky right end of the dial” along with stations in Greek, Spanish, and Ukrainian, a multicultural medley that reminds him of a little Czech restaurant, the Pilsen, which he and his first serious girlfriend, Kate, used to frequent, where their favourite waiter would prepare a drink called a King Alphonse, in which crème de cacao is blended with heavy cream. And that memory reminds him of their date at the Pilsen for his twenty-second birthday. The couple, fresh out of college and launched into the world, but anticipating futures that won’t involve each other, get drunk and horny on champagne and oysters. In a frenzy of lust, they look for somewhere private—but all efforts are foiled, leaving them no option but to take the express train to Kate’s place in Evanston. On the train, they make their way into an empty conductor’s compartment, where the acceleration of the train mimics their passion.

Yet as befits this meandering and mediated story, the narrator can’t lose himself in the moment—he finds himself caught up in the expressions of the people waiting at the stations the express speeds by, captivated most of all by a high school kid who grins and waves at them. Even now, years later, the narrator remembers how he couldn’t help but imagine himself as that onlooker: “It was as if I were standing on that platform, with my schoolbooks and a smoke, on one of those endlessly accumulated afternoons after school when I stood almost outside of time simply waiting for a train, and I thought how much I’d have loved seeing someone like us streaming by.”
‘Pet Milk’ is a melancholy, generous story that has something to say—I’ve yet to quite figure out what—about our subjective sense of time passing and the difficulty of inhabiting a moment. I first came to this story when I was looking for something to pair with Guy de Maupassant’s ‘An Idyll,’ another remarkable story about an intimate encounter on a train (seriously, check it out [the story was chosen by Kate Clanchy for her Personal Anthology; read her take here – Ed.]), but I’ve come to love ‘Pet Milk’ for its own merits. It doesn’t hurt that students love it too. Those on the cusp of graduation, in particular, find this story almost unbearably resonant. 

First published in The New Yorker August 5, 1984. Collected in The Coast of Chicago, Knopf, 1990). Read the story here

‘Binocular Vision’ by Edith Pearlman

Edith Pearlman’s ‘Binocular Vision’ is a perfect little story. An unnamed narrator, a ten-year-old child living with parents and sibling in Connecticut in the late 1950s, borrows her father’s binoculars one December vacation and starts spying on the Simons, the next-door neighbours. Mrs. Simon is at home all day without much to do beyond tidying, running errands, and cooking supper. The most exciting part of Mrs. Simon’s day, and, before long, the narrator’s, is Mr. Simon’s return home from unspecified work. The narrator can’t see their greeting; the door is blocked from her view. But after dinner, the child watches as Mr. Simon reads the newspaper with great deliberation and Mrs. Simon knits and talks and laughs without pause.

School starts again, the narrator has less time to watch the Simons, even loses interest a little. But it still comes as a shock when two policemen knock at the door one February morning to ask that her father, a doctor, accompany them next door. When he returns he explains to his wife and children that Mr. Simon has committed suicide in his car. There follows a revelation that forces the child to reconsider everything she’d thought about the couple. And because Pearlman has kept retrospection to a minimum and aligned us closely with the child’s perspective (it’s a great story for teaching point of view), we are thrown for a loop too.

The narrator sees only what she wants to see, doesn’t see what the story, in retrospect, allows us to recognize: she has confused real lives, presumably rather desperate ones, for a show. She has no television, but she has had the Simons. My students are always ready to condemn the child for her presumption and ignorance. But before we condemn the narrator too quickly, before we judge her for projecting her own expectations on to others, before we conclude that the difference between understanding and seeing is the difference between adults and children, and that this child has seen everything but understood nothing—before doing so, I warn the class, let’s think about ourselves. Let’s remember our experience of reading the text. Let’s be mindful that we too made assumptions and saw only what we wanted to see. We’re adults. Yet we read the story, we saw everything, and we didn’t understand a damn thing. 

First published in Boston Globe Magazine, 1993. Collected in Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories, Lookout Books, 2011

‘The Kiss’ by Anton Chekhov, translated by Ronald Wilks

What would a class on the short story be without some Chekhov? I usually teach three favourites, ‘The Lady with the Little Dog,’ ‘The Darling,’ and the one I finally settled on for this list, ‘The Kiss.’ Coming as it does after Balzac’s ‘Sarrasine’ and Kipling’s ‘Mrs. Bathurst’ (wonderful stories I cut from this list with regret), ‘The Kiss’ is a lesson in how nothing much needs to happen in a story. Balzac and Kipling’s melodramatic plottiness contrasts with Chekhov’s lassitude, boredom, and melancholy.

My students and I spend a lot of time on a single passage, in which the protagonist, the hapless Staff-Captain Ryabovich, whose “lynx-like side whiskers and spectacles seemed to be saying ‘I’m the shyest, most modest, and most insignificant officer in the whole brigade!’”, has what the narrator calls “a little adventure.” Along with some other officers, Ryabovich has been invited to a party at a country house near the town where six battalions have put up for the evening. Too shy to dance, too clumsy to play billiards, Ryabovich wanders the house until he gets lost. Opening a door at random, he finds himself in a dark room, where he is astonished to hear a voice whisper “At last!” before he is embraced: “a burning cheek pressed against his and at the same time there was the sound of a kiss.”

We parse this unusual, almost synaesthetic description (why the sound of a kiss rather than a feeling?), and reflect on what follows it: the woman utters a cry, shrinks back in what Ryabovich is convinced is disgust, and rushes from the room. The rest of the story is an extended depiction of how a non-event, or, at best, near-event, can expand in fantasy, to the point of consuming a life. The story is full of people who can’t imagine that others don’t think the way they do, don’t fancy the same types of women or men they do, don’t tell the same sort of lies they do.

The ending offers a classically Chekhovian irony: Ryabovich is disabused of his fantasies, realizes what a fool he’s made of himself, resigns himself to the stupidity of the human experience, as endless and aimless as the water in a river purling against the piles of a hut. Or, at least, it seems he does. At the very end, though, he’s still telling himself stories of “how fate had accidentally caressed him.” The moral of the story is that we can’t help but make our lives into stories.

First published in Russian in New Times in 1887. Published in English in The Steppe and Other Stories, 1887 – 1891, Penguin 2001. Read the Constance Garnett translation here

‘The Blind Man’ by D. H. Lawrence

Lawrence’s stories are among the glories of 20th century English prose literature. I always include one or two on the syllabus. ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums,’ ‘The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter,’ and ‘Fanny and Annie’ (also known as ‘The Last Straw’) are some of my favourites. But once I decided to limit myself to one for this list, I knew I had to choose ‘The Blind Man.’ 

Isabel Pervin (based on Lawrence’s friend, the novelist Catherine Carswell) lives in seclusion with her husband, Maurice, a giant of a man who has been blinded in WWI. In the rainy dusk of a November day, Isabel sits waiting for the sound of wheels on the drive. Her cousin and dear friend, Bertie Reid, a nervous and ironic Scots barrister whom she has not seen for some time as she sensed her husband did not like him, is coming to visit. Isabel may connect these men, but the story is about what happens between them. Over the course of the evening, they “become friends,” an experience solidified when Maurice runs his hands over Bertie’s head, and asks Bertie to do the same to him, to touch his scarred eyes. Bertie does so unwillingly—the preternaturally sensitive Maurice doesn’t know of the other’s man reluctance (it’s stronger than that actually, it’s revulsion), unless he does. Everything depends on whether we think his exultant cry that they “know” one another is misguided or domineering. This is a marvelous story about the cruelty of intimacy. It’s also as alive and vivid as only Lawrence can be. In one indelible scene, Isabel seeks out Maurice in the stable. Her light barely breaks the pitch black of the roaring night:

Nothing came from the darkness. She knew the rain and wind blew in upon the horses, the hot animal life. Feeling it wrong, she entered the stable, and drew the lower half of the door shut, holding the upper part close. She did not stir, because she was aware of the presence of the dark hind-quarters of the horses, though she could not see them, and she was afraid. Something wild stirred in her heart.

Feeling it wrong. Presumably the clause refers to Isabel’s sense of the situation, the way the storm is, but shouldn’t be, blowing into the stable thanks to an open door. But maybe it’s a description of how she—and anyone lucky enough to have all their senses—fails at feeling. For me, that’s the quintessential Lawrentian predicament.

First published in English Review in July 1920. Collected in England, My England and Other Stories, Thomas Seltzer, 1922 and then many times, including in Selected Stories, Penguin, 2007. Read the story here

‘A Spring Morning’ by Ida Fink, translated by Madeline Levine and Francine Prose

As I’m sure this list has suggested, I’m no expert on the short story. If I’m an expert at anything it’s Holocaust literature. But I don’t usually teach this material in my class on the short story. Students struggle to make sense of Holocaust fiction without a lot of context this course can’t provide. But in recent years I have added Ida Fink’s ‘A Spring Morning’ to the syllabus, with good results. Fink was born in Zbarahz (then Poland, now Ukraine) in 1921 to a secular and accomplished family (her mother had a doctorate in the sciences). Her studies at the conservatory in Lvov (Fink was a pianist) came to an end with the beginning of the war. She was interned in the Zbarazh ghetto until 1942, when she and her sister acquired false papers, smuggled themselves out of the ghetto, and began a dangerous life as Ukrainian volunteer workers in Germany. After the war she returned to Poland before emigrating to Israel in 1957. There she began writing stories, but for decades no one would publish them. Today she is considered one of the major writers of the Shoah, her beautiful, enigmatic, and often very short stories earning praise for their depiction of the devastation wrought by the Nazis’ invasion of the Soviet Union and the trauma of survival.

In teaching ‘A Spring Morning’ I am guided by the Holocaust scholar Sara Horowitz’s influential reading of the story as an example of how literature challenges history. The story tells the events of one morning in an unidentified town much like the one Fink grew up in. At first, we see events through the eyes of a bystander, a former town official who watches the Nazis march the local Jewish population over a bridge and into a nearby forest, where, as he both knows and doesn’t know, they will be murdered in a mass execution. Incredulously he tells his cronies at the bar about what he overheard one of the victims say as the terrible cortege made its way across the bridge: “The water is the color of beer.” Abruptly we shift perspective, experiencing events through the eyes of Aron, the man on the bridge. We see his last conversation with his wife and small daughter, his desperate attempt to save the child by pushing her into a crowd gathered on the steps of a church, and his remark, on seeing the river turbulent after a night of rain and made to no one in particular, that the water is the color of beer, a moment the story explains with great pathos: “He was gathering up the colors and smells of the world that he was losing forever.” ‘A Spring Morning,’ then, gives us two stories: one that is possible but incomplete, compromised by a terrible misunderstanding (the bystander’s), and another that is impossible but complete (the victim’s—impossible because it’s from someone who is not alive to tell it). Fiction, in other words, can contribute to testimony in ways history cannot. I love all the stories on my list, but I wish above all that Fink would have more readers.

First published in Polish in 1983. Published in English in A Scrap of Time and Other Stories, Pantheon 1987. Read the story here

‘A Story of Stolen Salamis’ by Lydia Davis

On the first day of the semester I forego preliminaries like ice breakers and syllabus details and close read this wonderful little story, told in a brief paragraph. The narrator’s son’s Italian landlord in Brooklyn cures salamis in a shed behind the house. One night the salamis are stolen, but when the incident is written up in a magazine as a human-interest story, the article calls the salamis sausages. When shown the magazine, “the landlord was interested and pleased that the magazine had seen fit to report the incident, but he added, ‘They weren’t sausages. They were salamis.’” 

We consider the narrative use of indirection, the dual use of “story” in English to mean both fiction and fact, and the text’s shifting of emphasis away from what could have been a dramatic event to the nomenclature of what was stolen (less stolen and more salamis). But above all we consider precise and imprecise uses of language: the glib, almost clichéd language of the magazine writer against the landlord’s stoic integrity.

‘A Story of Stolen Salamis’ is a perfect way to get the class started because it’s such an elegant parable of interpretation, of how words matter, how we must always respect the specificity of whatever it is we’re interpreting. Like my other choices, this story helps me to undertake this daunting but—to me, and, sometimes, to my students—enlivening task.

First published at Five Dials. Collected in Can’t and Won’t, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014. Read the story here