‘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.

Introduction

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