‘Jesus Christ in Flanders’ by Honoré de Balzac

Balzac didn’t really write a Christmas story when he wrote his ‘Jesus Christ in Flanders’… but it stood in for one, once, most of a hundred years ago, when the tale itself was almost a hundred years old, for a couple hundred people on the Christmas card list of Bessie and Allen Lewis, Mary and George Grady, and Lydia and Warren Chappell. 

In 1928, Allen Lewis—an interesting artist associated with Stieglitz—made a woodcut of Balzac’s ship of storm-tossed sinners, and the three couples had the book privately printed. This wasn’t unheard of—if you watch for them, small private commemorative editions turn up. My wife has a copy of a Thomas Mann essay, ‘Sleep, Sweet Sleep’ printed for the friends of George Fleetwood Bromley in Christmas 1934. That isn’t a Christmas story, either.

Balzac’s story is simple: a group of pre-modern folks are taking the ferry back from the island of Cadzant to Ostend late in the day. The skies and sea are not propitious. They are a classic cross-section: a bishop, a soldier, a fine lady and her mother, a merchant, an old woman, a young mother, a feckless gallant, a sharp-eyed ship’s pilot who’s almost just a match for the storm that will engulf them all…as well as a stranger who boards at the last minute and disguised, but is, of course, Christ himself. The hijinks of sinners at judgment ensue…and are curiously moving, as such stories often are, whether or not we hold with the terms or cosmology of the judgments. 

It’s curious to realize that the story reads more like a Christmas tale today and in 1928 than it could’ve in 1831, as Dickens hadn’t yet rewired the Christmas tale to be a tale of worth and judgment. But that must’ve been in the minds of some or all of the members of the three couples who chose this story.

Moreover, although Balzac is temperamentally unsuited to writing about humility, he tries hard. He’s tripped up by the fact that he’s claiming for his tale a notable distinction: this is the story of the last manifestation of Christ on earth down to the present day. Why here? Why then? Why not there? Why not then? The answer is the same in any case: because Balzac.

This is not the Balzac you hear about via discussions of Benjamin and modernity, not the Balzac who is the jewel-in-the-crown of our idea of 19th century Paris, but instead the Balzac who was once as popular (in many editions) for his faux 16th century confections, his Droll Stories. We seem to have very little taste for them now. But to put them on like period clothes is to be shaped a little by them: I think of Maggie Cheung speaking about the cheongsams she wore in her incredible turn in In the Mood for Love, the way the dresses held her as part of the performance. That’s a bit of what I mean.

But wait…now my story of a story has a twist I didn’t foresee: I’ve trusted those three couples: the Lewises, the Gradys, and the Chappells to present the tale in full. They did not. Balzac wrote a tale that breaks neatly in half and they privately printed the first half, the last appearance of Christ on Earth, walking on water, rescuing the worthy and leaving footprints on a beach (footprints that were relics until, as Balzac has it, the French Revolution spilled across the border to Ostend and effaced them as just another piece of popery.)

I’ve just this minute discovered that in the full text, Balzac went on. He went into a second half of the story to have a narrator awaken in the in the light of the July Revolution of 1830. I have to stop typing this to read how the story I thought I knew… actually ends.

[Time passes. The snow outside the window remains blinding white, even in the absence of a visible sun. Our Christmas tree stands at attention. My coffee grows cold and then runs out entirely whilst I read, read a Balzac story on the screen of my phone in the strange December of 2020.]

In the second, broken-off half, the depressed narrator—depressed in the wake of the belated final fall of the Bourbon monarchy in the July Revolution of 1830—arrives at the church near Ostend, goes inside, treats us to an ekphrastic riff on church architecture and falls asleep. He dreams of an old woman who becomes a young woman: she leads him to a room in the church and delivers a stern message about the church. He responds strangely, and in kind. Then he’s back in the church, an old docent is locking up and kicks him out into the new world. He vows to defend the church in the world the Revolution, his revolution—whether he realizes it or not—has wrought.

In some ways, we have drifted into even greater shades of A Christmas Carol. Although I see no real threat from this bit of Balzac to that perpetual franchise. 

Just the same: Merry Christmas!

First published – as ‘Jésus-Christ en Flandre’ – 1831

Chosen by Drew Johnson. Drew’s stories have appeared in Harper’s, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Cupboard, Gulf Coast, New England Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere.

‘The Kimono’ by H. E. Bates

I have a strange hardback, The Best of H.E. Bates, published for the American market in 1963, with a preface from—of all the unlikely American writers to introduce H.E. Bates—Henry Miller. (It seems clear to me that the sorts of American readers who would’ve liked Bates would’ve turned tail at Henry Miller’s name, and Miller fans would’ve been nonplussed by Bates squarely-made, well-made, often rather straightforwardly English stories.)

I bought it more than twenty years ago on a summer’s day in Provincetown on Cape Cod. My not-yet-wife was then working as an au pair. Provincetown is of course an American vacation spot of long standing, a terminal vacation spot—you must go back the way you came—and the Cape is written about by writers as far from one another as Thoreau, Henry Beston, Cookie Mueller. So maybe the place of purchase is the only real reason why I thought of ‘The Kimono’ for this list. Or maybe I thought of this Bates story—the only one from that thick book to linger in my mind—because it’s a story that hinges on very hot weather. 

Or perhaps I’m sending it because it’s a story about people who are never really on holiday, and so for whom the idea of escape becomes unbearable. Arthur Lawson narrates: a very middle-of-the-road type from Nottingham, in great, big, new, vast 1911 London to interview with a firm of electrical engineers. Arthur becomes lost and goes into a shop for an ice in a drab part of London. In the shop there’s a woman bending over a broken cooler. She’s wearing a poorly fastened kimono. That’s all I can say—I’ve already said too much. But I’ve never forgotten it, and never let the book slip away, entirely on account of that one story. Or maybe when and where I bought it, which, at this remove amount almost to the same thing.

First published in 1936 and collected in Something Short and Sweet, Jonathan Cape, 1937 and widely thereafter. Picked by Drew Johnson. Drew’s fiction has appeared in Harper’sVQRThe Literary ReviewNew England Review and elsewhere. You can read his full Personal Anthology here.


So many other wonderful stories crowded round these dozen, trying to get in. A few of those managed a mention when I should’ve been devoting space to the stories actually included. I’ve puzzled over all of these, one way or another—some for a very long time and some much more recently. Probably it’s the duration and/or the magnitude of the puzzling that was the determining factor.

What then is the unifying theme? Maybe that formal error and the way a story can accrete and warp beautifully around it better serves the short story form than the form itself? That perfect short stories are not all that rare: we just think they are because we forget them: because a perfect execution of this form happens to be exceptionally forgettable. Something else is necessary. Or, as the painter James Ensor wrote

Fault is multiple, it is life, it reflects the personality of the artist and his character; it is human, it is everything, it will redeem the work.

Anyway, as a reader? I always hope the writer will follow the thing leading them astray.

‘Cavalry Story’ by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, translated by Joel Rotenberg

To describe this tale as a day-in-the-life of Anton Lerch, a sergeant in a European cavalry unit in 1848 makes it sound like a prosaic, slice-of-life historical fiction in which we’ll happily come away with a little bit of knowledge about how to sit a saddle, polish a cuirsass, or post a picket. But although the story has a certain mundane drudgery pulsing in back of things, it’s much more a dream of living. Our man Anton is full of wanting, but not of ideas about wanting—and his world moves in a series of terrible images that are like nonverbal riddles, but that are also never less than real—despite the way they come in and go out like the weather.

Maybe that’s the best way to talk about this story: after all, weather is pretty surreal, in the original sense of that word as an almost unbearable, heightened reality. If I could erase all your memory and understanding of what the sky does in a given day, then sit you by a window before dawn, you’d be shivering with fear by noon. That’s what this story is like: the world as if we’d never encountered it, told in a road-not-taken-on-the-way-to-Kafka style.

A long while back, a returning traveller brought me a postcard with Hugo von Hofmannsthal on the front, looking from his desk toward the camera, a line of his (still in German) printed below. The gist of that line—as best as my poor German can make out—is that there are some words that hit like hammers, but there are other words, and those words we swallow like fish, and those fish swim on without our realizing. Even if I learn someday that that’s way, way off, I’ve been living with that idea of Hofmannsthal so long I know I’ll never shake it.

‘Cavalry Story’ is made out of both kinds of words.

Written in 1898. Included in The Lord Chandos Letter and other writings, NYRB Classics, 2005

‘An Anonymous Story’ by Anton Chekhov

Most of the stories here stand out as strange or memorable even within a body of work I love, but sometimes they’re the only story by a given writer I really remember or return to.  If it’s the latter, and everyone does it, and every does it to the same story… it’s a pretty tricky dynamic. A short story writer can accidentally becomeone story. With a writer who is many things, like Chekhov, that’s a kind of death. Long ago, after a really grim, famous-writer-craft-talk on ‘Lady with Lapdog’ I promised myself I’d never teach that story and I’ve avoided rereading it: my life in Chekhov has been blissful and varied and surprising ever since.

This story, ‘An Anonymous Story’, is a long, long first-person tale, and a great departure from what we think we know about this Russian. In this, Chekhov is a smirking, slippery writer, who would likely be appalled by the decorum of craft that’s crept up around him.

(Another strange writer, the Russian-born Englishman, William Gerhardie, author of the first study of Chekhov in English, was puzzled that we so often read Chekhov’s humor only as sadness.)

‘An Anonymous Story’—also known as ‘The Story of an Unknown Man’—is a comic set-up played straight: a revolutionary operative, seeking to gain information on a high government official, takes a job as the high official’s son’s valet… and promptly falls in love with the son’s mistress. Everything goes awry, of course, and leads us to a beautiful, terrible ending where the absurdity of all that has gone before is reaffirmed and redeemed in the space of a page and a half, or even just a paragraph.

My chest tightens thinking about that ending, which recently came to mind as I read the close of Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, holding us in a moment that is much in the same register.

First published in Russian as ‘The Story of an Unknown Man’ in Russkaya Mysl, February and March 1893. Translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky included in The Complete Short Novels, Everyman’s Library, 2004

‘Reverse Bug’ by Lore Segal

This is a light, even delicate story about a device that unstoppably projects the screams of the 20th Century into the present—and the present is a prim academic research center at a small college, the sort of place where the study of horror neatly fits into two sessions in the morning and two in the afternoon, with an hour or so for lunch.

Lore Segal, her own remarkable life aside, is a kind of anthropologist and even comedian of trauma, though to read her accounts of what people are like in the long wake of history is to be forced to imagine them as figures in Commedia del’Arte prints—enacting recognizable scripts in an almost mechanical way. Ilka Weisz (neé Weissnix), Segal’s heroine and alter ego over several of her works, teaches a class of multi-lingual, multi-trauma students who are themselves a kind of motley of the awful 20th Century (and it’s interesting to think about Segal’s work alongside Dubravka Ugresic’s The Ministry of Pain).

Wondering what makes the lightness is probably the thing that brings me back to this story again and again: Segal is such a superficially nice writer that it’s easy to glide past the things she talks about that almost no other writer bothers with: in another book, Ilka listens “tenderly” to a man urinating in the next room.

In this story, the director of the center, Leslie Shakespeare, has to ask the ushers to remove the son who can’t or won’t shut up about his parent’s political murder outside La Paz:

Ahmed? Is Ahmed in the hall? Ahmed, would you be good enough to remove the unquiet gentleman as gently as necessary force will allow. Take him to my office please, and I will meet with him after the symposium.

First published included in The New Yorker, 1 May 1989. Collected in Shakespeare’s Kitchen, The New Press, 2007. You can listen to Jennifer Egan read it here

‘Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows’ by John Keene

This is the story as chronicle, a nobody-but-John-Keene dive into history, coming back with something that could sit alongside Kleist’s ‘The Earthquake in Chile’ but is many times longer, fuller, more drenched in language, and with all the twists and turns fully delineated and lived in. And Keene takes on events where we, he, and his characters are really in for it. Here we live the Haitian Revolution. And that’s just for starters. How’d you like to follow the line that Keene draws from there to a convent in Kentucky? To read this story is to be so long in coming to the ending that the beginning is like a strange half-memory. How did I get here? Where do we know each other from?

A quick aside to mention a story that lives as fully in its odd history as this one: ‘That Gagarin’ by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Both stories come to me when I read stories wearing their historical trappings too lightly, so that they are really just any short story… in period dress. Keene and Krasznahorkai both bother to live their tales in language and habits of thought that tell us we’re doing things differently now, here in the past.

Included in Counternarratives, New Directions/Fitzcarraldo, 2015

‘A Village in the Big City’ by Can Xue, translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping

I’ve read that when some critics found out that Can Xue was a woman—Can Xue is pen name: a tricky term that can mean the leftover snow grimy on the roadside as well as the leftover snow that caps a mountain—they stopped trying to understand her fiction and simply pronounced her insane.

Her fiction—long or short—breezes past sense but never stops presenting recognizable scenes and characters. Talking animals may appear, but they never feel twee. This particular story is narrated by a nephew who dreams, fitfully, of larger things and a different life, but instead feels bound by family. That family exists almost entirely in a capricious uncle who lives in a housing compound called Village in the Big City. The whole story is a comedy of family whiplash enacted in tiny episodes whose terms are quickly set and discarded, recalled then violated.

There’s something about Can Xue’s particular brand of non sequitur that reminds me of a movie like Celine and Julie Go Boating… but also of a book like One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Her narratives are patient and elliptical, but what she gathers in and drops at the readers’ feet looks like it just woke up and has been caught red-handed.

In Vertical Motion, Open Letter, 2011

‘The Hermit’s Story’ by Rick Bass

This story approaches the extremities and possibilities of both the singular tale and the dreamscape, and locates them in a remote valley in the American West before centering that valley and reaching out farther and farther into an ephemeral, snowy, icy space I won’t spoil by explaining here.

Bass is a fine writer, but I walk around and in this one story as a thing apart from all his work—and most other short stories. There are so many things here you could imagine someone going on about as “wrong”: the title, the overelaborate and obviously reverse-engineered narration, the disarray of the whole story around its one central story-within-a-story, a few asides that add nothing concrete and never come back round.

I’ve taught this for quite some time and (more than anything I’ve taught) students remember it and later bring it up on their own. A gone-a-decade student recently informed me she keeps my course packet for her annual reread of ‘The Hermit’s Story’.

First published in The Paris Review, Summer 1998. Collected in The Hermit’s Story, Houghton Mifflin, 2002

‘Interregnum’ by Naiyer Masud, translated by Muhammad Umar Menon

I find I get more pleasure reading around among the many offshoots of Kafka that rereading Kafka himself.  Can Xue has Kafka in back of her somewhere, but Naiyer Masud’s first-person dreamscapes are tied a little too easily to the fact that he’s a translator, into Urdu, of Kafka. Lucknow exists in Masud’s stories as a kind of isolation chamber of the old in the new, and perhaps a particular, older Islamic cultural life in contemporary India. There’s a tremendous sense of stagnation and ferment and of how memory and consciousness are impacted by these, like water passing through rock.

‘Interregnum’ is a father-son story, of patrimony and instruction and resistance to both. The narrator puzzles over what and how and who is teaching him, and over the traces of his father, a mason, in the restored decoration of the city.

Someone once noted that Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mister Lawrence is more or less the only POW movie where the whole story doesn’t revolve around escape. I don’t know exactly why that seems like the only thing for me to say about Masud’s work and his Lucknow, a city that to my knowledge was his lifelong residence, but I’m going to go with it.

In Essence of Camphor, The New Press, 1999

‘Ark of Bones’ by Henry Dumas

This story first came to me by way of an aside in an essay by Hilton Als, and if Als—a master of so many short forms—admires a thing I head right for it. I’d like to put in a preorder for an imagined future Taschen edition of his Instagram posts.

And yet I find it hard to write about Dumas and, in particular, ‘Ark of Bones’. Dumas was shot and killed by a NYC Transit Police Officer in 1968 and left behind a strange, extraordinary, and only partially realized body of work. I’ve published one overlong essay on Dumas: looking back on it, I wonder if not being able to figure out what makes this story tick sent me down so many of that essay’s cul-de-sacs.

Fish-hound and Headeye and the supernatural ship they find on the river, the ‘Ark of Bones’ are so… real, somehow, as plausible as the river or the South through which it flows. So, too, the river flowing through this writer’s unfinished novel, Jonoah and the Green Stone, is as full of incident and as fearful a world as in Melville’s The Confidence Man or Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, and seems to me more like those than Twain’s river.

All I know for sure is how inexorable I find the opening line of this story: “Headeye, he was following me.”

Included in Echo Tree: The Collection Short Fiction of Henry Dumas, Coffee House Press, 2003, available via The National Humanities Resource Center Toolbox here

‘June Recital’ by Eudora Welty

If Chekhov is guarded by the ossified ‘Lady with Lapdog’, Welty has been obscured behind two stories. One, like so much of Faulkner’s short fiction, is as much Saturday Evening Post as Welty: the folksy-as-hell tour de force ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’.

Welty wrote the other story, ‘Where is the Voice Coming From?’ late in the day and the story is justly famous as a strange footnote to history (the murder of Medgar Evers by Byron de la Beckwith), but has also become, or at least it seems so to this Mississippian, a kind of cover for not really talking about Welty’s racism—not in the way we’ve engaged with Faulkner’s and begun to talk about O’Connor’s.

Welty’s racism is all the more important and problematic, because it is so casual, and, comparatively, perniciously moderate, even as it is shot through some of the most beautiful short stories ever written. The Golden Apples is a collection of excruciating beauty, and treats all of the world as strange and terrible and inexorable and small.

In particular, ‘June Recital’ reaches its long arm round several dozen people and gathers them into a dance they’re unaware of, we’re unaware of, something that ‘The Dead’ alone of Joyce’s stories manages, but in a true third person that decenters any possible Gabriels and leaves the story hovering in collective forgetting, the real truth of the back-there-where-the-mule-died of Southern literature is that the fabric of what is known by everyone about everyone is always slipping out of memory. The collective memory is an act of collective amnesia. I’d like to say that the racism in this and other of the stories is a deliberate examination, but it isn’t.

Peter Orner once said that Welty was so clearly the greatest American short story writer that the question wasn’t even interesting to him. Without quite agreeing to that, exactly, I have never found a writer that allowed me to disagree.

In The Golden Apples, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1949

‘Dead Memories… Dead Dreams’ by Kathleen Collins

One of my favorite interviews with the late, great Mavis Gallant is enlivened by a generational paradox—the interviewee, a fine writer, seems to believe in very narrow limits of external identity (in whatever form) to define characters and who they are and what they’ll do: characters are individuals. The tension of the interview is that Gallant doesn’t appear to believe that the force of the individual can push back quite so hard. In a story like ‘Grippes and Poche’ Gallant makes people and story out of facts and doesn’t rate consciousness as highly as we’ve come to expect in short fiction. We like our characters as more acting than acted upon—and ultimately that determines more than it should who is allowed to be a character in contemporary fiction.

Line-by-line, I’d compare the rediscovered posthumous collection of Kathleen Collins’ stories more to someone like Leonard Michaels, but in her understanding of character, she is more like Gallant than not, and her stories are full of intractable fact warping experience. The last story in her posthumous collection, ‘Dead Memories… Dead Dreams’ is a clockwork nightmare of colorism within the African-American bourgeoisie… butthe people are not automatons butneither do they escape but neither do they stop being individuals butthat individuality is neither vantage nor panacea.

This is a story of people who don’t jump the tracks. A daughter of a dark-skinned, poor father and a well-off, light-skinned mother, the narrator must watch all of these relatives as stars in their courses. That their certainty is itself a kind of armor against the unspoken, larger prejudices only makes this story (told without a single white character) all the larger.

As writers enamored of consciousness on the page, we too often let our characters think their way to a perspective that sometimes even saves them from their situation, but at least offers them the grace of understanding. We become their deus ex machina by so constantly shortcutting to the moment when they become their own.

So that as the narrator’s father grinds on in his groove, committed to the understanding that he has always had that has never benefitted him, Collins gets at something about how rare the rational actor actually is in the world.

In Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? Ecco, 2016

‘The Rightangled Creek’ by Christina Stead

I’ve written about this novella—subtitled as a sort of ghost storyelsewhere. But I can’t shake the fact of ‘The Rightangled Creek’ enough to leave it out. Sometimes I think of Christina Stead as George Eliot, but angry in a 20thCentury mode. Like Eliot, she throws out characters in droves, and yet the comparison is not right, somehow.

The Man Who Loved Children is both gateway and masterpiece, but there’s more to her work than this one book, not least this sixty-page novella of a country getaway for leftist intellectuals whose every plan and conceit will be knocked down in turn. We get the endless Stead torrent of people and talk and event giving way to event—in succession rather than in development. That last is perhaps Stead’s most unnerving commitment to true realism: things happen one after another with no sense of consequence or pattern or control. Out of the torrent, we pluck snatches of lives coming unglued: the leftist couple in rural retreat doing everything for their beloved child… who is a sort of Stalinist commissar and a terror to the locals. The ghosts of the house. The enthusiastic, back-to-the-earth twins who view poison ivy as a superstition. Stead never relents. That’s part of the marvel of her work and part of why—I think—it remains a lonely outpost.

In The Puzzleheaded Girl, Holt Rinehart Winston, 1967