‘Summer Night’ by Elizabeth Bowen

* Picked by Jonathan Gibbs

This is, structurally, rather an awkward story, that sets up a small cabal of characters in a tight little tangle of relationships, and then develops them only halfway along what might be called a plot before getting bored. (And it’s true, they’re mostly quite boring, as characters.) But Bowen’s writing throughout is characteristically luminous – though the light it gives is that of the moon, rather than the sun, even when the sun is out, as it is at the start of this story. And it’s that prose that makes this story worth the reading, equally crisp and arch, a mandarin version of the style that Muriel Spark would push through a nervous breakdown, to become something more aggressively strained. Here’s the opening paragraph, which evokes a summer evening so forcefully that you could keep yourself warm in deepest February just by reading it out loud.

As the sun set its light slowly melted the landscape, till everything was made of fire and glass. Released from the glare of noon, the haycocks now seemed to float on the aftergrass: their freshness penetrated the air. In the not far distance hills with woods up their flanks lay in light like hills in another world ­­– it would be a pleasure of heaven to stand up there, where no foot ever seemed to have trodden, on the spaces between the woods soft as powder dusted over with gold. Against those hills, the burning red rambler roses in cottage gardens along the roadside looked earthy – they were two near the eye.

First published in Look at All Those Roses, Gollancz, 1941, and collected in The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Penguin, 1983

* Jonathan Gibbs is the author of two novels, Randall, and The Large Door, and a book-length poem, Spring Journal. He curates A Personal Anthology. You can read his individual Personal Anthology, plus other occasional contributions, here.

‘The Apple Tree’ by Daphne du Maurier

Not a Christmas story, and it starts in spring, but it ends in winter, as retired City financier ‘Buzz’ (we never find out his real name) finds himself the victim of a strange old apple tree in his garden orchard, that seems to have taken on the vindictive personality of his dead wife, the equally long-suffering and insufferable Midge. It’s a fine predictable ghost story of sorts, and prickly and sad about a painfully stuck marriage, but it’s the later pages, with deep snowfall and freezing temperatures, that make this a perfect curl-up-by-the-fire winter’s story – if they didn’t show up quite how historical such things are. I remember whited-out fields and knee-deep drifts in the southern England of my childhood, but my own children only really know snow as something far less bountiful, rarely producing more than a few scraped-together snowballs. They’ve tobogganed, yes, but they’ve had to pick where to steer so as not to go straight through the snow to grass. So yes, a sad story is best for winter, but the saddest story of all is the story of how winter has changed in this country, in a single lifetime. 

First collected in The Apple Tree, Gollancz, 1952, which collection is now available as a Virago Modern Classic, retitled The Birds and Other Stories

Chosen by Jonathan Gibbs. Jonathan is the author of two novels, Randall and The Large Door, and a book-length poem written under lockdown in 2020 – and modelled on Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal – called Spring Journal (CB Editions). He teaches Creative Writing at City, University of London, and curates the A Personal Anthology project. You can read his full Personal Anthology and other seasonal contributions here.. 

‘The Colossus of Rhodes’ by Chris Power

There is more than one summer-themed story in Chris Power’s sparkling debut collection. I could just have easily picked ‘Innsbruck’, the second of the three linked stories about a woman called Eva that give the book not just its spine but also its central nervous system – but I’ve gone for ‘The Colossus of Rhodes’. Power splits the story between a recent family holiday (his unnamed narrator is married, with two young children) and a long-distant one, when he was ten years old. There are delicately sketched pen-portraits of the various family members, and a couple of luminous ‘spots-of-time’ moments that suck the story into them like a whirlpool*, but what I really love is the elegant way it unpacks itself at the end, making this the perfect story for our autofictional times. It doesn’t matter how closely Power’s ‘real’ life and experiences might happen to align themselves with his narrator’s fictional ones; what matters is how deftly he teases away at that border, and the conundrum it poses, which is where we seem to be looking, most often and most closely, for our meaning in literature just now.

* One of these moments, serendipitously enough, makes direct reference to another story picked in this summer special. You’ll have to read it to find out which.

In Mothers, Faber, 2018. Chosen by Jonathan Gibbs. Read Jonathan’s Personal Anthology here

‘Christmas Fugue’ by Muriel Spark

I suppose I should really be including Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales as my seasonal selection, as that’s the book that comes out with the decorations every December, with its wonderful illustrations by Edward Ardizzone, but I couldn’t resist this weird late intervention by Dame Muriel. ‘Christmas Fugue’ has a British woman called Cynthia flying home from Australia to the UK on Christmas Day, having just split up with her boyfriend. There is a weird atmosphere on the half-empty plane, and Cynthia gets chatted up by Tom, a co-pilot on the flight with seemingly not much to do. Unusually for Spark characters, they have sex (during a stopover in Bangkok): “They made love in a beautifully appointed cabin with real curtains in the windows – unrealistic yellow flowers on a white background. Then they talked about each other, and made love again.” That last line, to me, is utterly characteristic of Spark’s writing. To read her is to find yourself, over and over again, teetering on the brink of an abyss that opens up without warning between the reader and the characters they have been tricked into believing in. She induces vertigo, is the best way I can think of to put it. Tom proposes to Cynthia on the flight, but when she gets back to the UK there is more than one surprise waiting for her. Not Christmassy in the usual sense, but very in tune with the weird out-of-time spirit of the time of year when you’re not in the bosom of your family.

First published in Country Life in 2000. Available in The Complete Short Stories, Viking, 2001. Chosen by Jonathan Gibbs

‘Heavy Weather’, by Helen Simpson

In a way this was the story that launched me into adulthood, that gave me, aged 21, an idea of what being a grown-up might be like. It’s as bald a piece of domestic fiction as you could imagine: a couple (Jonathan – ha! – and Frances) are on holiday in Dorset with their two young children. They, Frances especially, are battered by tiredness: tired through lack of sleep, tired with each other, and tired with the limitations placed on selfhood by the mere fact of having children. This all comes to a head when Frances discovers that Jonathan, sent out on a food shopping trip in the car, has pulled over in a layby to read a few pages of their beloved Hardy. “’You’ve been reading!’ said Frances accusingly. ‘When did you read?’” The story is funny and brutal about the trials of parenthood, but ends on a moment of affirmation that manages not to seem cheap. I now have three children, and have lived out pretty much everything that happens in this story. It’s just possible that Simpson, sublime proselytizer of the everyday, is to blame.

(first read in the second Granta Best of Young British Novelists. Also available in the collection Dear George and in Simpson’s selected stories, A Bunch of Fives. Available to Granta subscribers here)

‘Dance in America’, by Lorrie Moore

If I had to choose a favourite story – the one that is closest to my heart – then this would be it. I often set it for Creative Writing students, to see how they cope with its sentimentality, for although Moore majors in irony, she can also tip over into the whimsical. This story walks the line between the two with grace and ease. If ‘Heavy Weather’ is pro-family propaganda that would have made de Gaulle proud, then ‘Dance in America’ cheerleads for the virtue of art – although it takes an interesting route to get there. Its narrator is a dance teacher (single, no children) who drops in on an old friend, Cal, and his wife, and their son, Eugene, who has cystic fibrosis and is likely to die young. Moore gives precocious Eugene most of the best lines, though Cal has the best line of all. ‘“The arts are so nice and wonderful. But really: I say, let’s give all the money, every last fucking dime, to science.”’ Looking at the narrator, with her failing career, her chronic self-absorption and self-deprecation, it’s hard not to agree. But Moore shows how art – and art of the most homely and pedestrian kind – can pay its way, even if she can’t resist stealing the narrator’s happy ending out from under her.

(read in Moore’s collection Birds of America, also in her 2008 Collected Stories. You can hear Louise Erdrich read and discuss it on the New Yorker fiction podcast here)

‘Sredni Vashtar’, by Saki

If my first two stories were classic literary fiction, replete with the tropes and trappings of the genre, then this is different: short story as ritual incantation. It’s a dark little parcel of viciousness dressed up in the scantest narrative and characterisation. There is no weight to the set-up (sickly boy, living with his strict female older cousin, worships a pet polecat he keeps in the garden shed), no moral strength to the pay-off beyond its own pleasure in destruction. Another story I loved as a child was Kipling’s ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’ (brave mongoose saves human child) and this is its evil – and better – twin, a fever dream of violence and revenge.

(read in an old hardback Saki given me by my grandmother. Available in any number of editions and anthologies, and online, including here)

‘Loon Man’, by John Edgar Wideman

I read this story in a book of Wideman’s stories I was sent to review for my student newspaper. I’d never heard of Wideman, and his name isn’t much mentioned today. Although I eventually lost my copy, or gave it away, a couple of its stories have stayed with me over the years, especially one I remembered as ‘Loon Lake’: a haunting thing set somewhere in rural North America – the heart of the heart of the country – with the calls of loons (divers) echoing around remote shacks at night. I reunited myself with the collection via the internet, and although there are other stories in it I now think are better (‘Across the Wide Missouri’ for instance), it’s ‘Loon Man’ that belongs in my anthology, for the way it lodged in my consciousness and coloured my thoughts for more than twenty years. “On full moon nights the loons howl like crazed dogs.”

(first published in the U.S. in All Stories are True; the same title was used for his Picador UK collected stories, which is where I read it)

‘A Horse for the Sun’, by U.R. Anantha Murthy

I read this story when I was studying with Amit Chaudhuri – who edited the anthology it comes from – at the University of East Anglia, and I found it moving then, as I find it moving now. It’s an enquiry into modernity and authenticity, and into the possibility of ever ‘going back’. The narrator is an Indian writer, thoroughly urbanized, who visits his childhood village and bumps into an old schoolfriend, Venkata. Always a clown as a youngster, Venkata has grown into a holy fool, a village idiot who acts as a herbalist, amateur nurse to the ungrateful sick, and butt for his exasperated wife and volatile son. His forte is the oil bath, an intense Ayurvedic massage, which the narrator submits to with embarrassment. “Is he a madcap or a hypocrite or a scraggly-bearded saint?” he wonders, as Venkata dances around him, anointing him and drumming out intricate rhythms on his head and body. As with Simpson’s story, the epiphany is minor key, and doubtless temporary, but it is enough to make the reader squint anew at their own assumptions. The title refers to the Kannada name for a grasshopper.

(read in The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature, where it is translated from the Kannada by Manu Sherry and A.K. Ramanujan.)

‘The Cows’, by Lydia Davis

In which Davis (or her narrator, though it matters not a jot) presents a series of statements and questions about three cows that live in a field near her house. At times it seems like an exercise in Wittgensteinian philosophy, at times like a children’s book for adults, at times like the painful birth throes of nature writing. All three possibilities, devolve, of course to the simple, stringent testing of words against the world that is Davis’s stock-in-trade. Not a story by any of your usual parameters, but utterly beguiling.

(first printed as a chapbook, but I read it in Electric Literature Vol 2; also collected in Can’t and Won’t)

‘Caterpillars’, by James Lasdun

The figure of the Bad Dad turns up pretty frequently in literature, though often in the form of an apologia: it’s hard, being a Bad Dad; Bad Dads are misunderstood. Or else their badness is somehow resolved into comedy. Sometimes, however, you come across a Bad Dad story that you can’t look away from, that you have to read through your fingers. This is one of those. There is no redemption for Craig when, out on a walk with his mopey son and increasingly uncertain new girlfriend, he takes umbrage at a group of people who aren’t playing by his personal Countryside Code, and sets a trap for them that backfires horribly. The horror and punishment is so subdued you might not think much of it if you hadn’t already seen the like of it at close hand. At very close hand, if you see what I’m saying.

(First read in Granta 104: Fathers. Also collected in It’s Beginning to Hurt. Granta subscribers can read it here)

‘The Eggy Stone’, by Tessa Hadley

An exquisite short story – exquisite in its shortness, and its completeness. Hadley gives us the famous short-storian “glimpse” (c.f. VS Pritchett, David Miller), only here it is a glimpse into the past, a shutter opening onto childhood and then abruptly slamming shut again. A school camping trip to the seaside leads to a brief, intense friendship between the narrator and the Cool Girl of the class – a friendship entirely predicated on the Eggy Stone, picked up at random from the beach and turned by the two girls into a small-scale cult. They sing to it, sleep with it, and pass it between them like a talisman. There is something sinister in all this: the story, you think, could easily end up like ‘Shredni Vashtar’, with an act of terrible violence, but it doesn’t. The cult of the Eggy Stone ends as suddenly as it started, and the friendship melts away like snow in springtime, leaving nothing behind.

(in Sunstroke, also available on the Guardian website here)

‘Octet’, by David Foster Wallace

This is Wallace at his po-mo-est. It takes the form of a series of ‘Pop Quizzes’ sketching out scenarios for unrealized stories, complete with fatuous pop-psychology questions for the reader. It has footnotes. Sometimes very long footnotes. And it conducts a commentary on its own performance that takes up-its-own-arse-ness to a whole new level. But it shows what makes Wallace so essential as a writer: his immense psychological acuity – and I mean immense to the point of freakishness. No writer since Muriel Spark has been so adept at putting her characters on a skewer – the thinnest, sharpest, most surgically precise skewer imaginable – (and of course the author is just as much a character as anyone). That said, Wallace does it with more compassion than Spark. And he does it even when the characters have none of the heft and texture expected in literary fiction, or fiction of any kind. They don’t even have names. All they have is their problems. No, the pyrotechnics are smokescreen. The story is all about the pain and nausea inherent in self-consciousness.

(in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men)

‘Hugh Lomax’, by Bridget Penney

“Let me tell you about something that happened a few years ago.” This is how Penney’s story begins, and I’ll say as little about the rest of it as possible. It’s one of those oblique, autumnal stories that work best on their own, subtle and unhurried terms: subtle and unhurried, but no less sly for that. It will help if your relationship to books and book people – ­– horrid term – is a sympathetic one. If you’ve never lingered over secondhand book stalls (“Desolation Angels sells, and I replace it with Carlos Castaneda”), if you’ve never read to the end the obituary of a half-forgotten writer you never knew in the first place, if you’ve never listened to and loved a Backlisted podcast, then this might not be the story for you. But if you have, then it might be, and perhaps we could be friends.

(in Gorse 6)