‘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)