“Boy, I’ve got plenty to say. You should have heard those Christians singing.” William Saroyan infiltrated my bookshelves via an anthology I’d purchased because it included work by another now-neglected author. Oh, the unexpected rewards of completism. Leafing through the book, I found ‘Christians Singing’: four wondrous pages, narrated in the voice quoted above. The story is not explicitly set at Christmas time; maybe it’s not, maybe it doesn’t matter. The unabashedly sentimental point is that the singers in question are out making their annual attempt to raise donations, singing songs about walking with Jesus and the like. “I don’t want to convert anybody to anything,” the narrator assures you. “Boy,” though, he sure feels bad for lying to the Christian girl who comes to his door about being broke. “I had seventy-eight cents on the table upstairs in my room.” Scrooge in miniature. Saroyan’s gift to you.
First published in Inhale and Exhale, Random House, 1936. Collected in Best Stories of William Saroyan, Faber & Faber, 1945
Chosen by Michael Caines. Michael works at the Times Literary Supplement and is founding editor of the Brixton Review of Books. He is also the author of Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 2013) and the editor of a TLS bicentennial celebration of Jane Austen.
You can read Michael’s own Personal Anthology here
What a dauntingly brilliant series this is. All that I can contribute to it, I think, is the following clutch of recommendations – which is, alas, merely a list of stories that have troubled, or continue to trouble, me. That have troubled me for two days or two months or two years or two decades. That will trouble me, I suspect, for a good while yet. Admittedly, the trouble is sometimes an entirely pleasurable one. And this is part of what short stories are about, perhaps. You could say. Even so. I am – you know – troubled.
And that’s just by short stories.
“The Old Testament Scriptures end with a terrible word. This word no polite language of modern times can ever soften . . . .” T. F. Powys’s power over me is something remarkable. He often writes about pariahs of one sort of another; I feel that if wasn’t one already, I become one, and a complaisant one at that, when I read him. He wrote many fine stories and lived in a world of his own. One anecdote has it that, when he was eventually persuaded to take a ride in a motor vehicle, for all the wonder and speed of the experience, he merely commented, with the fluttering visions revealed by the vehicle’s headlamps, that travel by such means must have been hell for lepidopterists. (Also recommended: the novels Mr Weston’s Wine and Unclay, as well as Powys’s various story collections.) ‘Mock’s Curse’ is the story of two brothers, John and James, and how they fall out.
From Mock’s Curse: Nineteen stories, edited by Elaine and Barrie Mencher, Brynmill Press, 1995)
“I was thinking how lucky they were to live at this moment when the whole country and the world would see a change momentous enough for myth.” The story (the story? one of the stories?) is that South Africa gave up on the nefarious idea of apartheid in the early 1990s. And that that process of surrender took a few years. Rose Rappoport suggests that history is less willing to play along with human whim than we might hope. It is narrated from the point of view of someone returning to South Africa after some time, a considerable time, abroad. Black and white remains fixedly black and white. There is a long way to go. It reminds me of both a period of grand political change in my own lifetime; and also, somewhat more trivially, of my local library, since that is where I came across Rappoport’s work in the first place. Nobody had ever recommended her, written about her at me, or anything like that. Gor’ bless the British library system.
First published 1998. Collected in In Court, Penguin, 2007
“It was the first time since Mary’s girlhood that she had been in a library which was the possession of and the expression of the tastes of a single person.” Public libraries are all very well, but, alas, I reserve especial interest and (often) admiration for other people’s personal libraries. Dorothy Edwards has the female protagonist of this story enter such a library, and it is as quietly astonishing a scene as one could wish for. I like this Dorothy Edwards. ‘La Penseuse’ is a story of three intelligent, interesting people who grow close because they live in the same Welsh village; then, who would have thought it, things change. It is both sad and happy. I am not sure I will ever get over it, nor Edwards’s way with telling the story in the first place.
from Rhapsody, Parthian, 1927
“She was always referred to as The Creature by the townspeople, the dressmaker for whom she did buttonholing, the sacristan, who used to search for her in the pews on the dark winter evenings before locking up, and even the little girl Sally, for whom she wrote out the words of a famine song.” Look, I’m sorry about this. But I hope that the quality of the stories I’m talking about here, should you actually wish to read them for yourself, will justify my selection, and really, well, really that’s the only criterion, isn’t it? (Isn’t it . . . ?) This story by Edna O’Brien concerns the narrator herself (I think it’s herself) and her putting things right. Thank the Lord for people trying to put things right.
from A Scandalous Woman, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990
“The heat, as the taxi spiralled the narrow hill bends, became more evident.” Apart from anything else, I like my copy of this story collection by Penelope Mortimer, from 1966 (the collection first being published six years earlier). It features, on the front cover, a fine monochrome portrait of the author laconically burning her way through a cigarette, leaning back and observing all human folly in her wicker chair, The story itself, by the way, tells of a mother arriving at a holiday destination with her five-year-old son, and the anxieties that accrue, accumulate, accrete grotesquely, around the idea. The tension it generates is, to my mind, extraordinary. But don’t think about that now. Just relax. Pour a drink. Read on.
From Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, Arrow, 1966