Chosen by Michael Caines
Theodore Francis Powys – a younger brother of the now more celebrated novelist John Cowper Powys – has always seemed to me the more interesting of these two prolific brothers. (I think, or I kid myself perhaps, that I can see why people rave about JCP, but he usually leaves me cold.) One more attractive feature, perhaps, is T. F. Powys’s particular mastery in shorter works of fiction, such as his Fables (in which, for example, a church mouse talks theology with a holy crumb dropped from the communion table). ‘Captain Patch’ is a nice piece of silliness in which a tailor, in a coastal town, lives modestly but dreams of being great: “He rose to glory, he commanded, and he was obeyed”. In this precursor to James Thurber’s ‘Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ (1939), the fantasy life takes over for a while; there is indeed, on a comically modest scale, glory of a kind; but there is also love. Reading it again now, with great pleasure, some years after my Powys-mania was perhaps at its height, I think of ‘Captain Patch’ as a story of misplaced love, and a chance encounter making things right. Not everybody in a Powys story is so lucky. (Spoiler: that church mouse eats the crumb.)
First published in book form in Captain Patch: Twenty-one stories, Chatto & Windus, 1935
Michael Caines works at the Times Literary Supplement. He is writing a short book about literary prizes, and a slightly longer book about Brigid Brophy. He is founding editor of the Brixton Review of Books. You can read his full Personal Anthology and other selections here.
Must a short story take the world by storm? Trollope doesn’t seem to think so: ‘The Mistletoe Bough’ is a rather gentle tale of a courtship taking an interesting turn around this festive time of year. It begins with a “very delicate” quandary, as the Garrow family wonder whether the branch of mistletoe should be “hung up on Christmas Eve in the dining-room”; they are expecting visitors, and Miss Garrow is desperately keen to avoid an embarrassment involving one of those visitors in particular. Namely, Godfrey Holmes, the young assistant manager of a bank in Liverpool, to whom she has been engaged, but is engaged no longer.
Elizabeth’s younger brothers, unaware of the awkwardness, mock her as “my lady Fineairs” and “a Puritan” for her rejection of the mistletoe bough; the narrator concedes that she may have half a point, at least. “Kissing, I fear, is less innocent now than it used to be when our grandmothers were alive, and we have become more fastidious in our amusements.”
Complications ensue that have little to do with Christmas. But there are some comical seasonal touches, and the whole concoction has a thoroughly, predictably Victorian charm, and (this is the personal part) offers some light respite to the reader who has been bitterly gorging on the short stories of Fleur Jaeggy, T. F. Powys and other reputable malcontents. Also: Trollope earns bonus points for deploying the term “the bump of philomartyrdom” in the incidental process of mocking the period’s phrenology craze.
First published in the Illustrated London News, Christmas Supplement, December 21, 1861. Reprinted in Tales of All Countries, second series, 1863. See also Early Short Stories, ed. John Sutherland, Oxford University Press, 1994
Chosen by Michael Caines. Michael works at the Times Literary Supplement and is founding editor of the Brixton Review of Books. He is the author of Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century. You can read his full Personal Anthology and other seasonal contributions here.
Maybe the summer, if you want to be all seasonal about it, is a good time to open up Mavis Gallant’s Selected Stories and turn to page 284. Here you will make the acquaintance of Walter Henderson, “a stripling to his friends”, who are the elderly folk of the French Riviera. They look at Walter, and listen to his sociable stories, but see a long-lost loved one, whether that means a lover or “an adored but faithless son”. But this is how Walter spends his winters (driving his car “gaily, as if it were summer”). His summers are a different matter, as he “lolls on a garden chair, rereading his boyhood books”. Only, in Walter’s forty-fifth year, a complication arises, in the form of a family visit…
The details are craftily, cattily observed, the intrigue of the story leisurely. Walter, so used to reading and telling stories of his own, has to acknowledge the discomfiting existence of other people’s. Meditations on age take place against the drowsy backdrop of a “breather” for his guests that they seem reluctant to end. The good news is that Gallant’s Selected Stories runs to nearly 900 pages, making it a pleasantly Walter-like companion for train journeys, sojourns in the sun.
First published in the New Yorker, 1963 and available online to subscribers here and collected in The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant, Bloomsbury, 1997. Picked by Michael Caines, who works at the Times Literary Supplement. He is the author of Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 2013) and the editor of a TLS bicentennial celebration of Jane Austen. He is writing a short book about literary prizes, and a slightly longer book about Brigid Brophy. He is founding editor of the Brixton Review of Books. You can read his full Personal Anthology here.
“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
Now I suppose, approaching the halfway point of this highly personal anthology, it is a not unreasonable time to confess that I am myself, oh yes, a dabbler in the fine art of fiction. Oh yes! I have myself written more than one short story. Although I should always be getting on with something else (commissioning a review, reading some long-deferred classic etc), and therefore seldom begin, let alone threaten to complete, something on a grander scale than a short story. I love a short story. My boss expressed not so long ago, in podcast form, his mystification at the idea of short fiction being fulfilling but, alas, we feel differently on this point. Long books daunt me but also, obscurely, move me to annoyance. What is the point of them? Why use many words when few will do? Alas – here we are. And, sure enough, here is Ivan Bunin. A master of the form. This particular instance, about a dialogue between two men meeting on the deck of ship ‘on its way from Odessa to the Crimea’, is economic yet quite open to vistas of . . . life. They are a ‘pair of celebrities’; yet here they are alone, struggling to come to terms with one another. Personally, I find it quietly, desperately riveting.
First published 1923. Collected in The Gentleman from San Francisco and Other Stories, Penguin, 1992
“You sit over a one-bar fire in a rented room.” Humblebrag time! I’ve met that M. John Harrison. I heard him quietly read this story during a wondrous evening of art, organized by somebody artistic in East London. It struck me as uncanny at the time, with its straightforward, serious-minded depiction of the homeless being deployed in a countermeasure against the incursion of alien invaders in the City of London. But like those invaders, Harrison’s story itself exists on more than one plane; and once you’ve glimpsed that, life is never the same again. I feel that this is a story that really has altered me. I was so proud, ludicrously proud, to have even a shred of involvement in seeing it published in the TLS last November.
from You Should Come with Me Now, Comma Press, 2017. Available to read here
“Suspicion kept Cristina from living.” Involvement is a word with a somewhat different meaning in relation to this bleak beauty, in which a man (I think) recalls the story of his true love’s curious attitude to life, the house they buy together, the little lie he tells in order to avoid upsetting her, the consequences of that lie . . . . Luck plays a part in this story. As it does in:
From Thus Were Their Faces, New York Review Books
“There must have been a moment at which she decided to go down the street and around the corner and into the café.” This is the story of a chance encounter, between a man and a woman. For some reason, I think it happened around the corner from a place where, years later, I encountered someone I had loved, and still loved, momentarily. More to the point, it is a London story, and such things do happen. I have met my brother twice by chance, under different circumstances, wandering through different parts of town. Margaret Drabble magnificently sets off old disagreements against enduring memory, passion and the rest. Oh for a scintilla, whatever that is, of her skill.
First published in Winter’s Tales 14, ed. Kevin Crossley-Holland, from Macmillan, 1968. Collected in A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman, Penguin, 2011). Available to read here