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Christmas Stories

christmas-book

Everyman’s Pocket Classics

Christmas tales are meant to cheer us and to help usher in the Christmas spirit; yet, every favorite tale embodies a degree of struggle, an element of danger or some darkness that must be gotten through. There may be magic and wonder leading up to the final, satisfying denouement of Christmas morning – upon waking to find everything wished for sitting under the starry lights of the Christmas tree, but the waiting is always prolonged.
Most of the stories in the Everyman’s Pocket anthology follow this pattern distinctively, in 20 different ways. From Charles Dickens to Richard Ford the inveterate Christmas struggle is traced.

Dickens and Early Russian Writers

The anthology begins with a Dickens tale called The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton (from The Pickwick Papers). Charles Dickens was only 25 when he wrote this playful tale, and the ironic humor that we have come to love in just about every Dickens story is delightfully fresh in this selection from his first novel. It is a Christmas Eve ghost story amidst a nighttime landscape of snow and stars and a bad-tempered old grave digger named Gabriel Grubb. A bit like A Christmas Carol, Grubb is visited, in this case, by a fantastical goblin king and his goblin courtiers. They sing terrifying ghostly songs to Gabriel Grubb and, rather violently, teach him a lesson about life and his disagreeable attitude toward other people. Dickens, the eternal humanitarian, makes a case for women as being the most compassionate of the human race.

He saw that women, the tenderest and most fragile of all God’s creatures, were the oftenest superior to sorrow, adversity, and distress; and he saw that it was because they bore in their own hearts an inexhaustible well-spring of affection and devotedness.

Of the Russian writers in the anthology, Nikolai Gogol is most similar to Dickens, yet Gogol’s devils and witches of Christmas Eve are finally conquered by the, mostly benevolent, characters of a snowy village near St. Petersburg in The Night Before Christmas. This is a famous Russian fairy tale about a gifted painter and blacksmith who paints frescoes of the saints on the church walls and who is therefore most sought after by the devil. This devil, whose lover is a witch, steels the moon on Christmas Eve and tempts the best, god-loving people of the village. Another delightful, fantastical tale!
Leo Tolstoy’s Where Love Is, God Is and Anton Chekhov’s Vanka are both heart-warming stories that evoke questions of morality, spirituality and the love of God and people.

Vladimir Nabokov’s more modern narrative reflects an elegant mastery of story-telling with a unique, stream-of-consciousness style in the beautiful yet tragic story titled, Christmas.

The night was smoke-blue and moonlit; thin clouds were scattered about the sky but did not touch the delicate, icy moon. The trees, masses of gray frost, cast dark shadows on the drifts, which scintillated here and there with metallic sparks.

The three Russian writers are similar to Dickens in their sympathy toward humankind; they are quite clear about the virtues of compassion. In the modern tales, however, the narrative of compassion and human mercy is more implicit.

British Writers Apart from Dickens

When it comes to expert story-writing, leave it to the British. And when it comes to writing a great detective yarn, leave it to Arthur Conan Doyle to tell an amusing Sherlock Holmes story. The investigation in The Blue Carbuncle takes place in the bustling streets of London, in Covent Garden Market, two days after Christmas. Holmes is just as we like him: clever, articulate, circumspect, and yes – merciful.

Anthony Trollope’s whimsical Christmas at Thompson Hall mixes suspense with a smattering of cheeky humor. His name, Trollope, like his writing style, gallops or trots along and is as ever: impeccably English. And Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant Bella Fleace Gave A Party takes place in Ireland, outside Dublin in the Market town of Ballingar where a wealthy, eccentric lady decides to divert death and instead throw a party. The story is expertly written, detailed and surprisingly ironic. Elizabeth Bowen, who always wrote a flawless tale, is somewhat dated in Green Holly, yet the witty cadence makes this bizarre ghost story worth the read. And Muriel Spark whisks the reader along in Christmas Fugue. It is a romantic tale, a travel piece, in which the main character, Cynthia at twenty-four is suspended in a kind of limbo or liminal zone up high in the air on a passenger jet. Questions of belief… in Christmas, in the start of a new life, in a love affair and in reality itself are raised in an unforeseen way.

American Writers

Willa Cather, a favorite American poet and novelist, had a beautiful way of drawing in the reader and maneuvering the plot. The Burglar’s Christmas takes place on Christmas Eve in Chicago. Reminiscent of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, juxtapositions of excitement vs. safety, and poverty vs. success, drive this touching story along, together with the prevailing theme of motherhood and mother-son relationship.

John Cheever’s excellent Christmas is a Sad Time For the Poor examines the benevolence of people in a New York City high-rise apartment-building one day out of the year when these sophisticates have the chance to give. And Truman Capote’s now famous A Christmas Memory is the striking memoir about a seven-year-old boy and his elderly cousin. Capote’s style is compelling from the first sentence:

Imagine a morning in late November.

This poignant tale is a must-read at Christmastime.

John Updike’s evocative The Carol Sing takes us through a melancholy surveillance of the cycles of life, death and seasonal holidays in highly intelligent, sharply witty prose.

Strange people look ugly only for a while, until you begin to fill in those tufty monkey features with a little history and stop seeing their faces and start seeing their lives.

Grace Paley’s The Loudest Voice is about a Jewish schoolgirl, Shirley, who has the most resonant voice in a Christmas play. Her family and the Jewish families in her neighborhood struggle to accept their children being in a Christian play. Shirley, representing the only first-generation American in her family, is open-minded, curious, helpful and resoundingly confident.

Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award winner, Richard Ford depicts a divided American family mired deeply in issues. In Creche, the main character, Faith, a successful L.A. attorney, narrates the story amidst growing resentments, threats and dangers. Yet, by Christmas Eve, the snow still glistens over everything and the children are tucked away safely in their beds. Ford holds our interest and sustains a measure of hope with his buoyant prose, as when Faith goes for a solo, nighttime ski-run:

Here the snow virtually hums to her sliding strokes. A full moon rides behind filigree clouds as she strides forward in the near-darkness of crusted woods.

Canada

Nobel Prize winning, Canadian author, Alice Monro’s gamey tale is a bold and effective portrait of human nature. The Turkey Season describes the acute observations of a fourteen-year-old girl who is surrounded by small town people who tend to be decidedly small-minded and cruel. Still, Christmas appears to win in the end.

These stories represent a fine collection of esteemed writers. I have not mentioned all of the stories here, some of them are simply short and sweet, but for a good measure of the Christmas spirit and a reminder of what it is to have a sympathetic heart, all of them are worth reading.

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Comparing Notes on the Centennial of Joyce’s “Dubliners”

In reading Paul Theroux’s short story, Action, which appeared in
The New Yorker, (August 4th, 2014), one can’t help but draw parallels to James Joyce’s Araby from the beloved short story collection, Dubliners, (1914). Both Action and Araby comprise a boy’s coming-of-age in a working class neighborhood with very little money and a mother who has died.

Theroux’s Albert lives in Boston with his father, a shoe salesman, who uses gruff-love and over-protectiveness – a father who relies on not only his sense of smell but a keen, sixth parental sense to deftly sniff-out where his son, Albert, has been and what he has been up to.

The way my father worried about me made me think I was dangerous.

Albert’s father is overly suspicious as well as thrifty: as if he’d been through World War II and had to conserve everything including words.

“Where?,” meaning, “Where have you been?”

And, “No Eddie,” meaning Albert is prohibited from seeing the older Eddie, whom Albert’s father considers a bad influence.

The story takes place during a time when doughnuts cost a dime, yet, Albert’s father is hard pressed to dole out a little spending money for his son, just as the boy in Joyce’s Araby, does not receive a shilling for the bazaar from his uncle until it is almost too late to go.

In Araby, both parents are apparently dead, so that the boy lives with his aunt and uncle, and possibly for this reason, Joyce’s Dublin boy has more freedom than Albert has. The boy is allowed to go to the bazaar and take the train to Araby by himself late at night – not as an errand but, conceivably, to have fun.

Theroux’s Albert rides the Boston train specifically to run errands for his father, but these chores across the city into its shadowy corners become a catalyst for discovering himself and learning more about his father. For Albert has learned that both he and his father have two sides.

Albert encounters a number of nefarious characters along the way and starts to feel as if he’s been running or “escaping” the whole way. When he finally reaches the warehouse of his father’s vendor, the man behind the counter is unfriendly,

He didn’t greet me or even comment.

There is an intense feeling of alienation. In the process of blindly and innocently exploring the city, Albert has embarked upon a personal odyssey leading to some profound revelation. As well in Araby, the boy rides the train to Araby amidst a palpable sense of isolation as he sits alone, oppressed by the crunch of the city. Then, once inside the bazaar, he also encounters an unfriendly and “not encouraging” welcome. The milieu of the bazaar has become dark and hushed, its tables mostly bare, its broad catacombs empty yet open to the night sky, and this is where Joyce leads up to his epiphany.

I recognized a silence like that which pervades a church after a service. I walked into the center of the bazaar timidly.

Both boys linger at shops to look at or buy something and they both receive similar versions of indifference and contempt from the people there. Both say “No” when asked whether they want to buy anything from a selection of what now seems to be only meaningless objects. Still, amidst the harshness and shame, love or compassion seem to come exclusively from a parental figure or a neighborhood girl.

In Araby, and all of the Dubliners tales, Joyce is exquisite in a way that is rarely found in today’s literature. Yet, Theroux describes the provocative smells and anxt of the city more poetically as he treks deeper into the streets:

Now it was a summer afternoon of hot sidewalks and sharp smells and strangers, the air of the city thick with humidity under a heavy gray sky. It all stank pleasantly of wickedness, and if I’d known anything I would have recognized it as sensual.

This harkens to Araby and Joyce’s ash-pits of the back lanes that are “odorous” and damp and “filled with odours.” Joyce’s lyricism, alliteration and repetition have made every line of the Dubliners stories poetry, as with his alliteration in, “silent streets, dark, dripping gardens, and feeble lanterns,” and the sublime image of his love, the neighbor girl across the way: “The white curve of her neck,” is repeated twice in the tale and held in his mind as a holy image…

I was alone at the railings. She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing.

Joyce infuses the boy’s infatuation for the girl with poetic, holy enchantment. Just thinking of her image under the light and brooding over the events that will lead up to seeing her again throw the boy into an existential crisis. He wanders through the house and murmurs “O love! O love!” in a kind of prayer.

The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me.

The boy’s passion is so thoroughly described – the way it interferes with his usual life, which seemed now “child’s play,” that it is hard to believe he is only a boy. He mourns, “my eyes were often full of tears,” and, “Her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.” Indeed, he bares a chalice for his love, “safely through a throng of foes,” as he shops at the outdoor markets with his aunt.

Whereas Joyce’s boy in Araby is filled with passion for the neighborhood girl, Theroux’s Albert seems not to have reached such levels of fervor. Upon meeting Paige, Albert admits to being, “out of my depth.” He stands in Paige’s doorway, but she can’t see his face, as he is backlit by the sun – a sort of reversal to Joyce’s light from the lamppost illuminating Mangan’s sister.

Paige is described with admiration and the kind of sensuality that doesn’t quite know where it is leading. Her face is framed by wisps of hair as she works at an ironing board, and there is a lingering reminder of Mangan’s sister in Araby by the way Paige “bowed her head and went on ironing.”

With many parallels in the two stories: not least of which is in their settings, as in Action depicting “houses that all look alike along the hill,” reflecting the houses in Araby which “gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces,” Albert is actually more lonely than the boy in Araby. Albert has a rather dismal, secluded life living under the strictures of his father, while Joyce’s boy in Araby is not isolated until he falls in love. Before this he is part of a tribe of the neighborhood children. However, both reach a crisis point in which a crucial truth comes to light. Joyce seems to have invented it: the literary epiphany, where there is an unexpected, and often simple, sudden insight or revelation that ends the tale.


“Action” is included in Paul Theroux’s book of short stories, “Mr. Bones”


James Joyce’s “Dubliners” includes “Araby,” one of only three of the tales told in the first-person.