A Little Christmastide Smile

Storytelling goes well with the season (telling a ghost story was once a Christmas Eve tradition). The English satirist Saki (the pen name of H.H. Munro) does capture one response to the holiday.


They say (said Reginald) that there’s nothing sadder than victory except defeat. If you’ve ever stayed with dull people during what is alleged to be the festive season, you can probably revise that saying. I shall never forget putting in a Christmas at the Babwolds’. Mrs. Babwold is some relation of my father’s–a sort of to-be-left-till- called-for cousin–and that was considered sufficient reason for my having to accept her invitation at about the sixth time of asking; though why the sins of the father should be visited by the children–you won’t find any notepaper in that drawer; that’s where I keep old menus and first-night programs.

Mrs. Babwold wears a rather solemn personality, and has never been known to smile, even when saying disagreeable things to her friends or making out the Stores list. She takes her pleasures sadly. A state elephant at a Durbar gives one a very similar impression. Her husband gardens in all weathers. When a man goes out in the pouring rain to brush caterpillars off rose-trees, I generally imagine his life indoors leaves something to be desired; anyway, it must be very unsettling for the caterpillars.

Of course there were other people there. There was a Major Somebody who had shot things in Lapland, or somewhere of that sort; I forget what they were, but it wasn’t for want of reminding. We had them cold with every meal almost, and he was continually giving us details of what they measured from tip to tip, as though he thought we were going to make them warm under-things for the winter. I used to listen to him with a rapt attention that I thought rather suited me, and then one day I quite modestly gave the dimensions of an okapi I had shot in the Lincolnshire fens. The Major turned a beautiful Tyrian scarlet (I remember thinking at the time that I should like my bathroom hung in that color), and I think that at that moment he almost found it in his heart to dislike me. Mrs. Babwold put on a first-aid-to-the-injured expression, and asked him why he didn’t publish a book of his sporting reminiscences; it would be SO interesting. She didn’t remember till afterwards that he had given her two fat volumes on the subject, with his portrait and autograph as a frontispiece and an appendix on the habits of the Arctic mussel.

It was in the evening that we cast aside the cares and distractions of the day and really lived. Cards were thought to be too frivolous and empty a way of passing the time, so most of them played what they called a book game. You went out into the hall–to get an inspiration, I suppose–then you came in again with a muffler tied round your neck and looked silly, and the others were supposed to guess that you were “Wee MacGreegor.” I held out against the inanity as long as I decently could, but at last, in a lapse of good-nature, I consented to masquerade as a book, only I warned them that it would take some time to carry out. They waited for the best part of forty minutes, while I went and played wineglass skittles with the page-boy in the pantry; you play it with a champagne cork, you know, and the one who knocks down the most glasses without breaking them wins. I won, with four unbroken out of seven; I think William suffered from over- anxiousness. They were rather mad in the drawing-room at my not having come back, and they weren’t a bit pacified when I told them afterwards that I was “At the end of the passage.”

“I never did like Kipling,” was Mrs. Babwold’s comment, when the situation dawned upon her. “I couldn’t see anything clever in Earthworms out of Tuscany–or is that by Darwin?”

Of course these games are very educational, but, personally, I prefer bridge.

On Christmas evening we were supposed to be specially festive in the Old English fashion. The hall was horribly drafty, but it seemed to be the proper place to revel in, and it was decorated with Japanese fans and Chinese lanterns, which gave it a very Old English effect. A young lady with a confidential voice favored us with a long recitation about a little girl who died or did something equally hackneyed, and then the Major gave us a graphic account of a struggle he had with a wounded bear. I privately wished that the bears would win sometimes on these occasions; at least they wouldn’t go vaporing about it afterwards. Before we had time to recover our spirits, we were indulged with some thought-reading by a young man whom one knew instinctively had a good mother and an indifferent tailor–the sort of young man who talks unflaggingly through the thickest soup, and smooths his hair dubiously as though he thought it might hit back. The thought-reading was rather a success; he announced that the hostess was thinking about poetry, and she admitted that her mind was dwelling on one of Austin’s odes. Which was near enough. I fancy she had been really wondering whether a scrag-end of mutton and some cold plum-pudding would do for the kitchen dinner next day. As a crowning dissipation, they all sat down to play progressive halma, with milk-chocolate for prizes. I’ve been carefully brought up, and I don’t like to play games of skill for milk-chocolate, so I invented a headache and retired from the scene. I had been preceded a few minutes earlier by Miss Langshan-Smith, a rather formidable lady, who always got up at some uncomfortable hour in the morning, and gave you the impression that she had been in communication with most of the European Governments before breakfast. There was a paper pinned on her door with a signed request that she might be called particularly early on the morrow. Such an opportunity does not come twice in a lifetime. I covered up everything except the signature with another notice, to the effect that before these words should meet the eye she would have ended a misspent life, was sorry for the trouble she was giving, and would like a military funeral. A few minutes later I violently exploded an air- filled paper bag on the landing, and gave a stage moan that could have been heard in the cellars. Then I pursued my original intention and went to bed. The noise those people made in forcing open the good lady’s door was positively indecorous; she resisted gallantly, but I believe they searched her for bullets for about a quarter of an hour, as if she had been an historic battlefield.

I hate traveling on Boxing Day, but one must occasionally do things that one dislikes.

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Commonplace Book: William Trevor

Reading William Trevor’s After Rain, had avoided the late Irish short story writer and novelist, as he was often paired with Chekhov, something which seemed overblown to me. (When any writer gets heaps of adulation, and friends clutch your elbow and say “you must read this” my default reaction is resistance. )

But the Chekhov comparison is not overblown. Trevor explores similar themes, subtle but devastating moments of personal choice, and the cadence of the his prose, (also like Chekhov’s or at least Constant Garnett’s translation thereof) is quiet, but musical in its restraint. No detail is extra. Here’s family dinner at the Leesons in “Lost Ground,”

after_rainHaving paused while the others were served– that, too, being a tradition in the family– Milton began to eat again. He liked the champ best when it was fried. You could warm it in the oven or in a saucepan, but it wasn’t the same. He liked crispness in his food– fingers of a soda farl fried,  the spicy skin of a milk pudding,  fried champ. His mother always remembered that. Milton sometimes thought that his mother knew everything about him and he didn’t mind: it made him fond of her that she bothered. He felt affection for her when she sat by the Esse on winter’s evenings or by the open back door in the summer, sewing and darning. She never read the paper and only glanced up at the television occasionally. His father read the paper from cover to cover and never missed the television News. When Milton was younger he’d been afraid of his father, although he’d since realized that you knew where you were with him, which came from the experience of working with him in the fields and the orchards. ‘He’s fair,’ Mrs. Leeson used to repeat when Milton was younger, “Always remember that.” 


Trevor was also a master of crafting a  deft, quietly devastating last move in a short story. Novels mostly need ‘finales’; short stories can end with a stab to the heart. (Nothing better in this line than the end of “The Lottery.” Annie Proulx is no slouch either, “There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.”)

Part of what makes these endings possible is that stories are quick glances, not synoptic panoramas. From the obit for him in the Guardian.

“…In a 1989 interview, Trevor compared writing short stories to impressionist art. “I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art,”