Some books and short stories seem to lend themselves especially to being read when the nights draw in and the cold weather arrives.
Obviously, ghost stories abound at this time of year – as they have done ever since families and friends closed in around the warmth of the hearth in olden days and tried to amuse or frighten each other with their words, while the wind swirled around them and they were huddled next to the heat.
Family sagas seem to appear on bookshelves with regularity at this time of the year too. The popularity of the genre is understandable: a year has gone by and it’s a time for re-evaluation and reflection as people manage to get to be together once more, both changed and unchanged a year on. As such, their states can be easily remarked upon and noticed.
Of course, religion and myth are popular seasonal themes each December – the Christmas Story, biblical readings and fables and fairy tales, some for the young and some for the old. The shops are full of new illustrations and updated texts, seeking to keep their message fresh.
For me, this is the time of year when the short story really comes into its own. Precisely the right shape and length for reading and re-reading when windows become a dark mirror and there is a spare hour or two and the weather outdoors looks uninviting.
Obviously, we have the immense short story from James Joyce, The Dead, with its famous final words – “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling through the …”
But the old master of the short story form is probably Anton Chekhov who created hundreds of perfectly crafted pieces. It is almost impossible to select a single one – but A Joke is a very fine example of this literary lion in winter at his best. And the opening lines invite the reader in: “There was a sharp frost and the curls on Nadenka’s temples and the down on her upper lip were covered with the frost”. Here we have the kind of forensic description we might expect from the estimable Russian doctor who understood human nature so profoundly.
With these stories, and many like them, the season and the subject matter are a close match, which makes our selection easier. But I think the choice of reading matter for this time of year can go deeper than that and be more subtle. Forget subject matter for a moment. You don’t need snow to appear in all the books. After all, that would be tedious and literal rather than literary.
It seems to me there are certain writers whose whole work seems “wintry” – in ways both obvious and not so obvious. They create a kind of emotional distance or peculiar reflective state in the mind of the reader that suits our frosty season. Something that is singular. They seem to have a certain cool and arresting way of seeing things, a narrative style that coats the surface of everything they envisage or describe in a strange light. They appear detached and engaged at the same time.
The list of such eerily lucent writers is probably very long. I’m thinking of the likes of Maya Angelou, Jorge Luis Borges, Angela Carter, Claire Keegan, Mary Lavin, Katherine Mansfield, Ian McEwan, Haruki Murakami and all the others who can summon up strange and haunting
worlds in a few newly conceived words or phrases. These are the authors for me who can kindle cold fire out of the wintry darkness.
This year I want to find other voices too, not just my old favourites. New wordsmiths who can weave the same white magic, express different cultures and realities with their cool commentaries.
My target will be to find one new star for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Some will be famous and some will not. Many will be young: this their first work. They need to come from places new to me and be contemporary. Their work will emit a curious cold glow, attracting me to it …whatever its origins.
Try out free short stories by Gerard O’Keeffe