The joke for Boxing Day was how to get rid of her. You couldn’t say that everyone was going hunting because nobody did now.–“Miss Mistletoe,” The Stories of Jane Gardam
Almost everyone has been a Christmas parasite at least once.
It happened to me the year I was divorced. Although I did not mind the prospect of a day alone, a kind friend invited me to Christmas dinner. Although she rarely ate anything, she was a gourmet cook, and we all loved her food, though there was dark talk among her children about hospitalizing her for anorexia.
The meal was fantastic.
Being a parasite was never so good.
I did leave before Boxing Day.
Jane Gardam, whose short story of the unwanted guest, “Miss Mistletoe,” is my favorite Christmas story, is perhaps the best living English writer. Why she did not win the Booker for the Old Filth trilogy (Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, and Last Friends), I cannot imagine. This year Europa published The Stories of Jane Gardam, a collection of her favorite stories. It is my favorite new book of 2014. If you are determined to give someone a book for Christmas (I usually fail at this, I would risk giving The Stories of Jane Gardam.
Gardam’s extraordinary short stories are elegant and witty; and her portraits of offbeat, independent characters brilliantly drawn. Whether she is humorously describing the Infills, a family who mocks their annual Christmas parasite, Daisy Flagg, a tiny woman of indefinite age “whose clothes seemed to have been boiled, her hair almost shampooed away” (“Miss Mistletoe”); or depicting the peculiarities of an elderly woman who queues for Shakespeare tickets (“Groundlings”), her prose is pitch-perfect.
There is something for everyone. Austenites will love “The Sidmouth Stories,” narrated by a novelist whose paper on a putative love affair by Austen at Sidmouth was plagiarized by Shorty Shenfield, a professor “at a small university in the Middle West.” Ironically, he sends her on an errand to buy some letters by Austenthat may prove her thesis.
Shorty is an unscrupulous character, who specializes in digging up dirt on respected authors.
Long before Anthony Burgess, he enthusiastically launched into the syphilitic overtones in the life of Shakespeare. It was said that he had much to suggest , after the fifty years of grace were up, about Kipling, and his piece on how far Keats had got with Fanny Brawne was discussed for many a furious week in The Times Literary Supplement, ensuring that every word of it was widely read. Shorty was a good scholar but his pastimes and tactics were a hyena’s.
Gardam’s work is never sentimental. There is always a twist. In “Swan,” Pratt, a boy at a liberal school, is required to do “social work”: his mentoring of a Chinese boy who never speaks involves trips to a park and unexpected encounters with swans. In “Damage,” a translator has an unhealthy relationship with her father, whom she somehow cannot translate. In “The Tribute,” three old women gather at a tearoom to gossip about their dead friend, a former governess, and are shocked by the richly-dressed niece who brings them keepsakes.
Gardam, 85, has won many prizes: the Whitbread Award twice, for The Queen of the Tambourines and The Hollow Land; the Heywood Hill Literary Prize in 1999; and God on the Rocks was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
If you don’t like short stories, try her novels. They are outstanding.