About the Author

Alberto Manguel

Internationally acclaimed as an anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist, and editor, Alberto Manguel is the bestselling author of several award-winning books, including A Dictionary of Imaginary Places, with Gianni Guadalupi, and A History of Reading. Manguel grew up in Israel, where his father was the Argentinian ambassador.

In the mid-1980s, Manguel moved to Toronto where he lived for twenty years. Manguel's novel, News from a Foreign Country Came, won the McKitterick Prize in 1992. During the 1990s, he wrote regularly for the Globe & Mail (Toronto), the Times Literary Supplement (London), the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian Review of Books, the New York Times, and the Svenska Dagbladet (Stockholm). In 2000, Manguel moved to the Poitou-Charentes region of France, where he and his partner purchased and renovated a medieval farmhouse. Among the renovations is an oak-panelled library housing Manguel's collection of 30,000 books.

Célébrité internationale à plus d’un titre — il est anthologiste, traducteur, essayiste, romancier et éditeur — Alberto Manguel est l’auteur du Dictionnaire des lieux imaginaires, en collaboration avec Gianni Guadalupi, et d’une Histoire de la lecture, entre autres succès de librairie. Manguel a grandi en Israël où son père était ambassadeur de l’Argentine.

Au milieu des années 1980, Manguel s’installe à Toronto où il vivra pendant vingt ans. Il reçoit le McKitterick Prize en 1992 pour son roman News from a Foreign Country Came (Dernières nouvelles d'une terre abandonnée). Pendant les années 1990, il a été collaborateur régulier au Globe & Mail (Toronto), au Times Literary Supplement (Londres), au Sydney Morning Herald, au Australian Review of Books, au New York Times et au Svenska Dagbladet (Stockholm). Depuis 2000, Manguel habite la région française de Poitou-Charentes, dans une maison de ferme du Moyen-Âge qu’il a achetée et remise à neuf avec son compagnon. Parmi les rénovations, une bibliothèque lambrissée de chêne qui abrite les 30 000 livres de la collection de Manguel.

Books by this Author
A Reading Diary
Excerpt

Foreword

“ . . . that we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valour and generosity we have.”
—Thoreau, Walden

“Like every person of good taste, Menard abominated such worthless pantomimes, only apt — he would say — to provoke the plebeian pleasure of anachronism or (what is worse) to enthrall us with the rudimentary notion that all ages are the same or that they are different.”
—Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones

There are books that we skim over happily, forgetting one page as we turn to the next; others that we read reverently, without daring to agree or disagree; others that offer mere information and preclude our commentary; others still that, because we have loved them so long and so dearly, we can repeat, word by word, since we know them, in the truest sense, by heart.

Reading is a conversation. Lunatics engage in imaginary dialogues which they hear echoing somewhere in their minds; readers engage in a similar dialogue provoked silently by words on a page. Usually the reader’s response is not recorded, but often a reader will feel the need to take up a pencil and answer back on the margins of a text. This comment, this gloss, this shadow that sometimes accompanies our favourite books extends and transports the text into another time and another experience; it lends reality to the illusion that a book speaks to us and wills us (its readers) into being.

A couple of years ago, after my fifty-third birthday, I decided to reread a few of my favourite old books, and I was struck, once again, by how their many-layered and complex worlds of the past seemed to reflect the dismal chaos of the world I was living in. A passage in a novel would suddenly illuminate an article in the daily paper; a half-forgotten episode would be recalled by a certain scene; a single word would prompt a long reflection. I decided to keep a record of these moments.

It occurred to me then that, rereading a book a month, I might complete, in a year, something between a personal diary and a commonplace book: a volume of notes, reflections, impressions of travel, sketches of friends, of events public and private, all elicited by my reading. I made a list of what the chosen books would be. It seemed important, for the sake of balance, that there should be a little of everything. (Since I’m nothing if not an eclectic reader, this wasn’t too difficult to accomplish.)

Reading is a comfortable, solitary, slow and sensuous task. Writing used to share some of these qualities. However, in recent times the profession of writer has acquired something of the ancient professions of travelling salesman and repertory actor, and writers are called upon to perform one-night stands in faraway places, extolling the virtues of their own books instead of toilet brushes or encyclopedia sets. Mainly because of these duties, throughout my reading year I found myself travelling to many different cities and yet wishing to be back home, in my house in a small village in France, where I keep my books and do my work.

Scientists have imagined that, before the universe came into being, it existed in a state of potentiality, time and space held in abeyance—“in a fog of possibility,” as one commentator put it, until the Big Bang. This latent existence should surprise no reader, for whom every book exists in a dreamlike condition until the hands that open it and the eyes that peruse it stir the words into awareness. The following pages are my attempt to record a few such awakenings.

Alberto Manguel

Part One — 2002

June — The Invention of Morel

Saturday
We have been in our house in France for just over a year, and already I have to leave, to visit my family in Buenos Aires. I don’t want to go. I want to enjoy the village in summer, the garden, the house kept cool by the thick, ancient walls. I want to start setting up the books on the shelves we have just had built. I want to sit in my room and work.

On the plane, I pull out a copy of Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel, the tale of a man stranded on an island that is apparently inhabited by ghosts, a book I read for the first time thirty, thirty-five years ago.

This is my first visit to Buenos Aires after the December crisis of 2001, which unhitched the peso from the dollar, saw the economy crash and left thousands of people ruined. Downtown, there are no visible signs of the disaster except that, just before nightfall, the streets fill with hordes of cartoneros, men, women and children who scrape a living by collecting recyclable rubbish off the sidewalks. Perhaps most crises are invisible: there are no attendant pathetic fallacies to help us see the devastation. Shops close, people look haggard, prices jump, but overall life carries on: the restaurants are full, the shops still stock expensive imports (though I overhear one woman complaining, “I can’t find aceto balsámico anywhere!”), the city bustles noisily long past midnight. A tourist in a city that was once my own, I don’t see the growing slums, the hospitals lacking supplies, the bankruptcies, the middle class joining soup-kitchen queues.

My brother wants to buy me a new recording of Bach’s Magnificat. He stops at five bank machines before one agrees to release a few bills. I ask, what will he do when he can’t find an obliging machine? There will always be at least one, he says, with magical confidence.

The Invention of Morel begins with a phrase now famous in Argentine literature: “Today, on this island, a miracle happened.” Miracles in Argentina appear to be quotidian. Bioy’s narrator: “Here are neither hallucinations nor images: merely real men, at least as real as myself.”

Picasso used to say that everything was a miracle, and that it was a miracle one didn’t dissolve in one’s bath.

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Homers The Iliad And The Odyssey

Homers The Iliad And The Odyssey

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Into The Looking-Glass Wood

Into The Looking-Glass Wood

Essays on Words and the World
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Meanwhile In Another Part Of The Forest

Meanwhile In Another Part Of The Forest

Gay Stories from Alice Munro to Yukio Mishima
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Reading Pictures

What We Think About When We Look at Art
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Excerpt

One of the first images I remember, consciously aware that it had been created out of canvas and paint by a human hand, was a picture by Vincent van Gogh of the fishing boats on the beach at Saintes-Maries. I was nine or ten, and an aunt of mine, who was a painter, had invited me to her studio to see where she worked. It was summer in Buenos Aires, hot and humid. The small room was cool and smelled wonderfully of turpentine and oil; the stashed-away canvases, leaning one against the other, seemed to me like books distorted in the dream of someone who vaguely knew what books were and had imagined them huge and of single stiff pages; the sketches and clippings my aunt had pinned on the wall suggested a place of private thought, fragmented and free. In a low bookcase were large volumes of colour reproductions, most of them published by the Swiss company Skira, a name that, for my aunt, was a byword for excellence. She pulled out the one dedicated to Van Gogh, sat me on a stool and put the book on my knees. Then she left me.

Most of my own books had illustrations that repeated or explained the story. Some, I felt, were better than others: I preferred the reproductions of watercolours in my German edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales to the convoluted line drawings in my English edition. I suppose what I meant was that they better matched my imagination of a character or a place, or better lent details to fill my vision of what the page told me was happening, enhancing or correcting the words. Gustave Flaubert staunchly opposed the idea of words being paired with pictures. Throughout his life, he refused to allow any illustrations to accompany his work because he thought that pictorial images reduced the universal to the singular. ”No one will ever illustrate me while I’m still alive,“ he wrote, ”because the most beautiful literary description is devoured by the most paltry drawing. As soon as a character is pinned down by the pencil, it loses its general character, that concordance with thousands of other known objects that causes the reader to say: ‘I’ve seen that’ or ‘this must be so-and-so.’ A woman drawn in pencil looks like a woman, that is all. The idea is thereafter closed, complete, and all words become now useless, while a written woman conjures up a thousand different women. Therefore, since this is a question of æsthetics, I formally refuse any kind of illustration.“1 I’ve never shared such adamant segregations.

But the images my aunt offered me that afternoon did not illustrate any story. There was a text: the painter’s life, extracts from the letters to his brother, which I didn’t read until much later, the title of the paintings, their date and location. But in a very categorical sense, these images stood alone, defiantly, tempting me with a reading. There was nothing for me to do except stare at those images: the copper beach, the red ship, the blue mast. I looked at them long and hard. I’ve never forgotten them.

Van Gogh’s many-coloured beach surfaced often in the imagination of my childhood. Sometime in the sixteenth century, the illustrious essayist Francis Bacon observed that for the ancients, all the images that the world lays before us are already ensconced in our memory at birth. ”So that as Plato had an imagination,“ he wrote, ”that all knowledge was but remembrance; so Solomon giveth his sentence, that all novelty is but oblivion.“ If this is true, then we are all somehow reflected in the many and different images that surround us, since they are already part of who we are: images that we create and images that we frame; images that we assemble physically, by hand, and images that come together, unbidden, in the mind’s eye; images of faces, trees, buildings, clouds, landscapes, instruments, water, fire, and images of those images — painted, sculpted, acted out, photographed, printed, filmed. Whether we discover in those surrounding images faded memories of a beauty that was once ours (as Plato suggested) or whether they demand from us a fresh and new interpretation through whatever possibilities our language might offer us (as Solomon intuited), we are essentially creatures of images, of pictures.

From the Hardcover edition.

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The City of Words

The City of Words

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The Library at Night
Excerpt

Night which Pagan Theology could make the daughter of Chaos, affords no advantage to the description of ­order.
Sir Thomas Browne, The Garden of ­Cyrus
The library in which I have at long last collected my books began life as a barn sometime in the fifteenth century, perched on a small hill south of the Loire. Here, in the last years before the Christian era, the Romans erected a temple to Dionysus to honour the god of this ­wine-­producing area; twelve centuries later, a Christian church replaced the god of drunken ecstasy with the god who turned his blood into wine. (I have a picture of a ­stained-­glass window showing a Dionysian grapevine growing out of the wound in Christ’s right side.) Still later, the villagers attached to the church a house to lodge their priest, and eventually added to this presbytery a couple of pigeon towers, a small orchard and a barn. In the fall of 2000, when I first saw these buildings which are now my home, all that was left of the barn was a single stone wall that separated my property from a chicken run and the neighbour’s field. According to village legend, before belonging to the barn, the wall was part of one of the two castles that Tristan L’Hermite, minister of Louis xi of France and notorious for his cruelty, built for his sons around 1433. The first of these castles still stands, much altered during the eighteenth century. The second burnt down three or four centuries ago, and the only wall left standing, with a pigeon tower attached to its far end, became the property of the church, bordering one side of the presbytery garden. In 1693, after a new cemetery was opened to house the increasing number of dead, the inhabitants of the village (“gathered outside the church doors,” says the deed) granted the incumbent priest permission to incorporate the old cemetery and to plant fruit trees over the emptied tombs. At the same time, the castle wall was used to enclose a new barn. After the French Revolution, war, storms and neglect caused the barn to crumble, and even after services resumed in the church in 1837 and a new priest came to live in the presbytery, the barn was not rebuilt. The ancient wall continued to serve as a property divider, looking onto a farmer’s field on one side and shading the presbytery’s magnolia tree and bushes of hydrangea on the ­other.

As soon as I saw the wall and the scattered stones around it, I knew that here was where I would build the room to house my books. I had in mind a distinct picture of a library, something of a cross between the long hall at Sissinghurst (Vita Sackville-West’s house in Kent, which I had recently visited) and the library of my old high school, the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires. I wanted a room panelled in dark wood, with soft pools of light and comfortable chairs, and an adjacent, smaller space in which I’d set up my writing desk and reference books. I imagined shelves that began at my waist and went up only as high as the fingertips of my ­stretched-­out arm, since, in my experience, the books condemned to heights that require ladders, or to depths that force the reader to crawl on his stomach on the floor, receive far less attention than their ­middle-­ground fellows, no matter their subject or merit. But these ideal arrangements would have required a library three or four times the size of the vanished barn and, as Stevenson so mournfully put it, “that is the bitterness of art: you see a good effect, and some nonsense about sense continually intervenes.” Out of necessity, my library has shelves that begin just above the baseboards and end an octavo away from the beams of the watershed ­ceiling.

While the library was being built, the masons discovered two windows in the old wall that had been bricked up long ago. One is a slim embrasure from which archers perhaps defended Tristan l’Hermite’s son when his angry peasants revolted; the other is a low square window protected by medieval iron bars cut roughly into stems with drooping leaves. From these windows, during the day, I can see my neighbour’s chickens hurry from one corner of the compound to another, pecking at this spot and at that, driven frantic by too many offerings, like demented scholars in a library; from the windows on the new wall opposite, I look out onto the presbytery itself and the two ancient sophora trees in my garden. But at night, when the library lamps are lit, the outside world disappears and nothing but this space of books remains in existence. To someone standing outside, in the garden, the library at night appears like a vast vessel of some sort, like that strange Chinese villa that, in 1888, the capricious Empress Cixi caused to be built in the shape of a ship marooned in the garden lake of her Summer Palace. In the dark, with the windows lit and the rows of books glittering, the library is a closed space, a universe of ­self-­serving rules that pretend to replace or translate those of the shapeless universe ­beyond.

During the day, the library is a realm of order. Down and across the lettered passages I move with visible purpose, in search of a name or a voice, summoning books to my attention according to their allotted rank and file. The structure of the place is visible: a maze of straight lines, not to become lost in but for finding; a divided room that follows an apparently logical sequence of classification; a geography obedient to a predetermined table of contents and a memorable hierarchy of alphabets and ­numbers.

But at night the atmosphere changes. Sounds become muffled, thoughts grow louder. “Only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva take flight,” noted Walter Benjamin, quoting Hegel. Time seems closer to that moment halfway between wakefulness and sleep in which the world can be comfortably reimagined. My movements feel unwittingly furtive, my activity secret. I turn into something of a ghost. The books are now the real presence and it is I, their reader, who, through cabbalistic rituals of ­half-glimpsed letters, am summoned up and lured to a certain volume and a certain page. The order decreed by library catalogues is, at night, merely conventional; it holds no prestige in the shadows. Though my own library has no authoritarian catalogue, even such milder orders as alphabetical arrangement by author or division into sections by language find their power diminished. Free from quotidian constraints, unobserved in the late hours, my eyes and hands roam recklessly across the tidy rows, restoring chaos. One book calls to another unexpectedly, creating alliances across different cultures and centuries. A ­half- remembered line is echoed by another for reasons which, in the light of day, remain unclear. If the library in the morning suggests an echo of the severe and reasonably wishful order of the world, the library at night seems to rejoice in the world’s essential, joyful ­muddle.

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Such a Long Journey
Excerpt

The first light of morning barely illumined the sky as Gustad Noble faced eastward to offer his orisons to Ahura Mazda. The hour was approaching six, and up in the compound’s solitary tree the sparrows began to call. Gustad listened to their chirping every morning while reciting his kusti prayers. There was something reassuring about it. Always, the sparrows were first; the cawing of crows came later.

From a few flats away, the metallic clatter of pots and pans began nibbling at the edges of stillness. The bhaiya sat on his haunches beside the tall aluminium can and dispensed milk into the vessels of housewives. His little measure with its long, hooked handle dipped into the container and emerged, dipped and emerged, rapidly, with scarcely a drip. After each customer was served, he let the dipper hang in the milk can, adjusted his dhoti, and rubbed his bare knees while waiting to be paid. Flakes of dry dead skin fell from his fingers. The women blenched with disgust, but the tranquil hour and early light preserved the peace.

Gustad Noble eased his prayer cap slightly, away from the wide forehead with its numerous lines, until it settled comfortably on his grey-­white hair. The black velvet of the cap contrasted starkly with his cinereous sideburns, but his thick, groomed moustache was just as black and velvety. Tall and broad-­shouldered, Gustad was the envy and admiration of friends and relatives whenever health or sickness was being discussed. For a man swimming the tidewater of his fifth decade of life, they said, he looked so solid. Especially for one who had suffered a serious accident just a few years ago; and even that left him with nothing graver than a slight limp. His wife hated this kind of talk. Touch wood, Dilnavaz would say to herself, and look around for a suitable table or chair to make surreptitious contact with her fingers. But Gustad did not mind telling about his accident, about the day he had risked his own life to save his eldest.

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Going Ashore
Excerpt

From Bernadette

Still, she continued to encourage his interest in theatre. More, she managed to create such a positive atmosphere of playwriting in the house that many of their casual acquaintances thought he was a playwright, and were astonished to learn he was the Knight of Turnbull, Knight & Beardsley. Robbie had begun and abandoned many plays since college. He had not consciously studied since the creative-writing course, but he read, and criticized, and had reached the point where he condemned everything that had to do with the English-language stage.

Nora agreed with everything he believed. She doggedly shared his passion for the theatre — which had long since ceased to be real, except when she insisted — and she talked to him about his work, sharing his problems and trying to help. She knew that his trouble arose from the fact that he had to spend his daytime hours in the offices of the firm. She agreed that his real life was the theatre, with the firm a practical adjunct. She was sensible: she did not ask that he sell his partnership and hurl himself into uncertainty and insecurity — a prospect that would have frightened him very much indeed. She understood that it was the firm that kept them going, that paid for the girls at St. Margaret’s and the trip to Europe every second summer. It was the firm that gave Nora leisure and scope for her tireless battles with the political and ecclesiastical authorities of Quebec. She encouraged Robbie to write in his spare time. Every day, or nearly, during his “good” periods, she mentioned his work. She rarely accepted an invitation without calling Robbie at his office and asking if he wanted to shut himself up and work that particular night. She could talk about his work, without boredom or exhaustion, just as she could discuss his love affairs. The only difference was that when they were mutually explaining Robbie’s infidelity, they drank whiskey. When they talked about his play and his inability to get on with it, Nora would go to the refrigerator and bring out a bottle of milk. She was honest and painstaking; she had at the tip of her tongue the vocabulary needed to turn their relationship and marriage inside out. After listening to Nora for a whole evening, agreeing all the way, Robbie would go to bed subdued with truth and totally empty. He felt that they had drained everything they would ever have to say. After too much talk, he would think, a couple should part; just part, without another word, full of kind thoughts and mutual understanding. He was afraid of words. That was why, that Sunday morning toward the end of October, the simple act of leaving the living room took on the dramatic feeling of escape.

He started up the stairs, free. Bernadette was on her knees, washing the painted baseboard. Her hair, matted with a cheap permanent, had been flattened into curls that looked like snails, each snail held with two crossed bobby pins. She was young, with a touching attractiveness that owed everything to youth.

Bonjour, Bernadette.

’Jour.

Bending, she plunged her hands into the bucket of soapy water. A moment earlier, she had thought of throwing herself down the stairs and making it seem an accident. Robbie’s sudden appearance had frightened her into stillness. She wiped her forehead, waiting until he had closed the door behind him. Then she flung herself at the baseboard, cloth in hand. Did she feel something — a tugging, a pain? “Merci, mon Dieu,” she whispered. But there was nothing to be thankful for, in spite of the walls and the buckets of water and the bending and the stretching.

From La Vie Parisienne
Trudi is our youngest. We’re putting her on a charter flight that lands in Norway. (See attached schedule.) She’s pretty resourceful for a sixteen-year-old, so you don’t really have to meet her, though it would be a good way of getting acquainted. I think you’ll find her refreshingly candid and outspoken. She’s willing to help around the house, once she has seen the purpose of the task. What she really wants is to spend the summer working on the creative side of someplace like Yves Saint Laurent or Christian Dior. She wouldn’t mind starting as a salesperson, just to get the feel of things. You won’t have anything like the trouble with Trudi that you had with Cressida, Ralph, and Bunny. Kids are off drugs now, except — but we’d just as soon let Trudi tell you.

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Nomad's Hotel

Nomad's Hotel

Travels in Time and Space
by Mr Cees Nooteboom
introduction by Alberto Manguel
translated by Ann Kelland
edition:Paperback
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Penguin Book of Christmas Stories
Excerpt

Introduction
by
ALBERTO MANGUEL

In Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled mirth;
But like of each thing that in season grows.

LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST I: 1

We are seasonal creatures. We advance in age toward the promised six feet of earth, not along the straight path recommended by the preacher but in a sequence of identical loops that carry us, year after year, from the illusion of beginning to the illusion of end. The Pythagoreans, who believed that all things will return and every life will be lived again, took their cue from the sun rising every morning and from winter announcing the arrival of spring. Like a child who wants the same story told over and over again, the universe seems to take delight in repetition.

Our earliest celebrations mark such repeated moments. Whether in the deserts where writing was invented or, even before, in the primeval steppes where the first human societies came into being, our most ancient grandparents feasted the anniversary of the earth that announced the coming season when crops could again be planted. The Romans marked the passing of midwinter by drinking and dancing on December 17, the feast of Saturnalia, and the Persians honoured the birth of the goddess Mithra, Sun of Righteousness, by carousing and parading on December 25. The Celts adorned their winter trees with garlands to ready them for the New Year, and the Germanic tribes lit huge bonfires on the longest night of all, to coax the hidden rays of the sun into appearing. When the coming of the Saviour was announced to the Jewish people, the celebratory December mood was already well established, and the three kings who came to Bethlehem from the Orient were no doubt aware of the Persian custom of offering gifts on the winter solstice. Under all manner of guises, Christmas was celebrated long before the birth of Christ.

In the beginning, the Christian Church cared little for calendars, fixed holidays, and appointed sacred feasts, since the only date that mattered was that of Christ’s Second Coming, and that date lay in the unknowable future. “Let no man therefore judge you,” wrote Saint Peter to the Colossians, “in respect of an holiday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days, which are a shadow of things to come.” But the seasons came and went, and Christ did not return, and eventually it became necessary for the Church to establish its own timeline, allowing each of us “to put his household in order” (as is told in 2 Samuel) to prepare for our foreseeable end. Even though the first notice we have of Christmas being celebrated by Christians appears in a Roman almanac from the year 336, the official recognition of a specific date for Christ’s birth occurs later, in 354, when the date was made to coincide with that of the winter solstice, the birthday of the sun.

But of what year? More than a century and a half later, in 525, Pope John I commissioned the learned abbot Dionysus Exiguus (or “Little Dennis”) to calculate the Easter date for the following year. The abbot not only calculated the date of the coming Easter but, for the next six years, worked on a series of tables that charted future Easters as well as several other Church anniversaries, starting, of course, with the birth of the Saviour himself. Inspired (he said) by the Holy Spirit, Little Dennis calculated that Christ had been born 531 years earlier, and called that first year anno Domini, or, as it would be written from then on, the year 1 ad. The Armenian Church, however, never accepted December 25 as the day on which to celebrate the birth of Christ, preferring instead to honour the Saviour’s birth on Epiphany, January 6, which for the other Christian churches marked either the baptism of Jesus (in the East) or the visit of the Magi (in the West).

Quite early on, the day of the birth of Christ acquired, both in the Eastern and Western churches, a conventional iconography based on the account given in the Gospel of Luke, the same that we recognize today in decorations and greeting cards: Mary and Joseph, the Child born in the manger (“because there was no room for them in the inn”), the adoring shepherds, the announcing angel and, finally, the beasts referred to in Isaiah I:3: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib.”

Already by the second century, the story of the Nativity had become so well known that the Platonic philosopher Celsius was able to mock its tenets in his True Arguments Against the Christians (a book which, by an ironic twist, reached us through piecemeal quotations in the works of the Christian censors who condemned it to the flames). “You began by fabricating a fabulous filiation,” Celsius wrote as if addressing Christ himself, “pretending that you owed your birth to a virgin.”

In reality, you were born in a small place in Judea, the son of a poor peasant-woman who lived off the land. She, guilty of adultery with a soldier called Panterus, was rejected by her husband, a carpenter by profession. Thus banished, and ignominiously wandering from one place to another, she gave birth in secret. Later, forced through poverty to emigrate, she travelled to Egypt and there worked for a salary. In the meantime, you learned some of those magic powers of which the Egyptians boast, and returned to your own country where, proud of the reactions you knew how to provoke, you proclaimed yourself a god.

Celsius’s is perhaps the first variation on the Christmas story of which examples closer to our time are Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ, Nino Ricci’s Testament, Jim Crace’s Quarantine, José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ—all efforts to translate the essential narrative into contemporary terms, sometimes stripping it of its obvious religious core, sometimes illuminating that core through a personal expression of faith. Like Luke’s story, most of the Christmas stories that followed it attempted to tell, however intimately or allusively, of the experience of hope after despair and redemption after guilt.

Throughout the centuries, the story became enriched with further imaginings that lent it a Northern rather than a Middle Eastern landscape: Yule trees instead of palm trees, reindeer instead of camels and, of course, Father Christmas. St. Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop of Myra in Lycia, Asia Minor, was metamorphosed sometime in the nineteenth century from patron saint of children into the jolly old man who, in the American-Dutch dialect, is called “Sinte Klaas” or Santa Claus. The original Nicholas of Myra was known for both his generosity and his piety, a frugal man who, even as a baby, refused to take his mother’s breast except on Wednesdays and Fridays. Legend has it that the young Nicholas, hearing that three young sisters were going to be sold into prostitution by their needy father, wrapped three round pieces of gold in a cloth and, under cover of darkness, threw them through a window of the girls’ house, thus saving them from their ignominious fate. For that reason, in Christian iconography, Nicholas is represented holding a gift of three golden balls which (fittingly enough for a saint roped in by the commercial machineries of the season) later became the symbol for a pawnbroker’s shop.

But neither belief in the exact date of Christ’s birth nor faith in the marvellous Nativity story is necessary to justify our joy when (in the Northern hemisphere) winter starts to end and spring can be soon expected or when (in the Southern hemisphere) the summer holidays begin. Christians will no doubt rejoice in the remembered birth of their Redeemer, while for the secular world Christmas as a season offers the chance to celebrate the rebirth of the world itself—its repeated conclusion as well as its repeated beginning, the end of the working year and the start of a better year to come.

Charles Dickens, perhaps more than any other writer, understood this celebration of “joy and goodwill towards all men” that Christmas entails. His Christmas Stories created for the season a mythology that, while never denying its roots in religious faith, lends the notion of Christmas a kind of cosmological state of happiness. More than a consciously understood Church holiday, grounded in astronomy and theological arguments, after Dickens, Christmas became the season in which we must, like Scrooge, echo the generosity of the tired earth and make merry atonement for our selfishness and greed, giving thanks for the gifts that we receive and offering gifts to others as a sign of our allegiance to the beleaguered human family. After Dickens, to set a story at Christmastime is to assume, on the part of the reader, the acknowledgment of a prestigious setting, of a period charged with ancient significance, of a season of promised redemption, however much tinged today with Christmas-card sentimentality and less-than-spiritual mercantile dealings.

In the numberless depictions of the Annunciation, when the Angel comes to tell Mary that the Son of God will be born to her, a small cross or a painting of the Crucifixion is shown on one of the walls of Mary’s room. This is not a thoughtless anachronism on the part of the painter, nor merely the conventional representation of a contemporary interior. Like the recurrence of the seasons, its presence affirms the living circularity of time, the promise that birth will follow death which will in turn follow birth. Because all things must end in order to begin again, the knowledge that our efforts and joys and sufferings will have no cut-and-dried conclusions must be cause for rejoicing, not despair, since this must surely mean that a tidy perfection is not expected from us, but rather a stubborn delight in beginning again every day.

The authors of the stories that follow, collected under the merry canopy of Christmas, take for granted the myriad connotations that the mention of Christmas evokes. Something is expected in this season, something hoped for, or feared, or happily awaited, something whose quality remains mysterious to us, because the change that is to come, for all its certainty, gives no indication of its nature. All we know is that darkness will be followed by light, that the days will be longer and brighter, that the commonplaces which mark the change of mood and weather will duly make their appearance, and that, in such expectation, we will begin again, without knowing with what luck or success. Robert Louis Stevenson, writing what he called “A Christmas Sermon” in the last days of 1888, had this to say of our experience:

There is indeed one element in human destiny that not blindness itself can controvert: whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. It is so in every art and study; it is so above all in the continent art of living well. Here is a pleasant thought for the year’s end.

A pleasant thought indeed, echoed in the stories that follow. Every reader knows that the best stories have no ending but continue beyond the page in the reader’s own world. Such inconclusiveness is no doubt a kind of failure, but one that, in all humility and confidence, allows the authors to extend their own landscapes into that of their readers, whose splendid failure it will be never to reach the farthest limit of a memorable voyage through the old Christmas story, imagined all over again for every new generation, “like of each thing that in season grows.”

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