Five Stories for Fall: Literature to Read by a Fire
It’s not that authors sit down to write a story for the sake of a season, but particular traits of writing seem tailor-made for certain times of year. Classic fall stories are united by a common vivifying effect, a quality akin to the leaf rattle, stark winds, and chill of November. They are not typically light or easy. Instead, many tend to bring on the bone-ache of an ice bath that leaves the skin on fire and the mind tingly, alive and grateful for a pain that has ended. A great fall story is cathartic and refreshing in boldly confronting the problems of a mortal world and trouble in the human heart. And they are often unhurried in their wrestling with such dilemmas, not wishing to pass over the suffering too quickly, searching and groaning for some lasting thing--sacrifice, purity, worth--with excruciating intent.
But if these stories nod at a world in pain, a world growing cold and losing light, running through them is a stream of longing, refusing to ice over and kept fluid and quick by an enduring heat, an immutable torchfire flicking at the dark failing to overcome it.
These five stories fit this mold well, beckoning the reader to reflect and bordering, at times, on lament for a spring on the opposite end of time. And more than dream of spring again, they wait in the dark for something entirely new, as if defiant in the mortal predicament in which they stand.
1. “The Bear” by William Faulkner
This standalone narrative from the patchworked novel, Go Down, Moses, is one of Faulkner’s best. Written with a pure and crisp bite, the prose bears witness to a master craftsman, the language becoming a mature world of its own and a veritable force, encompassing the story’s ancient wilderness and Old Ben, the indomitable bear. Conveniently, it’s also less disorienting than some of Faulkner’s other great works (The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying) and has the feel of something grandpa penned down for posterity, lest future generations forget the textures and the rules of an old world.
Though old in spirit, the plot of “The Bear” works through the half-finished pains of youth: a young boy coming of age, trying to find his place among men through the timeless autumn rite of hunting. Such context on the surface most obviously suits it to this season with its deep woods, crystalled humus, steam breath, and that brown liquor of hunters consumed in tribute to the purity of the wild.
Pairing Suggestion: Rye Whiskey, 100 Proof, by natural light or oil lantern.
2. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Set in the far-reaches of the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century, legendary traveller Marco Polo plays chess with the great Kublai Khan, recounting for him the many glories of an empire too large for him to see so late in life. But from the beginning the reader is told the Khan is mistrustful of Polo’s tales, and it doesn’t take long to see why. The book reads like a series of prose poems or lyrical short stories as Polo weaves for the Khan fifty-five fantastic scenes, given as reports to the aged, impatient man, making his inevitable descent from the realm of godlike emperor into mortal territory.
With human limitation in the background, Marco Polo offers Kublai Khan something infinitely greater than a vain exercise in praise or a ledger of his vast sum of lands: “the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.”
Pairing Suggestion: Proud Italian red wine that opens over hours, slow oak firelight.
3. Child of God, by Cormac McCarthy
Meet Lester Ballard. In the opening pages, he is described as “a child of God much like yourself perhaps.” Hold these words close, then wander the hills of Tennessee with him, peeping and ill-dressed, a rifle slung over the shoulder. Then, when you’ve finished, pick up the gauntlet thrown at your feet in those opening words and dare to answer, if you can, the marvelous ambiguity of “perhaps,” a small narrative miracle in the void.
Composed of sentences in a tone at once biblical and common, McCarthy strikes an impossible balance in voice, one only he could invent. One swears it’s the drone of a hillbilly prophet or an old owl among the renegades of the Tennessee hollows.
Pairing Suggestion: Islay Scotch, neat by candlelight--unscented, please.
4. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
World War II is at end, and scars are fleshing over wounds on bodies, landscapes, and memories. A burned man lies dying in a bombed-out villa in Italy, recounting marvelous details of history, naming the winds of the Sahara, and longing for the woman he loved. He can only manage his fantastic stories between the numbing doses of morphine, a narrative fact that infuses a swaying rhythm into the whole novel, projecting a dusky half-light into the mind. Even still, Ondaatje’s prose is mercury, working quick and smooth, first threading together the hurting lives, then tearing them apart with polar desires: erasure and knowledge, anonymity and love.
If the prose were not appropriate enough for fall, the haunted, backwards-looking characters mark this as a distinctly autumnal story. Mostly dead and in love, the characters suffer the darkening caves of aftermath as the fire dies out.
(For a thematic prelude, check out Michael Ondaatje’s poem, “The Cinnamon Peeler”.)
Paring Suggestion: Afternoon light through window, gimlets: Hendrick's gin, lime, soda.
5. Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill
O’Neill wrote a great American drama capitalizing on some of the most common textures of American life: love for money, addiction, wasted opportunity, and repetition. In these ways, the Tyrone family is all-too familiar. And their appetite for both lies and hope are tragically American.
It’s striking drama to watch a loving family traffic almost entirely in lies the way the Tyrones do. The effect alienates and exposes the audience, as we first think we know and do better. But as the family grows more familiar, as connections to mother and father and brothers become inevitable, we find ourselves drinking the Tyrone family brand of watered-down whiskey--an image of a diluted love which everybody pretends not to notice.
There’s an old folk song that goes, “If the whole world’s a bottle and life’s but a dram, when the bottle gets empty it sure ain’t worth a damn.” If there’s any truth to the song, the Tyrone family is one to fight that bottle ever getting emptied, even if it means watering the whiskey just to prolong a foggy memory of a time past when the dawn of life was yet to come.
Pairing Suggestion: Irish whiskey, Knappogue Castle in tumbler, indoor firelight, rocking chair.