(CLASSIC: from Collected Stories, Penguin Modern Classics)
Nabokov is the 20th-century writer I revere above, pretty much, all others.
This is very moving stuff; the situation of the old couple, uprooted by Nazi persecution and in a strange land (a situation which Nabokov himself had personally experienced), a poignancy that not even the hypertrophic craziness of their son diminishes. But it’s the handling of the details that is so marvellous here: the jewel-like precision of Nabokov’s style, the specificity, the way those details work like poetic images to generate precisely the surplus of meaning, of referentiality, that is the core of the boy’s schizophrenia. It’s a commentary upon the working of art, particularly shorter or lyric art, as well as a superbly effective emotional portrait of real people. Two things I especially love: the section in which ‘she’ goes through the photos in her album, and each snapshot opens to a whole person, and a whole world (‘Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths—until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.’) And the beautiful inflections of the final paragraph; the hakiu-like vividness; the terrible, dangling possibility of the last sentence.
(MODERN: from the anthology Hackers, Ace Books)
Paul J. McAuley is Britain’s best contemporary writer of SF. His own training and academic background is in the biological and biochemical sciences, so when he writes his brief but resonant story of genetic engineering, as he does here – he knows what he’s talking about. But though the science is compelling, it’s the way the keyholes of the story’s 10 brief sections grant us evocative glimpses into a cumulatively estranging future version of our own world that works so memorably here. Some SF trades in monsters that threaten the protagonists, and give us the pleasurable thrills and fears. In McAuley’s effortless piece, it is genes that are the creature; which is to say, life itself, in its purest state. Brilliant.
(CLASSIC: from Collected Stories, Vintage)
This is both the funniest and the most frightening story I know. A pair of smug, left wing intellectuals have bought themselves a weekend cottage at a wonderfully knock down price – all because of that gruesome murder in the bathroom. Which doesn’t bother people like us, does it darling? Of course not!
(MODERN: from Too Much Happiness, Vintage).
Another murder. As Munro reaches extreme old age, her stories are sharper-edged, more brutal and dangerous. In this one she imagines what it would feel like to survive the slaughter of your children.
(CLASSIC: from Sahmerdan, Yapi Kredi Publishers)
Sait Faik, one of the most prominent short-story writers of Turkish literature, is deservedly known as “the Chekhov of Turkey”. His unique realism, touched by a deep lyricism, is unmatched, making him one of the great authors in Turkish literature.
His short-story, “World for Sale”, demonstrates all his talent and and great insight. The wretched condition of the protagonist is told in a realistic way, with glimpses into his inner contradictions. The unfolding of the plot and the unexpected turn it takes towards the end add to the beauty of this short-story.
(MODERN: from Gecegezen Kizlar, Yapi Kredi Publishers)
Tomris Uyar is one of the most original voices in modern Turkish literature, renowned as a short-story writer as well as a prolific translator of English literature. She had written many short-stories in a variety of styles. Her short-stories involve innovative features and an elegant poetic language.
In “Night-roaming Girls”, Tomris Uyar tells a modern story like a fairy-tale. She excels at creating for the reader both a realistic and fabulous atmospehere throughout the story. In this way, she manages to explore a universal theme as the hardships that women suffer in modern world.
‘Night-Roaming Girls’ has been translated and published in Issue No.121 of Descant magazine.
(CLASSIC: from Complete Stories, Faber)
Flannery O’Connor’s stories are kinetic things. They move with a life-force of their own, and their endings are as surprising, as shocking, as they are inevitable. I love, above all, her daring and her absolute courage on the page. O’Connor gives a story the freedom to be itself, in all its peculiarity. In doing so, it becomes absolutely itself, absolutely human.
‘Revelation’ is the story of Mrs. Ruby Turpin, a well fed, middle-aged smallholder who’s comfortable in her belief that she’s done right all her life by her husband, her farm, and her God. She routinely measures her worth by what she is not. All along the way, through many a thing that seemingly shouldn’t be said, let alone committed to paper, I feel myself willing O’Connor on. Hold your nerve, Flannery. Don’t play it safe. And she doesn’t. Her prose doesn’t flinch. In the story’s pivotal moment, an insult from a ‘lunatic’ girl in a doctor’s waiting room lays Mrs. Turpin low. She can’t fathom how she could be the target for such an injury; how she could be likened by a complete stranger to ‘a wart hog from Hell’. She can’t believe Jesus would allow her to stand so misjudged. Even with so deeply flawed a character, even with a character who cannot escape O’Connor’s eye for the grotesque, the story – common Mrs. Turpin’s common story – transcends the narrow, brutish everyday and opens outward to the visionary as, on the final page, Mrs Turpin looks out ’through the very heart of mystery’ and sees ‘a field of living fire’. The leap of storytelling is, for me, as credible as it is astonishing.
(MODERN: from The Manchester Fiction Prize).
‘Days Necrotic’, winner of this year’s Manchester Fiction Prize, has to be my favourite story of 2011. It begins so strangely and yet so simply and it unfolds with the inescapable logic of a dream but is made vividly true-to-life by Coupland’s attention to (and love for) the mundane. The story is as elegant and as it is everyday; as dark as it is tender. A love story, it is beautifully restrained in its telling; it is also charged with the intensity and yearning, as Patrick says, of the ‘straining heart.’
(CLASSIC: from Selected Stories, Wordsworth Classics)
This is the shortest short story I know, but one of the most powerful. It’s about a man’s inability to grieve for his son, killed in the First World War. He is reminded of his son by an employee, and when he finds a trapped fly in his inkwell repeatedly drops ink on it until it dies. The story reminds me of Lear’s speech about how “as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,” and makes you feel both the random cruelty of war and the brutality of taking any life. It’s a masterpiece of concision, ambiguity, rage and control.
(MODERN: from Indefinite Nights, Back to Front)
Indefinite Nights is a collection of stories which follow the professional life of a young nurse on a journey through the theory and practice of nursing itself. General wards, psychiatric wards, geriatric wards, surgical wards, and maternity wards – with their patients, nurses and doctors – are examined by Ferguson’s acute yet humane eye. The title story is about a nurse caring for a young celebrity who may or may not be terminally ill. Their intimate relationship is compellingly-written, bleakly funny, yet full of human warmth; it could only be written by someone who knows nursing intimately. One of many prize-winning authors who vanished from mainstream publishing with the demise of Andre Deutsch, Ferguson is an outstanding novelist and short-story writer who deserves a much wider readership.
(CLASSIC: from The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings, Penguin Classics)
My first encounter with the short story form. A teacher read it out to the class. It was a warm summer’s day in Surrey and we were shivering with terror. One boy had to leave the classroom. That’s the power of words.
(MODERN: from Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Granta)
Americans embrace the short story with so much more enthusiasm than we do in the UK. This is the first collection from Wells Tower. His stories often feature sour, sad or sarcastic men. The lightness of touch comes from the humour and his ability to create compelling voices for his characters. ‘Door in Your Eye’ is about an elderly man who goes to stay with his overbearing daughter and notices strange goings on in the house opposite.
Sevgi Soysal is a seminal author in Turkey whose keen wit combined with a political sharpness that led her to influence many writers who came after her. She was especially known for addressing gender issues in an insightful yet highly entertaining manner, hence the story I recommend: ‘The Perforated Amulet’.
The contemporary author I have chosen to submit is Ahmet Büke. He is a young author who has already won Turkey’s two most prestigious literary awards for the short story. He has in many ways become the voice of his generation, a generation that ‘didn’t have its coup’, do to speak, and is therefore thought of as less political, but is actually very political in its own way. The story I have chosen to recommend, ‘Saturday Mother’, is particularly exemplary of this. His stories often have an elusive quality to them that requires multiple readings, but as you peel back the layers, you reap the rewards.
Although not the most representative work of this Slovenian classic of short prose, I love this story for its high spirit, for the power it gives to one’s mind against the chances of destiny and pressures of the society. A graduate finds himself choosing between a career that is expected of him and encouragements he has received from a literary magazine which published his writings. He seeks advice from an old professor, who of course cannot deliver a straight answer but tells a story instead.
Florian has set new standards for what I seek and admire in contemporary prose. This short story is like a boy’s breathing, describing his primary school teacher through the desires and words of a boy, but the mindset and literary structure of a man. Bananas were scarce in Romania three decades ago, and while waiting in front of the grocery store for the rare luxury, a boy is tricked out of the line by his favourite teacher.
(CLASSIC: from The Collected Works of Oscar Wilde, Wordsworth Library)
This combines Wilde’s beautiful prose with his razor-sharp wit. We follow Lord Arthur on his journey through ‘polite’ society as he tries to escape the fate that he believes has been decreed for him, all the way to the lovely, unexpected twist at the end. Its 20 or so pages feel utterly complete.
(MODERN: from Fidelity, Arrow)
I first discovered this Canadian poet/playwright/novelist/short story writer with his novel Martin Sloane. Everything he’s written is worth reading but his short stories are sublime. The title story of his collection uses the fairly standard structure of a narrator learning about himself through a brief encounter with others but Redhill comes at his characters from unexpected angles.
(CLASSIC: from Red Dirt Marijuana, Citadel)
These days Southern is best remembered for his screen-writing endeavours – hardly surprising, given that he had Dr Strangelove and Easy Rider on his CV. But his earlier prose works made him a favourite of the Sixties counter-culture cognoscenti: the Beatles put him in amongst the ersatz crowd on the cover of Sergeant Pepper. This story, from his 1967 collection Red Dirt Marijuana, concerns Murray, a young white American studying at the Sorbonne. He’s hopelessly besotted with Paris’ none-more-cool jazz scene. But when he’s befriended by a young black couple, Murray discovers there are strict limitations to how far his fascination with their lifestyle will go. Languid and funny, it’s marvellously evocative of its time and place, with nimbly-sketched characters. Murray’s proclivity for cultural tourism is satirised without mercy. Southern’s prose – deceptively light, masterfully precise – doesn’t take prisoners.
(MODERN: from Voice of the Fire, Top Shelf Productions).
Like Southern, Moore’s most widely known for writing in another field, namely comics. So far, his only full prose work is the 1996 story collection Voice of the Fire. Typically original and idiosyncratic, it contains interlinked stories from throughout the entire history of Moore’s home town of Northampton. This, the collection’s opening story, is quite breathtakingly ambitious. The eponymous dim-witted Stone Age man has been abandoned by his tribe after his mother’s death – in prehistoric Northampton, obviously. Poor defenceless Hob can’t help being taken advantage of by unscrupulous strangers with grisly intentions. It all ends in tears, of course. Most strikingly Moore tells the whole tale from Hob’s perspective, in his own words – that is, in an imagined, tiny Stone Age vocabulary that can’t differentiate between past or present, dream or reality. In the hands of a lesser writer this would be cringe-worthy show-boating. But Moore simply tells an extraordinary, compelling story in an extraordinary, compelling fashion. It’s quite magnificently strange and authentic.
(CLASSIC: from the journal Sovremennik, 1836)
According to some, Gogol is the inventor of the modern short story. What I like about him is his humor and his playfulness, the realism behind his caricatures. The great thing about ‘The nose’ is that the story made it perfectly possible for a literary character to wake up one morning without a nose and some moments later see that nose entering a carriage in a hurry.
(MODERN: from Suddenly, a Knock on he Door, FSG Originals, 2012)
Keret’s stories are almost always hilarious, but at the same time they touch a deep essence of humanity. You feel for the characters, who are funny but not made fun of; they are in fact taken very seriously in all their failure and loneliness. That’s what good short stories are capable of, more than any other genre: showing the human vulnerability behind all that goes on. The (talking) goldfish-story plays with the ‘three wishes’ theme from fairy tales. I also like the fact that Keret is a real short story writer, and successful too.
(CLASSIC: from Little Birds, Penguin Classics)
I chose this story for its exploration of taboo. Manuel rents rooms next to a school, and fills his terrace with birds to attract small girls to his flat. It a shocking story, beautifully written. Anais Nin wrote erotic stories because she badly needed money. She wrote that ‘to bring them into the light was at first difficult’, perhaps because they are so exposing and controversial in their subject matter, but also because women writers at this time didn’t write about such matters.
(MODERN: from Self Help, Faber)
I have only read this story once, but it has stayed with me for perhaps ten years and I still remember the way I felt when I first read it. We are intimately drawn into the life of a girl as she grows up witnessing and caught up in her mother’s gradual and devastating mental breakdown. It captures the emotion with such insight and depth, it left me aching with sadness.
(CLASSIC: from Fairy Tales, Penguin Popular Classics)
I choose ‘The Snow Queen’ because it is such a vivid story. The narration flits with energy, like swirling snow. I can feel the cold, the sharp icicles, the freezing over of Kay’s heart. There’s a strong play of good and evil throughout; the wicked demon and his shattered mirror showering the earth, the seeking of the word ‘eternity’, the persistence of Gerda in trying to find Kay, and the kindness and cruelty she meets on her journey is all jumbled and yet falls together with a thread of magic. It is a moral tale in which nature is given a voice: rivers, birds, trees, animals all speak and are respected. ‘The Snow Queen’ reigns supreme throughout over the tale, beautiful and strange, unpredictable and powerful. It is wickedly good.
(MODERN: from For Esme with Love and Squalor, Penguin)
I can’t think of a better example of writing that so economically ‘shows rather than tells.’ It’s densely packed with emotion using dialogue and vivid characterisation. The reader learns the protagonist is ‘damaged goods’ and cares for him; the tension is hitched up right until the shocking end. Great stuff!
(CLASSIC: from Chekhov: The Comic Stories, Andre Deutsch)
It is astonishing to think that Chekhov wrote this satirical story in 1880, one of 528 stories he wrote, half of which are comic. It feels as fresh, daring and funny as an experimental, genre-busting ‘anti-story’ of our times. The fiction he mocks is brought alive, as is the social and popular literary history of Chekhov’s time.
(MODERN: from A Way to Catch the Dust, Mango)
Grenadian writer Jacob Ross’s exemplary short story, set in the Caribbean, is about how far a mother will go to protect her children. Norma has discovered that her teenage son has fallen prey to the “niceness” – heroin – and she is on a mission to do something about it, perhaps something unthinkable. The way in which the suspense is built is masterful as Ross sets the scene for a drama that is unpredictable, psychologically-probing, quietly-deadly, shocking, spine-chilling.
(CLASSIC: from To Room Nineteen, Flamingo)
Deceptively simple – two ex-lovers bump into each other at a party, 20 years after seeing each other last. Lessing’s genius is to show, painfully clearly, that really nothing has changed, it’s all still there, they’re still in love with each other, despite them both having families. It’s a gut-wrenching demonstration of the idea that time doesn’t really heal – and there is such as thing as the real deal.
(MODERN: from Love of Fat Men, Penguin)
A local girl plays an innocent prank on a village priest, pretending to be in love with him, and he jokingly goes along with it. But when she’s gone, all his loneliness wells up as he realises that no woman has ever looked at him with sincere love and desire – and that his faith doesn’t make up for it. It’s a deep and tragic shot of an ordinary, unremembered, mistaken life – and of the terrible pain that can lie underneath a person’s joviality.
(CLASSIC: from Tigers Are Better-Looking, Penguin 20th Century Classics)
A beautifully modulated story about a single woman’s descent into confusion, and ultimately imprisonment, in post-war London. The West Indian vernacular is brilliantly sustained and the narrative is full of startling images and observations which shed light upon the psychological fragility of the central character.
(MODERN: from It’s Beginning to Hurt, Vintage)
A middle-aged man faces cancer and makes a trip from New England to New York City in order to undergo a biopsy. It is a long day in the city, during which he now realises he loathes the place in which he had once revelled. The deceptively simple conclusion to the story brings him face-to-face with life in the broadest sense.
(MODERN: from Last Evenings on Earth, Vintage)
Macabre, playing with a sense of the diabolical lodged in the relationship between two sisters and their need for protection from an unseen enemy and one man’s attempt to provide that. The narrative has an inevitable force that hides nothing, shocks and yet still haunts. The reader is forced to look through the windows of an exposed home fully aware of complicity.
(MODERN: as yet uncollected)
Doyle’s short stories are a wonderful surprise. It’s rare a novelist who can craft them quite as well as this. Here, Doyle explores love. Not new, not erotic, not dysfunctional, not embittered – the usual territory of the short story writer. This is the most difficult love for a writer of all: that of years of intimacy, knowledge and fulfilment. Middle-aged love rendered clear, unsentimental and beautiful.
(CLASSIC: from The Garden Party and Other Stories, Penguin)
Because it is delicate and lovely but still engages with the realities of class in a very powerful way.
(MODERN: from Self Help, Faber)
Because it’s funny and wry, written in a staccato style that is self-conscious and ironic, but it also manages to be full of emotion and truth.
(CLASSIC: from Selected Stories, Heinemann).
I could have named almost any Lawrence short story – here, as elsewhere, he takes us directly into the claustrophobia of the family home, where death hangs heavy over a wife and mother. Gritty and real, Lawrence’s fictional world is also a means to other ends, which are psychological, existential and even mystical. He was a master of the short story and the form forced him to kerb his flower-kissing, genital-naming excesses.
(MODERN: from In-Flight Entertainment)
The title story of Helen Simpson’s latest collection is darkly humorous, topical, honest and, ultimately, depressing. This is typical of her multi-layered, concise, Larkinesque explorations of life. In this story she looks at flying and death and climate change, but she is equally suggestive and sharp on domestic life, sexuality, childbirth and children.
(CLASSIC: from The Best Tales of Hoffmann, Dover Editions)
Nobody does automata like Hoffman. His more well-known tale ‘The Sandman’ helped Freud towards his definition of the uncanny and this earlier story also explores the unsettling effect of mechanical figures, alongside a chilling ghost story. ‘Automata’ is also about storytelling and I love the way one character, when challenged for breaking off his puzzling tale abruptly, rails against fiction in which the stage is swept clean and the reader left sated. Like him, I enjoy being left to wonder and worry at the mystery of a story long after I’ve read it.
(MODERN: from Things That Never Happen, Gollancz).
I love this story. Again and again in his fiction, Harrison captures the extraordinary in the everyday, and the way we crash through each other’s lives, with almost unbearable precision. In ‘Egnaro’, a Manchester bookseller confesses his obsession with a secret country to his accountant. Like the mysterious country described, the story embeds itself in your imagination and can’t be escaped.
(CLASSIC: from The Gift of the Magi and Other Short Stories, Dover)
‘The Gift of the Magi’ by O. Henry because it was the first short story that I remember reading, and I still remember how it made me gasp out loud at the end.
(MODERN: from Island, Vintage)
My all-time favourite remains ‘The Boat’ by Alistair MacLeod – for the beauty of the writing, for its steady, deceptively quiet tone and for the immense, mesmerising power it holds over you as you read it. My current favourite is “Diary of An Interesting Year” by Helen Simpson for the sheer, spot-on, scary believability of this creepy, disturbing, dystopian future.
(CLASSIC: from The Prussian Officer and Other Stories, Penguin)
One of a score of stories by Lawrence I might have chosen. Best way to say why, is simply to quote Louisa, the younger of the vicar’s daughters, as she revolts and, unlike her sister, insists on a life of her own: ‘They are wrong – they are all wrong. They have ground out their souls for what isn’t worth anything, and there isn’t a grain of love in them anywhere. And I will have love. They want us to deny it. They’ve never found it, so they want to say it doesn’t exist. But I will have it. I will love – it is my birthright.’
(MODERN: from Waving At The Gardener, Bloomsbury)
An extraordinarily fine story – understated, allusive – setting two lives together in a small space of time. Edie and Wil meet and show one another at least something of their very different selves, all under the rule and injunction of the story’s title. Jo Lloyd does what the best short-story writers do: holds up a brief passage of life, makes us feel its value and poignancy, then returns it into the flood of all things passing.
(MODERN CLASSIC: from Collected Stories, Penguin)
My favourite short stories are in the mid-range, neither classic nor contemporary. I love Nabokov’s ‘Signs and Symbols’, for instance, because the boy’s “referential mania” describes the world a protagonist experiences. Because of that story, I think of all fictions as essentially paranoid, with nothing incidental.
(MODERN CLASSIC: from Complete Stories, Faber)
I love Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’ because she rips her protagonist in half. Julian can never speak of the old family mansion without contempt nor think of it without longing, and I think this model of a divided protagonist is useful to keep in mind for all fiction, of any length.
(CLASSIC: from Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Virago)
The narrator answers her dying father’s request that she write at least one conventional story, and attempts to do so. A kind of meta-story, full of Paley’s wry playfulness, a meditation on the comforts yet potential tyranny and inadequacy of conventional narrative. In the process two truly moving stories – that of a neighbour drug addict and that of the narrator’s poignant relationship with her father – emerge and indeed merge.
(MODERN: from The Whole Story and Other Stories, Penguin).
Smith plays similar games with narrative, and once again there’s nothing empty or trivial about the way she does it. This story centres around the fading copy of a book in a second-hand bookshop, and touches on the stories of all who have come in contact with it – even the fly that settles on it! – while the narrator tries to make up her mind as to which is the real story. The effect is to show us the contingency of any one story, but also the importance and poignancy of the totality of our stories.
(CLASSIC: from In Our Time, Scribner)
The story takes place in a hotel room where a neglected wife is looking out of the window at an unloved cat who is trying to find shelter from a storm. It is a very simple story, but very emotive and memorable.
(MODERN: from The Bus Driver Who Wanted To be God & Other Stories, Toby Press)
I love it because it is funny and quirky and deceptively simple. It tells the story of a power crazed bus driver who delights in closing the bus doors and driving off just as late souls race up to the doors and try to leap aboard. Like all of Keret’s fiction it is clever and contemporary and it can make you smile and squirm at the same time.
(CLASSIC: from Dubliners, 1914)
As for a classic short story, I would like to recommend “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” by James Joyce. It is included in Dubliners and deals with one of the most painful moments in modern Irish history: the aftermath of the death of Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish “uncrowned king”. Joyce’s politics are strictly connected with the legacy of Parnell and the leader’s attempt to bring Home Rule to Ireland. Not only does this short story help us understand the politics of Joyce and his position towards Irish affairs, but it also sheds light upon Joyce as a political author rather than someone who regarded political events in his own country coldly and from a distance.
(MODERN: from A Link with the River, 1989)
As for a modern short story, I’d like to recommend Desmond Hogan’s “The Man from Korea”. In this story — looking at Ireland from a global perspective and one which allows us to see the continuous risk of cultural and political isolation run by Ireland in modern times— we find Hogan’s ambivalence in being at the same time disillusioned by and attracted to the Irish case and its potential to mirror the destiny of today’s global world as in a cracked looking-glass.
(CLASSIC: from The Stories of John Cheever, Penguin)
I would have liked to suggest a British writer, but finally have to admit that John Cheever’s very short story about a young man’s brief meeting with his estranged father in New York is as near perfect as it gets.
The story begins ‘The last time I saw my father…’ and ends ‘…and that was the last time I saw my father.’ The reader assumes he means the last time ever, but in fact, it could be part of an on-off relationship which will continue to be difficult. It is a story which repays close reading. The father smells of ‘a rich compound of whiskey, after-shave lotion, shoe polish, woolens, and the rankness of a mature male.’ He is a businessman, whose secretary has arranged the meeting, and he insults the waiters in three different bars in three different languages. However, when you ask yourself why he has already had a drink, and why he has dowsed himself with after-shave and had his shoes freshly cleaned, the image of a man who is desperately anxious about this meeting with a son he hasn’t seen for three years takes on a poignancy which could otherwise be missed.
(MODERN: from The Progress of Love, Flamingo).
Of the many fine stories by Munro, this is my personal favourite. As so often in her writing, the narrative spans many years of a woman’s life, from an incident in her childhood when a local boy was drowned, to a car journey with her husband and two small children along the border between Canada and the USA. We realise there is friction in the marriage, but the real story is the relationship between parents and children, and the duty which we owe, and the failure we cannot escape. The children in the story are beautifully drawn, real children with real childish observation of life. The ending is crucifyingly painful, especially if you’re a parent, in the unexpected and the completely unsurprising way of which Munro is such a master.
(CLASSIC: from Nabokov’s Dozen, 1958)
My favourite ‘classic’ short story is Signs and Symbols. It’s full of tragedy, but also very witty; the story of two old Russian emigres and their son, who wants to step out of life. Beautifully written – like all his work.
(MODERN: from Color of Darkness: Eleven Stories and a Novella)
Another favourite of mine, a bit more modern, but still 50 years old: Sound of Talking (James Purdy). It’s dark, painful; a story about love and despair.
(CLASSIC: from First Love and Other Novellas, Penguin Modern Classics)
Samuel Beckett’s ‘First Love’ (1945) marks a turning-point in his work: the moment he was able, by writing in French, to shake off the influence of Joyce and create something uniquely Beckettian. (The narrator here only ‘loves’ in order to secure a room in which to do nothing.) Darkly funny, with musical cadences that have been much imitated but never matched, ‘First Love’ is worth reading comparatively, in the French original and in Beckett’s own, English translation. He was a talented author in the first language but a genius in the second.
(MODERN: from In-Flight Entertainment, Vintage).
Helen Simpson is one of the best living exponents of the short story. Each of her collections is worth owning; but I recommend ‘The Tipping Point’ because, quite simply, it takes the most effective approach I’ve yet encountered in the form to the psychological and moral enormity of climate change. It has pulse, a compelling voice, and its massive scope is bound within an intimate drama.
(CLASSIC: from Selected Stories, Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)
It is difficult to believe that E M Forster’s, The Machine Stops was first published in 1909. It is one of the most prescient stories I have ever read. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, people live in underground ‘cells’ completely dependent on ‘the Machine’ which services all their spiritual and material needs. Ideas and knowledge derived from direct interaction with the world become taboo. In an uncanny feat of imaginative projection, Forster foresees a world of virtual reality, text messaging and video conferencing that gradually becomes the only means of contact/communication between humans.
A century later, the story feels as if it was written just yesterday.
(MODERN: from Summer Lightning and Other Stories, Longman Caribbean Writers Series).
Olive Senior is at her very best when she writes about childhood trauma. ‘The Boy who Loved Ice-cream’ is a deceptively simple story about Benjy, a young boy in rural Jamaica, whose only desire in the world is to taste ice-cream. But there is his jealous, ageing father with a young wife that he mistrusts, and a sensitive child (Benjy) that he does not believe is his. Senior combines these elements to create a heart-rending and unforgettable narrative about the selfish, casual psychological violence that parents are capable of subjecting their children to.
This is an atypically novel, composed of several short stories. A set of parables based on the miracles of the New Testament, the book rewrites the story of Jesus from the perspective of Judas (who is obsessed with the idea prophecy must be fulfilled) and from that of the individuals upon whom miracles were performed—without their consent and subsequently very much to their horrific detriment. Filled with humor and poignancy, The Time of Miracles is a trenchant commentary on the power of ideology in one’s life, upon what it means to hold beliefs, and upon the nature of faith.
Marija Knezevic’s prose evidently evokes Gogol’s and Harms’ heritage when it is about her specific sense for humor. Even her most poetic stories are quite deliberately colored by that very specific tragic comical angle which, in her opinion, opens a lot of space not only for imagination, but for perceptiveness on the first place and, finally, wisdom. Her stories (especially in the book ‘Fabula rasa’) are placed somewhere in-between well observed bare reality and its fantastic echo in the writer’s mind.
(CLASSIC: from The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, Puffin Books)
This horrifying and heartbreaking story of childhood bullying makes me cry now just as much as when I first read it, at around the same age as the characters. The victim and his two tormentors personify good versus evil in the world, but all three are too human to be stereotypes. The spare, straightforward language heightens the overwhelming sense of dread that increases—along with the bullies’ cruelty—until the shocking, beautiful end.
(MODERN: from Honored Guest, Vintage Books)
In this story that’s somehow bleak and hopeful all at once, a needy, aimless woman is uplifted by visiting a not-very-close friend staying in a psychiatric ward for depression. She visits “too much, sometimes two and three times a day,” and bonds with one of her friend’s roommates, a sad elderly woman. The deadpan narrative contrasts perfectly with hilarious lines of dialogue like this pronouncement to the visitor by another of the friend’s roommates, a violent teenager: “‘I’m passionate, intense and filled with private reverie, and so is my friend,’ the girl said, ‘so don’t slime us like you do.’” I’ve read this story again and again, and it always makes me laugh out loud, and shake my head at its brilliance.
(CLASSIC: from Selected Stories, Heinemann).
A miner’s wife waits for her husband to return from the pit. He’s late. Is he in the pub, or has something else happened? That’s the simple starting point. But – and this is a characteristic of Lawrence’s stories – the impact is achieved by the author’s careful management of delicate sub-strands, which run beneath the surface like underground streams, before bubbling up at the end. The story turns on two revelations: firstly, we learn what has happened to the absent husband. Many writers would let the story play itself out from this moment on. But for Lawrence this event, in of itself, is not the point of the story, and in fact he uses it to facilitate a second, greater revelation: the wife’s reaction. Here Lawrence manages to rent open a dimension of human behaviour that would seem beyond the reach of other writers – something the reader feels to be shockingly and universally true – as the miner’s wife marshals both her emotional and practical responses to the news. It’s utterly unflinching, a breathtaking display of Lawrence’s powers of empathy – what these days would be called emotional intelligence – and shows why he’s considered among the best modernist short story writers, along with Mansfield and Joyce, and Chekhov before them.
(MODERN: from Back in the World, Vintage)
A rather odd and ostensibly misshapen story following an evening in the life of a teenage girl, as she steals from the cinema where she works, makes a cruel prank phone call, then retrieves a bicycle from the bottom of a swimming pool. It’s approximately arranged in two halves, and at first they appear to have little to say about each other (structurally, it’s a bit like Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Fly’ in this respect). But the seemingly chance arrangement of material belies a careful craft; each disparate event is invested with great weight and mystery, and you couldn’t take anything away without compromising the story’s structural integrity. Above all, it’s a story that makes me feel incredibly sad. She’s waiting for real life to begin – experimenting with ways she might be an adult, as the title suggests – and if the reader extrapolates from these actions (as good short stories invite you to do), you worry about how she will fare in the world after the story has ended.
(CLASSIC: from The Great Fairy Tale Tradition, Norton)
Setting aside the differences between fairytales and short stories, the reason I have selected this as my favourite classic short story is because for me it embodies a lot of the fundamental elements I enjoy in a good short story. The narrative is compelling and vivid. It dives straight into dark, grisly subject matter but offers a positive resolution (at least for the bride escapee.) Although the moral of this tale is questionable, what has always gripped my attention is the way this tale probes the things we are most afraid of. I also really admire a lot of literature inspired by this story – and by versions of ‘Bluebeard’ which shares similar themes – such as Margaret Atwood’s novel The Robber Bride and short story collection Bluebeard’s Egg, and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. For me this demonstrates the power of the short story to really penetrate a collective imagination and manifest itself in many different ways and forms.
(MODERN: from Dancing Girls, Vintage)
I think this story is a must-read because although the title sets it up to be provocative, Atwood handles the subject matter in a really quirky and unusual way. The narrator chats directly to the reader and the story as a whole undermines our culture’s reflex to sexualise the things we’re intimidated by. It’s a story that is dark around the edges, witty and unexpectedly funny. It has been omitted from some editions of Dancing Girls so you will need to check that the edition you borrow/buy includes it.
(CLASSIC: from The Collected Short Stories of Saki, Wordsworth)
I’m a great admirer of Saki, and this story is a favourite. It’s so concise, so silly, and so thoroughly enjoyable. From the wonderful first sentence: ‘It was Mrs. Packletide’s pleasure and intention that she should shoot a tiger,’ the mockery is sustained with such discipline and lightness of touch. I also thrill to the viciousness that runs beneath the surface of Saki’s stories.
(MODERN: from Hey Yeah Right Get a Life, Vintage)
For me, Helen Simpson is the finest living short story writer we have. ‘Lentils and Lilies’ perfectly sums up what it is to be a teenage girl: the glorious superiority, scorn, delusions, and glittering hope as we watch Jade ‘moving like a panther into the long, jeweled narrative which was her future.’
(CLASSIC: from Selected Stories, Heinemann)
I read this a year or so ago – you have to read Lawrence if you live in Nottingham, it’s a local by-law – and realised that I’d read it as a teenager in Norfolk. The sense of place and time and mood came flooding back in an instant. This is everything his novels aren’t: economical, focused, compassionate. He should have stuck to short stories.
(MODERN: from The New Yorker).
This may seem an undeveloped thought, as it was only published in the New Yorker a month or so ago; but it’s such a powerfully developed example of where Saunders’ writing has been leading lately that I’m sticking with it. Humane, funny, fully-inhabited, tremendously moving. Read it, and the run of New Yorker stories he’s had lately, and swoon.
(CLASSIC: from Difficult Loves, Picador)
“The Adventure of a Soldier” focuses on the seduction of a widow by Private Tomagra, a young soldier taking the train home for an Easter leave. What’s always impressed me about this story is the erotic frisson of Tomagra’s fumbling seduction against the widow’s silent implacability. His sexual advances are so plaintive and so hopeless, and when the seduction finally succeeds we come to know who really has conquered whom. In this regard, it is also a narrative feat, and heartrending for its twist.
“Then he reattached the little finger to the rest of the hand, not withdrawing it, but adding to it the ring-finger, the middle-finger, the fore-finger: now his whole hand rested, inert, on that female knee, and the train cradled it in a rocking caress.” – The Adventure of a Soldier, by Italo Calvino
(MODERN: from The Diving Pool, Picador Paperback Originals).
‘Dormitory’ tells the story of a Japanese wife waiting for her husband to summon her to her new home in Sweden, meanwhile she is helping her young cousin move into the college dormitory she lived in when she herself was a student. It would be a soft idyll if it weren’t for the landlord’s severe and disturbing handicap, the persistent bees, the vanished tenant, and the fact that when she visits, her cousin never seems to be home. I love this story’s strangeness, its persistence with that strangeness, and the resonant ‘sound’ the odd images make as each one presses up to the another.
SAMPLE QUOTE: “But the X-ray showed that my ribs are bent out of shape, like tree branches that have been hit by lightning.” –Dormitory, by Yoko Ogawa)
(CLASSIC: from Complete Stories, Faber)
There are a number of stories I would count as favourites, and for very different reasons. However, O’Connor’s exuberant and unflinching take on a scenario familiar to most – a family road trip – was one of the first stories to make me fall in love with the short form. I find the boldness of her writing such a pleasure, and this story among her best for the startling way she maps out what is to come even in the opening lines. There is a sense of complicity with the reader, and a streamlined momentum to the whole – a quality of inexorability which I think the short story is particularly good at channeling. The story is a brutal, funny, heartrending shot of perspective on human foibles and frailty, and a meditation on finding grace in the darkest of places.
(MODERN: from Everything Ravaged Everything Burned, Granta Books).
Wells Tower’s debut collection is one I read more recently and loved, and ‘Leopard’ one of the stories that stayed with me – relating a few hours in the life of an eleven-year-old boy, who is bunking off school pretending to be sick, with a stepfather he hates, a fungal infection on his upper lip, and a leopard prowling the county. I loved it for the freshness of voice, for the direct address of the second person perspective – which draws the reader into an empathetic allegiance with the boy, despite his flaws – and for the dark, tender humour that infuses each page. Tower’s writing is vivid and convincing, plugging the reader right into this stage of life (– the child aching to be a man -)in a way which seems all the more powerful for being momentary.
(CLASSIC: from Just So Stories, Wordsworth)
This Elephant’s ‘satiable curiosity’, along with the sarcastic drawl of the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake and the treacherous tears of the Crocodile make this the perfect read-aloud story.
(MODERN: from Red Spikes, Definititions)
Nobody writes short stories like Margo Lanagan. I once heard Margo read this creepy re-imagining of Wee Willie Winkie to a bunch of adults at a science fiction convention. They were all too shocked and horrified to clap at the end – I overheard one gasp ‘but she looks so nice!’
(CLASSIC: from The Complete Short Stories, Simon & Schuster)
I love Hemingway’s punchy, no-nonsense prose and the way he allows the reader to collaborate in his stories by never telling us too much. This one is classic Hemingway – all gun-toting, gimlets and testosterone in the African bush. And though it was published in 1936, the story still feels very modern, particularly in terms of the structure.
(MODERN: from Ten Little Indians, Secker & Warburg).
Redemption, in both senses of the word, is the theme of this intensely moving, yet comic story of Jackson Jackson, an alcoholic Spokane Indian, living on the streets of Seattle. On his way to buy a bottle of ‘fortified courage’, the narrator discovers his grandmother’s beaded dance regalia, stolen fifty years before, on display in a pawnshop window. Believing that the theft led to the cancer which killed her, he sets off on a quest to get the regalia back. The story is edgy, but full of compassion and humour, and the final scene is truly transformative.
(CLASSIC: from Lady into Fox, Hesperus Press)
My favourite story of all time is Hans Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’, but I am also passionate about David Garnett’s 1922 long story or very short novel Lady into Fox, an astonishing, moving story of how a newly married woman slowly but inevitably turns into a vixen, and how her husband grieves, and copes, and does not cope: a parable about freedom, and love of difference, and our repressed animal selves. I love this story so much I once wrote an alternative ending for it – because I accept, but cannot bear, the coda, which may be truthful, sustains more than one interpretation, but still feels like a return to patriarchy. A gripping, savage, tender story about the power of women and the power of the wild.
(MODERN: from Under the Dam, Comma Press).
That great theme of the life of modern humans, how we relate to non-human animals, is also at the heart of my modern short story choice, David Constantine’s ‘The Necessary Strength’, from Under the Dam. In all his work Constantine makes us feel the smallness of his human characters, struggling or dancing across enormous spaces, falling through layers of time, earth-bound ants illuminated by brilliant sunsets or icy stars, always about to fall off the edge. Yet he is also writing about the tender minutiae of marriage, fear and illness: about aging, and being trapped, and the glorious animal energy of seals and horses; and in this particular story, compassion, complete and unjudgemental, from an unexpected quarter tilts a tragedy into something that lifts the heart and steels our courage. Trying to choose my favourite modern story, I was actually torn between recent tales I have greatly admired by two brilliant writers, Vanessa Gebbie and A J Ashworth, but at the last moment David Constantine’s white horse swept in and carried me away.
(CLASSIC: from Kinder- und Hausmärchen, Insel Verlag)
Fairytales never lose their grip. Everything seems plain and is, yet, completely hidden. The brutal witch, the evil step-mother, the starving children and the dark forest… Come on: Even before Freud, people felt there was more to these stories than their surface reveals. The brothers Grimm are known as the “authors” of Hansel and Grethel and many other stories. But “true” fairytales come from many sources. In fact, the people who told the fairytales to the Grimms were mostly young, educated women from Hessen, Germany. Only the name of Dorothea Viehmann is occasionally mentioned.
(MODERN: from Geschichte von Nichts, Kiepenheuer und Witsch Verlag, Cologne)
Rightfully, Peter Glaser won the prestigious Bachmannpreis with this story. At first glance, it’s fun and easy to read. It has everything: a love-interest, exotic settings, melancholy and humour. There seems to be a plot but it’s superficial. Nothing happens. Nothing ever makes sense. Thanks to Glaser’s humour and laconic language the reader is asked to confront questions of existential meaninglessness. Which is what his story is exploring: How do we survive in a senseless world? Some critics compared Glaser to the early Pynchon or de Lillo, others mentioned Musil or Benn. I think, Glaser is in a league of his own.
(CLASSIC: from The Complete Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, Modern Library)
My all-time favourite classic short story is ‘The Bottle Imp’ by Robert Louis Stevenson – superb in form and character and wonderfully exciting and somehow new on every reading. ‘The Strange Tale of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde’ comes a close second.
(MODERN: from Eleven, Bloomsbury)
Anything by Patricia Highsmith who, for me, is one of the best ever short story writers. I would single out ‘The Snail Watcher.’
(CLASSIC: from The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings, Penguin Classics)
I’d pick this story because of how it builds up such a complete picture of a people wanting to deny their mortality and their frailty by turning to distraction. They and their king use their privilege and their resources to construct a fantasy: that they are above or beyond death, that they are sheltered from the masses who are dying outside the abbey gates. The key to their fantasy is that they must not think, and they must not grieve; they must completely buy into the illusion, keep dancing, keep laughing, keep smiling. It’s not until the chiming of the clock at midnight that their frenzy of denial is interrupted, and they have to pause to think and finally recognise what is right there in their midst. This story sticks with me not only for the artistry in how it unfolds, but also because of its obvious parallels with today – like the fact that we (the UK) have now been at war for longer than WWII, and yet there’s no collective sense of that. We wrap ourselves in distraction, because we can. I’ve heard people refer to coverage of the war in Afghanistan as being like reality TV – something to watch from a distance, no need to grieve or think. That’s why this story resonates with me so much.
(MODERN: from First Person and Other Stories, Hamish Hamilton).
The shock that’s sitting in the narrator is never revealed, but we get the undercurrents in the small talk, miscommunication, fantasy and need that are swirling around. What we get in her story is the present – bringing with it the weight of the past – but still very much present.
(CLASSIC: from The Overcoat and Other Short Stories, Dover Thrift Editions)
Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’, tells the story of a penniless petty clerk, Akaky Akakievich, who saves to buy a new winter coat. When the coat is stolen in the streets of St Petersburg, revenge is taken, and a ghostly and staggering atmosphere is conjured. I first read this story when I was sixteen and knew that I would be a writer and that I’d set out to do at least some of what Gogol had done. The fictional world of The Overcoat is not only a piercing social satire but an exacting and unforgettable frame for one of the greatest psychological studies of human grief.
(MODERN: from Creatures of the Earth: New and Selected Stories, Faber)
John McGahern’s short story Creatures of the Earth is perfectly formed and its unsettling plot-line stings. Two young men take a cat from an old woman’s garden and drown it in the sea. But the story isn’t ‘about’ the hulligans or the cat, but the old woman and her grief for her dead husband. McGahern was Ireland’s Chekhov, a heart-breaking writer, never grandiose, never showy – not ever – no straining for effect, no conspicuous attempts to prove his intelligence, and his power comes in this story, as in almost all of his stories, by telling a fictional truth with a dignified, consummate and quiet control.
(CLASSIC: from The Collected Short Stories of Saki, Wordsworth)
I love this story for its naughtiness. The hero, Clovis, decides to play a trick on a prematurely elderly vicar and his sister, pretending that the Bishop has sent him to arrange a massacre of the local Jews. It’s been a bit out-of-favour with some suggestion that it’s anti-semitic – or that it means Saki was anti-semitic – but I don’t see that in it at all. All the Jewish characters in the story are quite sensible, normal people. It’s the Christians who behave in this extraordinary way – in fact, it’s a satire on anti-semitism and using humour like this seems quite Jewish to me.
(MODERN: from Tokyo Cancelled, HarperPerennial)
I first heard this story on Radio 4 a few years ago and fell so in love with it that I had to track down the author’s other works. It’s mysterious, oblique, and food for pondering. What does it mean? The first sentence is a great one: “I once heard of a place where all the words necessary for social intercourse were furnished by a cheery wordsmith.” How can you not want to read on?
(CLASSIC: from Selected Stories, Penguin)
My ‘classic’ might not be acknowledged as such by many, or even any, other fans of the short story. I’ve gone for ‘Murder’ by William Sansom. A prolific short story writer, Sansom was an individual stylist and his stories were as likely to appear in Penguin New Writing as in The Pan Books of Horror Stories. I love ‘Murder’ because almost nothing happens in it and yet it’s completely gripping. It appeared in Sansom’s 1952 collection A Touch of the Sun.
(MODERN: from When the Door Closed, It Was Dark, Nightjar).
Among the new stories that have impressed me the most during the last few years is a story that I published in my Nightjar Press series of chapbooks and then reprinted in The Best British Short Stories 2011. It’s ‘When the Door Closed, It Was Dark’ by Alison Moore. I beg the reader’s indulgence in including it here, but it is a phenomenally clever and affecting story, one that you immediately want to reread the moment you have read it. I regard it as a masterpiece, an object lesson in short story writing.
(CLASSIC: from The Complete Short Stories, Vintage)
It was a toss-up between this and that old crowd pleaser, ‘Metamorphosis’. I chose ‘A Hunger Artist’ because it has everything – everything – and all in under ten pages. It’s basically the story of a person – a man – who starves himself, professionally. It’s totally old-fashioned and yet utterly modern. In fact it was this short story that inspired David Blaine to suspend himself in that perspex box by Tower Bridge a few years back. It’s both alienating and heart-wrenching. It’s superlative – a jewel; a master-class in the form. I find it hard to believe a better story (of any length) about hunger and obsession has ever – or will ever – be written.
(MODERN: from In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, Little, Brown)
I could’ve chosen any one of Gilchrist’s stories – she’s such a deft, uncompromising mistress of the form – but I chose this one because in it she manages to compress everything she needs to say (which is quite a lot) into a brief, blithe four sides of type. And she imbues every sentence with her easy, instinctive sense of wit and drollery. When I first read Gilchrist as a student in the 80s (beautifully published as she was back then by Faber) it made me want to embrace the form myself (reading Angela Carter around the same time gave me the final shove). Gilchrist’s female characters are the kinds of women I fear and yet secretly long to be. They are funny, cruel, devastatingly stylish, thoughtful, idiosyncratic, brilliant… And so – I don’t for a second doubt – is she.
(CLASSIC: from The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories, Penguin Australia)
This story has haunted me since I read it many years ago, and I believe it was adapted for a Radio 4 play. It’s the tale of a man admitted to the top floor of a clinic with a seemingly innocuous complaint, who is slowly moved down floor by floor, each move increasingly sinister in its implications despite official reassurances. It touches upon all our fears of both bureaucracy and death.
(MODERN: from Sleepless Nights, Iron Press)
We published this story in Iron Magazine then in 1985 as part of David Almond’s first collection of short stories, Sleepless Nights. Its strange mixture of innocence and darkness was a foretaste of the great work to come from this writer, but these stories were for adults not children, and there are hints of incest too. The story is seen through the eyes of the miscreant boy Joffy, and his relationship with his mother and curious auntie Eileen. Sometimes uncomfortable and occasionally violent, but always beautifully and hauntingly written.
(CLASSIC: from Red Cavalry, 1920)
The lulling, poetic opening of Isaac Babel’s Crossing the Zbrucz could be one of Turgenev’s more perfumed descriptions of nature: “Fields of purple poppies flower around us, the noonday wind is is playing in the yellowing rye, the virginal buckwheat rises on the horizon like the wall of a distant monastery.” This yields to: “An orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head… The odour of yesterday’s blood and of slain horses drips into the evening’s coolness.” This unsettling mix of registers is typical Babel, who never gets too cosy with the reader. Evening falls and the narrator is billeted with a Jewish family. ‘..I find ransacked wardrobes, on the floor scraps of women’s fur coats, pieces of human excrement and broken shards of the sacred vessels used by the Jews once a year, at Passover”. He orders the Jews to clean up. “They hop about on felt soles, clearing the detritus from the floor… monkey like, like Japanese in a circus…” The narrator lies down to sleep for the night and is at some point shaken awake from a nightmare by the woman of the house, who is concerned because he is thrashing about and kicking her “Papasha”. She draws back a blanket: “An old man is lying there on his back, dead. His gullet has been torn out, his face has been cleft in two…” The woman explains that the Poles murdered him there in that room, though he begged to be killed in the yard so his daughter did not have to watch. On top of the stylistic mayhem, the disoriented reader does not even know the identity of the narrator. Is he Red Army cavalryman, a Cossack perhaps, who is describing these dirty and obsequious Jews? Is it a Soviet Commissar who notes the excrement and the broken sacred vessels? Or is the narrator the author himself, Isaac Babel, a Russian-speaking Jew from Odessa, coming into full contact with Ashkenazi heartland his own people, only decades before it was finally erased?
(MODERN: from Honored Guest, Vintage Books)
A world away from Babel, but just as adept at delivering a kick in the nuts, is booze-soaked Charles Bukowski. In The Copulating Mermaid of Venice, California a couple of winos steal a corpse. She turns out to be the hottest date either of them have had in quite some time. They have epiphanies (“she can’t say NO!” and “Everything is so sad – that we live all our lives as idiots and then finally die.”) In the drunk exhausted dawn they push her out to sea, and among the seaweed and the waves, with her hair moving in the current, she becomes a mermaid. The joy of Bukowski is he is anti-literary. He turns junk into art and spits in your eye. He is efficient, concise. Some of his poems are short stories – compact punchy narratives – as are so many episodes from his novels.
(CLASSIC: from The Complete Short Stories, Vintage)
For prophetic power and inexhaustible symbolism alone, I’d have to say one of my favourites would be Kafka’s ‘A Hunger Artist’. Celebrity culture, reality TV and performance art are just three aspects of contemporary 21st century life that this story envisioned a century before. Add to this list of prophesies Kafka’s own tragic demise – starving to death after a throat infection left him unable to eat – and you realise the horror of the story just goes on an on. And yet it isn’t a wholly bleak story, it has humour and wonder in it. That’s the thing about Kafka, the stories are so strange you can see almost anything in them. This story also pulls that masterful conjuring trick that you see elsewhere in stories like ‘In the Penal Colony,’ that of viewing the future from an even more futuristic vantage point, i.e. retrospectively. The future is just a passing fad.
(MODERN: from The Complete Short Stories, )
If I were honest I’d say my favourite modern short would be either David Constantine’s ‘In Another Country’ (from Under the Dam) or Hassan Blasim’s ‘The Corpse Exhibition’ (from The Madman of Freedom Square), but no one would believe me, since I also happen to be their publisher. So I’ll keep things neutral and plump for J G Ballard’s ‘The Dead Astronaut’ – or at least that’s my favourite this week. The intricate, layered symbolism of this story enables it to be simultaneously about both the betrayal of a relationship and the collapse of a civilisation (namely the American Empire, as fanfared through the space race). ‘Sputnik’ – Murakami tells us (in another book) – is the Russian word for ‘fellow traveler,’ but what happens when your fellow traveler is dead? Ballard’s story even has a classic plot twist and a quite separate reveal which, like all good reveals, isn’t actually explicated. Awesome. If I could do a Dr Frankenstein on modern short story writers it would be to fuse the poetry of Constantine with the ideas of Philip K Dick. This story crash-lands not too far away from that perfect spot.
(CLASSIC: from Complete Stories, Faber)
I read recently that O’Connor didn’t know what she was going to do with the bible salesman when she introduced him. It’s almost impossible to believe that since the structure of the story is utterly perfect; I want to believe it though.
(MODERN: from Close Range: Wyoming Stories, 4th Estate)
Savage and decadent but brimming with enthralling language and insight.
(CLASSIC: from Collected Stories, Virago)
I was first introduced to this story by Tamar Yoseloff, a poet and my first creative writing teacher. To me, this is the ultimate short story. I never get tired of reading it and I never tire of trying to emulate it. In 450 words, three characters, and the relationships that bind them, step off the page into my imagination. And it is just a single page, but at the same time there is nothing gimmicky about it like there is with flash fiction. It’s just a perfectly formed, short short story.
(MODERN: from Where I’m Calling From: Selected Stories, Harvill)
I think this an example of Raymond Carver at his most astute. This is essentially a story about love, and the different kinds of love, and it manages to analyse this human condition without being sentimental or romantic. I love the sparseness of his language, and I’m a big fan of this kind of slice-of-life narrative style.
(CLASSIC: from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, Abacus)
My favourite short story writer has to be David Foster Wallace, and though it hasn’t been too long since it was published, I’ve heard the word ‘classic’ attached to his work for several years now, particularly in relation to his book Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. I find it really hard to choose between these stories – some are spoofs of academic writing where the footnotes take over the narrative entirely; some are one-sided interviews where the questioner is silent and you have to work out what the question is from the way the hideous men in the title respond; and some of the stories are brutal little flash fictions. My favourite of these is a seven-line story that opens the book and gives a flavour of the kind of thing to expect from what follows. It’s called ‘A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life.’ But instead of making any effort to give an actual history, Foster Wallace simply describes, in deliberately over-formal way, two people being introduced to each other. Neither person likes the other, but pretends to. The person who introduces them likes neither of them, but pretends to. They all go home. The End. One of my favourite stories of all time.
(MODERN: from Unlikely Stories, Mostly, Penguin)
I’ve chosen this because it was the first story of his that really made me want to write about him, eventually leading me to write a biography about Gray and his work. The story is about two poets, Bohu and Tohu, who live in an unnamed palace in an unnamed Empire. They are taken from their families at an early age and raised in isolation for a single purpose: to one day write a poem to glorify the Emperor, a dictator who has destroyed the country outside his palace walls. Tohu is a comic poet who does exactly as he’s told. Bohu chooses to write a poem condemning the Emperor instead. But when he delivers it, his overlords are delighted. All they need to do to turn it into a poem of praise instead of criticism is to remove one syllable from the title. All at once the story is playful and deadly serious, and even now I’m still not sure what it’s all supposed to mean. But maybe that’s why it’s stayed with me.
(CLASSIC: from The Monkey’s Paw and Other Tales of Mystery and the Macabre, ACP)
I think this classic ‘be careful what you wish for’ horror story – in which a family use a mysterious monkey’s paw to make wishes, only to find each one demands a terrible sacrifice in return – resonates so well with me because it’s very human and emotional. Mr. and Mrs. White’s wishes are what we’d all wish for; as they finally listen to the terrible knocking of their son at the door, it’s more than just a moment of horror, it’s one of loss, grief and shattered hope.
(MODERN: from High Lonesome: Selected Stories 1966-2006, Ecco)
The classic Oates themes of dualism, hidden selves, and the seemingly inescapable inevitability of fate and evil, find perfect concentration in this stunning tale, in which a teenage girl, drawn to danger and excitement amid the stultifying boredom of her smalltown American life, is lured away to a terrible fate by the charismatic psychopath Arnold Friend. She goes with him not only because she has to – he’s implied that her family will all suffer if she refuses – but also because she’s strangely excited by the idea of stepping over the “threshold” into the unknown, even if it costs her her innocence, or even her life. For me, Oates is our greatest living writer, and this story captures that quality like lightning in a bottle.
(CLASSIC: from The Editors, ed. by Saul Bellow & Keith Botsford, Hushion House)
Silvio d’Arzo was the penname of Ezio Comparoni, a writer who during his short life (1920-52) rarely left the town in Northern Italy where he lived. His short stories – often no longer than a couple of pages – reflect small town Italian life, and yet have a lot to tell us. One of my favourites is ‘Due Vecchie’ (‘Two Old People’). A man and a woman have lost their son and the great mansion they used to inhabit. They are without illusions, waiting for the end, but they have their shared experiences. Then a stranger comes in. He wants to talk to the old woman. The story ends with a beautiful letter from the wife to her husband. Two people will always hold secrets for one another. The power of these stories lies in the very subtle and casual way in which they’re told. Big themes are hidden like treasures.
(MODERN: from Alice, translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo, Clerkenwell Press)
The collection Alice by German writer Judith Hermann consists of five long stories. In each, the main character Alice loses or has lost a man she cares for. The actions, observations, thoughts and memories of Alice are written down precisely. Her detached way of looking has a very poetic effect. The collection raises questions about the meaning of our relationships, about remembering, and about writing as a way of remembering. The first story ‘Misha’ struck me most. It’s about an ex boyfriend who is dying in a far away hospital. Alice is asked to come and help his new girlfriend take care of their young child. Mourning in literature is often rough and painful to read. ‘Misha’ is about more hidden emotions and sensitivities. The first lines are unforgettable, note the rhythm which is important in Hermann’s work: But Misha didn’t die. Not during the night from Monday to Tuesday, nor the night from Tuesday to Wednesday; perhaps he would die Wednesday evening or later that night. Alice thought she had heard it said that most people die at night. The doctors weren’t saying anything anymore; they shrugged their shoulders and held out their empty, disinfected hands. There’s nothing more we can do. Sorry…
(CLASSIC: from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1959)
I first read Flowers for Algernon in a battered copy of Panther’s The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction in my early teens and felt profoundly affected by it. I love the diary/ report structure and the tender handling of subject: a man of low IQ who is subjected to medical trials to make him more intelligent. Keyes later adapted the short story into a novel and it has been reproduced into films and series. But, for me, it is punchiest in its original short story format.
(MODERN: from The Guardian, 4 Dec 2010).
The power of this story for me is in its apparent simplicity. A married couple on holiday making the transfer journey by taxi from the airport to the hotel. But beneath this lies sharp and painfully fascinating complexities in their relationship. And it has the most memorable close of any short story I have read. A perfectly measured, utterly captivating story. But not for the faint-hearted.
(CLASSIC: from her book with the same title, 1990)
Sadly, Bronwen Wallace didn’t even live to see her first book of short stories in print. In Canada we have a short fiction award in her name; it’s given to an emerging woman writer under the age of 35 (the age Bronwen Wallace died). Today, her award might be more well-known than her stories, which is a shame. All of her stories are moving, careful, and real: this story handles the depth and delicacy of female friendships especially well.
(MODERN: from Oxygen, 2000)
This is a story about family, responsibility, and the ever-present fear/love continuum we find in relationships that matter to us. What makes it so special is the way it makes you laugh and breaks your heart – simultaneously. And isn’t that an accurate way to evoke the form and spirit of family itself?
(CLASSIC: from Selected Stories, OUP)
There are so many Mansfield stories that fit my ‘favourite ever’ title, but Miss Brill just about edges out the others with its astonishing economy, elegance of characterisation, and the heart-cracking final line. Anyone wishing to see how varied and inventive the short story can be would be well advised to read Mansfield’s collected works.
(MODERN: from The Myth of Iphis, Canongate Myths).
This is either a very long short story or a novella, either way it’s brilliant. Smith is one of the few writers in Britain today truly playing with the form, truly taking chances with her work, and in Girl Meets Boy every risk, every chance, pays off perfectly. I still remember where I was when I read this, it’s stayed with me so very clearly, even four years later. It’s great.
I can’t get beyond this at the moment. I know I should be choosing a Chekhov, Maupassant or Mansfield, but my daughter and I find Pippi’s combination of indignant solipsism and instinctive generosity inspirational. One story? ‘Pippi is a Thing-Searcher and Ends up in a Fight.’
Not because I published it in Light Transports, but because I keep returning to it, as both a beautiful piece of writing and for simple humanity in the face of AIDS, SWAT teams, the system and dogs fouling the sidewalk.
(CLASSIC: from The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories, OUP)
Part psychological horror, part before-her-time stream-of-consciousness. This is a classic short that doesn’t date: the evocative language still resonates today. Based on her own experiences of depression and the rest cure – where she was prevented from working – during which the writer and journalist experienced a deeper nervous breakdown. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is a fictionalised, chilling account of her unravelling mental health.
(MODERN: from Mud, Virago)
I adore this collection, so inventive, so clever. I also recommend ‘Easy as ABC’ from the same collection. I stumbled upon this sunny yellow book in the library, and now I am working my way through her brilliant back catalogue.
(CLASSIC: from The Complete Short Stories, Penguin)
This is a ghost story but it is so much more than that. Spark tempts you in with humour but then slams you with a tale that manages to incorporate mental illness, family, the state of society as a whole, the evils of capitalism. A masterpiece.
(MODERN: from Other Stories and Other Stories, Penguin).
This is a short story which opened my eyes to all the short story could be. It also – as with Muriel Spark and as a great short story should do – packs so much into its few short pages, about love, sex, death. The way it is “I” telling the story to “you” makes it feel incredibly intimate. It has a quiet power. I have never forgotten it.
(CLASSIC: from Tales from Two Pockets, Catbird Press, 1994)
A very rare and beautiful Ottoman carpet with a “chintamani” pattern is lying forgotten in a small antique shop in Prague, where it serves as a bed for a hideous old dog. As in the story “The Blue Chrysanthemum” from the same collection, Karel Capek (1890 –1938) suggests that beauty can be found in the most unexpected places, but its specific feature is uselessness – the characters are unable to seize it, or permanently hold on to it, without the use of violence which would inevitably lead to destruction. It is a very amusing short story in the tradition of specific Czech sense of humor, known from the movies by Jiri Menzel and Milos Forman, with certain detective elements (that are the leitmotifs in the whole collection), and a melancholic twist.
(MODERN: from The Summer Book, NYRB Classics, 2008)
One of my favorite literary discoveries in the past few years is the amazing Finish-born Swedish-speaking author Tove Jansson (1914 – 2001). Although she is best known as the creator of the Moomin books (and also the visual imagery of the characters), one of the gems in her opus is also the collection of loosely connected short stories that form a novel called “The Summer Book”. It takes place in a small island in The Gulf of Finland, where a young girl is spending summers with her grandmother, an aged and moody artist with non-conventional views on life. The story called “The Cat” can be read as a brilliant short essay on love, possession and the frustrations of freedom.
(CLASSIC: from The Better Sort, Bibliobazaar)
There is something infinite about this story – every time I read it, I get lost in an emotional hall of mirrors. What is a couple? What is fulfillment? What is perversity? What counts as an event? Can a great love be a love that never happened? Isn’t great remorse a perverse fulfillment?
(MODERN: from Emerald City and Other Stories, Corsair).
This is my favourite recent story – first published in the New Yorker in 1989, and then appearing in Jennifer Egan’s first book, Emerald City and Other Stories. It’s a very simple, melancholy account of a fashion shoot in Africa, involving the stylist, the model and the photographer. It’s about beauty, and is extremely beautiful.
(CLASSIC: from The Best Short Stories, Wordsworth)
This story – about a woman who loses a diamond necklace she’s borrowed from a friend, thus ruining her life – has a classic twist in the tail that knocks readers sideways. When I read it as a teenager I decided all stories should be set up like this one.
(MODERN: from Self Help, Faber)
Moore is so funny and heart-breaking at the same time. She’s pitch-perfect in this story of the end of a relationship.
(CLASSIC: from The Best American Short Stories of the Century, Houghton Mifflin)
My classic short story choice is very easy – and it’s ‘The Ledge’, by Lawrence Sargent Hall. It is the story of a fisherman taking his son and his nephew out on a promised Christmas Day hunting trip to the eponymous ledge, accessible only by boat, and only uncovered at low tide. ‘The Ledge’ won the O’Henry award in 1960 – much anthologised, it was also selected by John Updike when he edited Best American Short Stories of the Century. I am sure there is no such thing as perfection, but The Ledge comes darned close. The story is simple; but even after countless readings, it still provokes a physical reaction in me as a reader. If I consciously remain a writer as I read, this story is the best teacher on the planet.
(MODERN: from Instruction Manual for Swallowing, Comma Press).
My contemporary short story choice is very difficult – there are so many wonderful writers about. But I’d plump for a story that always makes me think, and laugh and shake my head in both joy and terror as it seems to have an element of prescience about it – Robot Wasps, by Adam Marek, in Instruction Manual for Swallowing. I read a lot of stories – and like my classic choice, this one always provokes a real reaction as I read. You could talk about it for weeks and never get to the bottom of it. That’s also a nod to the fantastic work Comma does (and I don’t have to say that, it’s not my publisher.)
(CLASSIC: from The Garden Party and Other Stories, Penguin Classics)
This is a vivid and beautifully crafted story about a girl’s natural inclination to cancel a party after a local man is killed and her family’s, particularly her mother’s, determination to continue with it. Mansfield takes the quite simple setting of a garden party to weave together a richly imagined tale of adolescence, family friction and class conflict in New Zealand. Laura’s personal journey remains with you long after finishing the story. The ending raises questions but this is an almost perfect short story.
(MODERN: from Last Evenings on Earth, Vintage)
With typical urgency and giving the sense he’s drawing on personal experience, Bolaño tells the story of a Chilean photographer living in exile in Argentina and then Mexico. The key development in the story comes when the Eye, a man who tries to keep himself out of trouble, finds himself on assignment in India and becomes caught up in a grotesque prostitution lair. The impossibility of avoiding violence and exploitation for South Americans of Bolaño’s generation is a central theme of his work and this is a dark and haunting story that is unlike anything else you’re likely to read.
It’s easy to know the entire works of Andrzej Bursa (1932-1954). He published his first poem in 1954. He died of congenital heart failure in 1957. Before his sudden death, he wrote some of the most bitter, cynical, cruel, surreal and yet hilariously funny pieces in Polish prose and poetry. “The Dragon” portrays a young journalist – much like Bursa himself – assigned to write a story from a remote village Grząźla (don’t even try to pronounce), somewhere in the highlands. The journalist is waiting for a bus to Krakow, and he accepts the invitation to witness a yearly ritual manslaughter, when the village offers a fine young couple to some ancient beast, dwelling in neighboring valley. He thinks it will be simply some folk ritual, and as a matter of fact, it is – it just ends with the fine youngster and the prime maiden eaten alive by actual dragon. The journalist then embarks the bus back home, because, you know, live goes on.
Jacek Dukaj is the king of Polish science-fiction and fantasy. He blends these genres as easy as China Mieville, if he employed Peter Watts for those really weird scientific ideas. My apologies to all the three, describing writers by comparing them to other writers is just the path of least resistance for us, lazy critics. “Król Bólu” shows us the world after nano-biological apocalypse, when most of the world is covered by junkle. It’s not a typo, it’s just a jungle-like chaos of junk lifeforms running wild, undersirable byproducts of the AG (artificial genetics) technology. Only the US and EU were saved by applying rigorous bioprotection on their borders. The rest of the world is ruled by various anarkies (not a typo neither). The actual overseas travel is no longer possible, but you can rent a proxy body and control it remotely via the Internet. The network survived the apocalypse just fine, it was built to last. That was just the sci-fi premise for the story – the story itself is a dense, action-packed espionnage thriller set in this bizarre world.
Unfortunately, the stories have not yet been translated.
(CLASSIC: from Selected Stories, OUP)
It works against your expectations of the short story form – it appears not to have the conciseness and unity that Poe might advocate. Its shape seems to ripples as the story moves effortlessly between the various viewpoints in a family moving to the countryside. Its sequel, ‘By The Bay,’ is beautiful too.
(MODERN: from Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Canongate)
A teenage boy pays his father’s bail and is forced to drive his father to Washington DC to sell birds at a march. It’s about the frustrations and misunderstandings in family relationships and shows how despair is never far from joy.
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