Welcome to the website of A Personal Anthology. This online project exists in the first instance as weekly TinyLetter, sent out on Friday afternoon. Each week a guest is invited to pick and introduce twelve of their favourite short stories and, where possible, link to them online. Since starting in 2017 the project has featured over 180 guest editors picking over 2,000 short stories written by over 1,000 different authors. You can browse guest editors and featured authors in the sidebar, or just start reading below. Click here to sign up for the mailout. A Personal Anthology is curated by Jonathan Gibbs.
* Picked by Jonathan Gibbs
This is, structurally, rather an awkward story, that sets up a small cabal of characters in a tight little tangle of relationships, and then develops them only halfway along what might be called a plot before getting bored. (And it’s true, they’re mostly quite boring, as characters.) But Bowen’s writing throughout is characteristically luminous – though the light it gives is that of the moon, rather than the sun, even when the sun is out, as it is at the start of this story. And it’s that prose that makes this story worth the reading, equally crisp and arch, a mandarin version of the style that Muriel Spark would push through a nervous breakdown, to become something more aggressively strained. Here’s the opening paragraph, which evokes a summer evening so forcefully that you could keep yourself warm in deepest February just by reading it out loud.
As the sun set its light slowly melted the landscape, till everything was made of fire and glass. Released from the glare of noon, the haycocks now seemed to float on the aftergrass: their freshness penetrated the air. In the not far distance hills with woods up their flanks lay in light like hills in another world – it would be a pleasure of heaven to stand up there, where no foot ever seemed to have trodden, on the spaces between the woods soft as powder dusted over with gold. Against those hills, the burning red rambler roses in cottage gardens along the roadside looked earthy – they were two near the eye.
First published in Look at All Those Roses, Gollancz, 1941, and collected in The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Penguin, 1983
* Jonathan Gibbs is the author of two novels, Randall, and The Large Door, and a book-length poem, Spring Journal. He curates A Personal Anthology. You can read his individual Personal Anthology, plus other occasional contributions, here.
- Picked by Pragya Agarwal
I love the line “It is the best summer of our lives”: summer, when everything seems possible, surmountable, within our reach. There is a feeling of time rushing past but also slowing down that Lucy captures so masterfully, and the claustrophobic nostalgia of moments that were filled with possibility but also out of reach. This story captures perfectly in such a few words the summer of young love that was filled with so much happiness but also pain, and an acute observation of how we stigmatise love in many forms that do not fit our norms, and what it does to young people, and the weight that people have to carry all their lives of what could have been, and never was because of societal expectations. Everytime I read it, I expect it to turn out differently- I hope it would- and then it stays with me for many days and nights.
First published in Granta 135, 2016, and available to read online here. Collected in Multitudes, Faber, 2016)
* Pragya Agarwal is the author of (M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman, SWAY: Unravelling Unconscious Bias and Wish We Knew What to Say: Talking With Children About Race.
* Picked by CD Rose
Several years ago, having just returned to England after a long time living in Italy, a group of newish acquaintances invited me to spend a day at the beach with them. I happily accepted the offer, though on arriving was disappointed to find that all the men, despite being mostly in their mid-to late 30s and early 40s, were wearing these absolutely fucking hideous ‘board shorts’ things, looking like they were all off to see Carter USM or some such horror at the Camden Underworld in 1991. I’d turned up wearing a pair of proper swimming trunks, which caused these overgrown man-children much hilarity, the ladhood (and I use the phrase carefully: it is a universal truth that irrespective of age, ethnic background, sexual orientation, level of education, income, or political affiliation, any group of more than three men immediately become the lads) attempting to mock my choice of (stylish, practical) costume.
Later, out in the water (freezing, gusty), a larger than anticipated wave sunk us all, and on finding our feet again in the shallows several of my companions were horrified to find that the force of the water had filled their ghastly baggy apparel completely, like sails, and swiftly removed them. Their shock rapidly turned to hilarity (they were, after all, the lads) but few were spared the sight of pallid, eggy buttocks, shrivelled scrotums and tiny wriggly penises (in all fairness, it was the North Sea, whose cold spares no one.) My snug trunks, however, remained firmly in place.
I tell this story not out of mere schadenfreude, nor because it is one of my few personal anecdotes that does not end up with me being the rube, but because it is – indirectly – the premise of Italo Calvino’s story ‘The Adventure of a Bather.’ Signora Isotta Barbarino loses her cozzy while out swimming at the beach (though her misfortune is attributed to poor quality of manufacture rather than poor sense of style), and treads water, then hangs onto a convenient buoy for most of the day. It’s a tiny thing, but with Calvino’s characteristic leggerezza it becomes a story about bodies, shame, men and women, small acts of kindness, reflections on a life, and even – that dread phrase – what it might mean to be alive, in not much more space than it has taken me to tell you this story.
First published as L’avventura di una bagnante, from Gli amori difficili, 1957. Translation first published in Difficult Loves, 1983
* C.D. Rose’s The Blind Accordionist is out now in paperback from Melville House Publishing. You can read his own Personal Anthology here.
* Picked by Peter Ahern
It’s that beautiful Russian summer landscape, a million miles from the sea, but the centre of the world, where you think every Chekhov story is set, certainly this one, with the central, but gratuitous, swim in the pond in the rain. Yes, that’s a nice touch: rain in the summer. So it must be one of those places, here in the unending summer countryside, where you cannot but be happy.
Somehow Chekhov stories always seem to be right here: you are surrounded by an infinite steppe, grasslands stretch away into the distance, trees glitter forever, and there are always sparkling streams and lakes. And though you’ve read this story a dozen times, and you know what happens, knowing all too well the grim and pathetic story within the story, to the point of being haunted by it, as the characters themselves will be, you still find yourself just where you want to be, so that what comes next, how things unfold, is both impossibly far away, as well as just around the corner. How could anybody not be happy here? Here of all places?
And now you remember, it was just such a Russian summer landscape that had captured the imagination of the story’s central character. How it had haunted him. And now you remember the plate of gooseberries. And you get the most awful, if subtle, shiver down your spine. Ah yes, this isn’t really a summer story. no, not at all. And isn’t it odd how you always forget the rain.
First published in Russian in Russkaya Mysl, 1898. Variously translated, including by Rosamund Bartlett in About Love and Other Stories, Oxford World’s Classics, 2004)
Peter Ahern is a teacher of great stories and other things. He blogs about the best novels and stories, as well as teaching them, at www.onehundredpages.wordpress.com
* Picked by Jo Lloyd
Full disclosure: it’s technically a winter holiday that kicks off this story, but a steamy Florida winter featuring all our favourite summer holiday ingredients – mean stepmother, resentful college girl, bored days by the pool, unsuitable boy picked up at burger joint, photo in Confederate flag bikini posted on social media. Oh. Dear. Claire doesn’t get it – she had Black best friends as a kid! – so on her return to college she doubles down with some spectacularly bad decisions. Everyone takes sides and things escalate rapidly. We might think we’re heading straight for something reductive and preachy, but we’d be wrong. Claire is no monster – she’s spiky and a bit self-destructive and she gets all the best lines. Her history with those Black best friends is tangled with love and grief. To say any more about the issues explored here would do a disservice to Evans’s handling of her material – funny, provocative, knowing, nuanced, and yes, angry. The story is both challenging and hugely enjoyable – as is the whole of Evans’s brilliant second collection.
First published in Sewanee Review, Fall 2017, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in The Office of Historical Collections, Riverhead 2020/Picador 2021
* Jo Lloyd won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2019. Her 2021 collection, published in the UK as The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies and in the US as Something Wonderful, was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize.
* Picked by Nicholas Royle
A man is sitting in a summer room. It is only mid-April, but he has sat on the settee in the summer room on six separate occasions during the last three weeks. We all know and, dare I say, love that feeling: the promise of summer while the calendar still says spring. The description of the room – for instance, the relative dimensions of the window frame and the newspaper the man is holding – is minutely, obsessively detailed and repetitive, recalling the similar approach of Christine Brooke-Rose in her story ‘Red Rubber Gloves’ in Tales of Unease (1966, ed John Burke) and of Alain Robbe-Grillet in the stories that make up his short collection Instantanés (1962, translated as Snapshots). Tension builds over the four pages of Gordon’s story and a sudden movement provides release. I wish the last sentence had not made the final edit, as it feels unnecessary.
First published in Pictures From an Exhibition, Allison & Busby, 1970
* Nicholas Royle is the author of seven novels, two novellas and three volumes of short fiction. He is Reader in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University and head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize. He runs Nightjar Press and is an editor for Salt Publishing. You can read his own Personal Anthology, plus other occasional contributions, here.
* Picked by Wayne Connolly
‘The Man in the Shed’ is the story of a summer, a beach, a family and the disruptive presence of a visitor who takes up residence in their garden shed.
On the edge of a small coastal town in New Zealand, the beach is an escape but it’s a squalid liminal space, where kelp gets washed up after storms, and beer cans, fag ends and used condoms gather near the sea wall; where the caravan park smells of hot plastic and dog shit; where fish feed in frenzy when the meat factory discharges into the water of the estuary.
The beach is where people try to escape each other, even when they are together. It’s where adults go when they want to have a serious talk, but little gets discussed. Everyone gazes in different directions, looking for different things. The only searing moment of intimacy in the story is when the father of the young narrator reels in his wife, who has been hooked by a fisherman surf casting while she swims offshore. She arches her back like a fish as he removes the hook embedded in her shoulder.
This is a parched story in which terrible things happen, but are barely acknowledged and even less understood by its characters – like the mysterious figure of the man in the shed, who may or may not be responsible for any of them.
The Man in the Shed is a great introduction to the writing of New Zealander Lloyd Jones. He is best known in the UK for his Booker short-listed novel Mr Pip, but his short stories and other novels are all worth seeking out. Just wait for the sun to shine and be careful where you are walking on the sand …
Collected in The Man in the Shed, Penguin Books New Zealand, 2009
* Wayne Connolly’s first chapbook of short stories, Intensive Care, is published by Hickathrift Press. He was long listed for the Galley Beggar Press short story prize in 2022
* Picked by J.L. Bogenschneider
The pansies were in a blue glazed bowl on the kitchen table, purple and yellow, blue and copper velvety kitten’s faces freaked with black… There was not a trace of blood. Joe’s father’s words had conjured up a wreckage of broken flowers, spattered with red; the scene of a gory murder.
It’s summer 1956 in the village of Filston, Kent, and Mr Sharp has vituperated all over the breakfast table; something about “those bloody pansies”. Intrigued by his father’s florid outburst, eight-year-old Joe goes out looking for the offending plants.
His search takes him to Old Hollow Cottage, where Guido and Arthur have just moved in. Joe comes across them lounging like bohemians, shirtless and smoking. Guido grabs the intruder by the collar, but Joe explains he was “only looking for the bloody pansies”. It’s Arthur who resolves the mystery: “Here we are duckie. Allow us to introduce ourselves.” Joe introduces himself too. Arthur takes a look at him and asks if he’s sure his name’s not Josephine. Joe’s full-bodied blush prevents him from answering, but Guido steps in: ‘If he says it’s Joe, it’s Joe.’
And so the summer begins. The three of them sit in the garden, with no expectation of etiquette or manners. It’s red tea for Joe and whisky for Guido and Arthur. They sprawl in the long grass and in his new friends Joe finds unquestioned acceptance. He becomes a regular visitor to the cottage, where he’s always Joe, never Josephine, despite his mother’s insistence. He reads poetry, leafs through Guido’s art books – even though they’re foreign – and feels that “… if he could read them they would tell him everything that he wanted to know, although he did not know yet what that was.”
Later, a visit from Guido and Arthur’s London friends leads to a promise that they’ll soon take him to “all the pubs in Soho”.
Soho shone over the horizon, a golden city of shimmering spires where he would go with Guido and Arthur and be happy.
What is Soho anyway? Joe asks his mother, who tells him “It’s not the sort of place people like us go to.”
The lazy haze of halcyonic summer days lingers throughout this story, which is a near-awakening for Joe, who finds more of a home with Guido and Arthur than he’s ever had with his own family. The idyll can’t last, of course – the best stories won’t allow it – and by the end, Joe’s friends are hounded out of Filston, and the promise of all the pubs in Soho – amongst other, more literal things – goes up in flames. All he has left is his vision of that mysterious, wonderful place…
…its name in letters of gold shining through the power and steam. It was exactly the sort of place people like him went to.
First published in Dreams of Dead Women’s Handbags, Heinemann, 1987; collected in The Pneumatic Railway, 2008, Jonathan Cape
JL Bogenschneider is a writer of short fiction, with work in a number of print and online journals, including Cosmonauts Avenue, The Interpreter’s House, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, 404 Ink, PANK and Ambit. Their chapbook, Fears For The Near Future, is available from Neon Books. You can read their individual Personal Anthology here.
* Picked by David Collard
In those always radiant, rainless, lazily rowdy and skyblue summers departed, I remember August Monday from the rising of the sun over the stained and royal town to the husky hushing of the roundabout music and the dowsing of the naphta jets in the seaside fair: from bubble-and-squeak to the last of the sandy sandwiches.
First published as part of the short story collection Quite Early One Morning (1954), ‘Holiday Memory’ was published separately by Dent in the early 1970s as one of an attractive series of booklets illustrated, quite beautifully, by Meg Stevens. They cost 30p and I bought my copy on holiday from a gift shop in Criccieth in 1972, when I was 13. I still have it.
Dylan Thomas was the first author to snag my attention, by which I mean his life interested me just as much as his books did, and the first literary biography I read was Constantine FitzGibbon’s The Life of Dylan Thomas, borrowed from the local library. Before that I’d read only Under Milk Wood and Adventures in the Skin Trade and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (although I hadn’t yet heard of Joyce). I’d also read some of the poems but they baffled me, and still do.
The prose, on the other hand, I loved. It seemed so natural and unforced, so casually exuberant.
During the war Thomas had worked as a documentary script writer for Strand Films, and the opening of ‘Holiday Memory’ resembles a brisk montage assembled from library footage that might form the opening to a short film with a title like The British at Play:
August Bank Holiday – a tune on an ice-cream cornet. A slap of sea and a tickle of sand. A fanfare of sunshades opening. A wince and whinny of bathers dancing into deceptive water. A tuck of dresses. A rolling of trousers. A compromise of paddlers. A sunburn of girls and a lark of boys. A silent hullabaloo of balloons.
The collective nouns (fanfare, wince, whinny and so on) offer a genial, uncritical take on a collective social occasion. It’s in the spirit of Mass Observation, and the socially-engaged documentary films of Humphrey Jennings.
There follow three paragraphs each opening with with ‘I remember’, and the same phrase is employed repeatedly later in the text, long before Joe Brainerd and Georges Perec developed the approach as a self-conscious literary exercise. But Thomas’s memories are not so much personal as generously generic, such that they have become – at least in my case – my own vicarious memories of holidays untaken, pleasures never experienced. I never enjoyed childhood holidays as much as I enjoyed Thomas’s intense evocation of them.
In his poem ‘To the Sea’ Philip Larkin describes trips to the seaside as “half an annual pleasure, half a rite”, and a destination essentially fit for families (and Larkin was no family man), a place of small pleasures where old and young can together enjoy ‘the miniature gaiety’ of sand and sea and funfair.
And mothers loudly warned their proud pink daughters or sons to put that jellyfish down; and fathers spread newspapers over their faces; and sandfleas hopped on the picnic lettuce; and someone had forgotten the salt.
Thomas deftly captures the chaotic energies of childhood, of wild boys and their smart sisters, the hectic intimacy of large families. I’ve elsewhere compared his prose with the densely-populated cartoons of Giles, that matchless genius of The Daily Express, and in particular his affectionate portrayals of lower middle class family life – cosy, cluttered and chaotic.
As darkness falls the fun fair, threadbare by day, becomes a place of wonder. Thomas catches this transformation perfectly:
Girls in skulled and crossboned tunnels shrieked, and were comforted. Young men, heroic after pints, stood up on the flying chairaplanes, tousled, crimson, and against the rules. Jaunty girls gave sailors sauce.
“Jaunty girls gave sailors sauce”: there’s a whole lost world in that, a forgotten social order as innocent and silly and simple as an ice lolly.
First published in Quite Early One Morning, New Directions, 1954. Also published by Dent, 1972. Available to read online here
David Collard is the author of About a Girl (CB Editions) and Multiple Joyce: 100 Short Essays about James Joyce’s Cultural Legacy (Sagging Meniscus). He curates and hosts the online salon The Glue Factory. You can read his individual Personal Anthology and other occasional contributions here.
To begin with, a confession. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I really got seriously into short stories. Sure, I’d read plenty and liked a lot – Carver, Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Baldwin, to name a few obvious ones – but I never really sought them out, and if you’d given me a choice between a short story set and a long novel, I’d have taken the novel every time. But with the advent of parenthood and the brain-sapping, time-draining craziness that came with it, I found that it was sometimes easier to dip into shorts as a way of keeping engaged with reading even when my brain didn’t have the capacity for dealing with anything too long or complex.
Around the same time, I tapped into the independent publishing scene and realised there were lots of great new writers who were doing fresh and interesting things with the form, and it opened up a lot of doors for me. As a result there a quite a few contemporary writers in this selection, although there are some older favourites as well, and hopefully a couple of curveballs too, just to mix it up a bit.
I’ll stick the same caveat here as everyone else – this isn’t a definitive list of my twelve favourite stories or anything like that, and there are pieces from stacks of other collections (Dark Neighbourhood, by Vanessa Onwuemezi, Nordic Fauna by Andrea Lundgren and Variations by Juliet Jacques being three glaring recent examples) I would have loved to have included but couldn’t. This is simply a list of great stuff that I thought was worth shouting about, without wanting to go for anything too obvious that the majority of readers would already know. Anyway, onward…….
It goes without saying that Ben Myers is a hugely gifted writer, but I don’t think people always recognise how versatile he is. He’s associated with the sort of rural noir/gothic that he mastered in his first three novels, but as this collection shows, he can turn his hand to more or less anything. Yes, there are dark tales of travellers and farmers and the like, but there’s also the Beckettian tragi-comic duologue of ‘Snorri and Frosti’, and this one, which is my favourite in the set. In it, an ageing folk singer is interviewed by a music journalist – who’s a big fan of her work – in a café in London. “For a fleeting moment the writer experiences that feeling of being faced with someone so utterly familiar and yet completely unknown; an intimate stranger,” is how he so tantalisingly describes the journalist watching the singer walk down the street and into the building. What I love about this story is the way he fits so many layers into the dialogue – there’s something of the film noir about it in the way questions are answered with questions and every exchange has a subtext that goes way deeper than the words alone suggest. Not only this, but it’s clear that both characters are aware of it and appear to enjoy the game, playful and teasing in the way they interact, but always with a jagged edge. His years as a music journalist give this a real authenticity too (“everyone knows that interviews start when they’re no longer ‘interviews’” as the singer says), which only adds to the overall effect.
First published as a Galley Beggar Single, 2014, and collected in Male Tears, Bloomsbury 2021
Bret Easton Ellis was a hugely important writer to me when I was a teenager. Much like everyone else I got into him via American Psycho, but to me his best work is still Less Than Zero and this collection of shorts. ‘Letters From LA’ is an epistolary story in which, Anne, a girl from New York goes to LA to stay with her grandparents and sends over a period of three months a series of unanswered letters to a friend Sean, who she’s left behind in Camden. When she arrives “It was like walking into another world” and the tone is one of overwhelming naivety – “I went out with this couple to some exclusive club… and I danced and got drunk and had great fun. And I thought I wouldn’t have much of a social life!” but as ever with Ellis, LA is the great corrupter, and the letters soon take a more sinister tone. After a month she writes, “I am kind of tired of hanging out at the same clubs night after night and laying by the pool doing all this incredible coke”, and his usual dead-eyed nihilism starts to creep into play.
“My relationships with people here aren’t tense or trying because no one requires a whole lot of serious emotional investment at all,” she writes. The letters become shorter, her language shot through with LA idioms, references to Valium, grass, Librium, empty sex; she hangs out with actors, musicians, studio executives, lies about her age; “I tell everyone I’m seventeen or eighteen (I’m twenty). Randy thinks I’m sixteen. Can U believe it?” In the penultimate letter she writes: “They all told me that Randy OD’d, but……there was blood on the ceiling, Sean. How can blood get on the ceiling if you OD?” before apathy finally triumphs in the closing missive: “Doesn’t it seem like a long time since I’ve written you? I guess I’m not much into it anymore.”
All the trademark Ellis motifs are in here – meaningless sex, drugs, the dissolution of the idle rich and the sanguinary violence that permeates pretty much everything he does, all told with his fucked-on-downers detachment and studiously minimal cut glass prose. As a 14-year-old I was in love with his voice and the years have done nothing to diminish it. His output has slowed and he’s way past his prime, but the knowingly allusive and self-referential Lunar Park and Imperial Bedrooms are still worthy reads from a writer who knows his place in the literary pantheon is secure.
First published in The Informers, Knopf/Picador, 1994
This is from an anthology of shorts based on one of my favourite records, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. When I read this story (named for the opening track on the record) for the first time, I struggled to pin it down. The imagery was very much in keeping with the lyrics of the album but much as I liked the vibe, the clashing, fragmentary images and the jarring dissonance of the prose, it was somehow too on-the-nose, a touch too derivative and it frustrated the hell out of me.
Then I got to the end and read the author’s note in which he said the story was written by taking every single word used in the album’s lyrics and rearranging them to form the piece, using each word once and once only, except in cases where a word was repeated on the record – and at that point my mind was blown completely. Such a great idea for a way to assemble a piece on the theme of Disorder, and also very much in line with Ian Curtis’s love for avante-gardists like Ballard and Burroughs and the cut-up techniques they used to experiment with. The whole collection is excellent and has some great writers in it – Jenn Ashworth and Toby Litt being two other notable contributors – but this one is the jewel in the crown for me.
First published in We Were Strangers, Confingo Publishing, 2017
I love Elliott Smith’s early records. The lyrics on the first three albums in particular (and the ones on New Moon, which were recorded around the same time but released posthumously) have always struck me as being like Carver stories in miniature, and this is probably the greatest example of them all. A couple have an argument, one of them leaves and drives off in the Oldsmobile that’s referenced throughout. Very few songwriters are capable of being so striking yet so succinct: “Eyes burning, voice dry and hoarse/I threw the screen door like a bastard back and forth/the chimes fell over each other/I fell onto my knees,” for example.
There’s some lovely imagery in here too; “The fairground’s lit/a drunk man sits by the gate she’s driving through/got his head tipped, bottle back between his teeth/looks like he’s buried in the sand at the beach” or “I’m lying down blowing smoke from my cigarette/little whispered smoke signs that you’ll never get.” I love the way he captures the bitterness leftover at the end of the argument, after the other person has long gone and he flips it around as if it he’s the one that’s left, and signs off with characteristically hushed fury: “So now I’m leaving you along/you can do whatever the hell you want to……”
According to Smith, he wrote this song when he was seventeen years old, which only makes it all the more remarkable; even after playing the instrument for twenty fucking years I still can’t get anywhere near being able to fingerpick it on guitar, never mind sing it at the same time.
From Roman Candle, Cavity Search Records, 1994