Welcome to the website of A Personal Anthology, which also exists as a weekly TinyLetter. Each week a guest is invited to pick and introduce twelve of their favourite short stories and, where possible, link to them online. You can browse guest editors and featured authors in the sidebar, or just start reading below. Click here to sign up for the mailout.
Aldiss was a key figure in the new wave of science fiction writing in Britain in in the 1960s and 70s, and immensely prolific (80 novels, more than 300 short stories). Fifty years on ‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’ is – no surprise – dated in many of its assumptions and entirely off-message for modern readers when it comes to female agency. The then-future technologies will seem quaint to today’s reader – “the photostat in her hand, still moist from the wall-receiver” – although Aldiss is bang on the money when it comes to the internet and retina scanning. He also anticipates the loneliness and boredom of modern life, the isolation (in particular) of women in a male hegemony.
In a starving world there’s also an obesity problem, mentioned in this clunky bit of exposition:
Though three-quarters of the overcrowded world are starving, we are lucky here to have more than enough, thanks to population control. Obesity’s our problem, not malnutrition. I guess there’s nobody round this table who doesn’t have a Crosswell working for him in the small intestine, a perfectly safe parasite tape-worm that enables its host to eat up to fifty percent more food and still keep his or her figure. Right?
I realise I’m not making a strong case for this. But I recall being spellbound as I read the story in our local library as an unhappy teenager, and brooding for days afterwards on what reality was, and how to figure out my place in my family and in the world. It triggered in me a disabling self-awareness and lack of ease. I’m still living with that.
The story was optioned by Stanley Kubrick and spent many years not being made before it was eventually released as A.I. Artificial Intelligencein 2001, directed by Steven Spielberg. I haven’t seen it.
First published in Harper’s Bazaar, December 1969, and collected in The Moment of Eclipse, Faber, 1970, and widely thereafter. It is available to read online here. Picked by David Collard. David is a writer and researcher based in London. His latest book is About a Girl (CB editions) and he is currently working on a group biography of writers associated with Ian Hamilton’s New Review in the 1970s. His previous contributions to A Personal Anthology can be read here.
I have a strange hardback, The Best of H.E. Bates, published for the American market in 1963, with a preface from—of all the unlikely American writers to introduce H.E. Bates—Henry Miller. (It seems clear to me that the sorts of American readers who would’ve liked Bates would’ve turned tail at Henry Miller’s name, and Miller fans would’ve been nonplussed by Bates squarely-made, well-made, often rather straightforwardly English stories.)
I bought it more than twenty years ago on a summer’s day in Provincetown on Cape Cod. My not-yet-wife was then working as an au pair. Provincetown is of course an American vacation spot of long standing, a terminal vacation spot—you must go back the way you came—and the Cape is written about by writers as far from one another as Thoreau, Henry Beston, Cookie Mueller. So maybe the place of purchase is the only real reason why I thought of ‘The Kimono’ for this list. Or maybe I thought of this Bates story—the only one from that thick book to linger in my mind—because it’s a story that hinges on very hot weather.
Or perhaps I’m sending it because it’s a story about people who are never really on holiday, and so for whom the idea of escape becomes unbearable. Arthur Lawson narrates: a very middle-of-the-road type from Nottingham, in great, big, new, vast 1911 London to interview with a firm of electrical engineers. Arthur becomes lost and goes into a shop for an ice in a drab part of London. In the shop there’s a woman bending over a broken cooler. She’s wearing a poorly fastened kimono. That’s all I can say—I’ve already said too much. But I’ve never forgotten it, and never let the book slip away, entirely on account of that one story. Or maybe when and where I bought it, which, at this remove amount almost to the same thing.
First published in 1936 and collected in Something Short and Sweet, Jonathan Cape, 1937 and widely thereafter. Picked by Drew Johnson. Drew’s fiction has appeared in Harper’s, VQR, The Literary Review, New England Review and elsewhere. You can read his full Personal Anthology here.
I loved this story when I first read it, well before the digital age would have rendered obsolete the physical job of cutting and splicing tapes. I love it now for all kinds of different reasons.
Murke is employed by the national radio. He is too bright for his job. One morning, he is directed to delete the word God from a recorded talk by someone who is eager to re-write his public profile, so history must be adapted accordingly. The person is too important to disobey. I love that this story includes so much while so very little actually happens. There is the smoking of cigarettes, the daily addiction to anxiety and fear in the old lift at the Broadcasting House, a laconic revulsion against good taste, against Art and Culture and against the inevitable kow-towing to self-important people. I love that everything is there in the story—even dogs. Small everyday battles are being fought. Subversive acts are winning in tiny ways that can make a person feel hope about one thing at a time. And while all this happens, Murke is collecting silences in the form of little pieces of cut-up audio tape removed from the recording. No one wants to hear silence on the radio. Murke’s collection is just another small part of the meaningless and absurd activities of his life.
This story is not about the glorious hopeful silence of summer. This is silence stored in a biscuit tin. Kept for another day.
“What kind of left-overs?” asked Humkoke.
“Silences,” said Murke, “I collect silences.”
Hukoke raised his eyebrows, and Murke went on: “When I have to cut tapes, in the places where the speakers sometimes pause for a moment – or sigh, or take a breath, or there is absolute silence – I don’t throw that away, I collect it. Incidentally, there wasn’t a single second of silence in Bur-Malottke’s tapes.”
Humkoke laughed: “Of course not, he would never be silent. And what do you do with the scrap?”
“I splice it together and play back the tape when I’m at home in the evening. There’s not much yet, I only have three minutes so far – but then people aren’t silent very often.”
“You know, don’t you, that it’s against regulations to take home sections of tape?”
“Even silences?” asked Murke.
First published in Great Britain 1967 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, collected in various editions including Absent Without Leave, Marion Boyers, 1983. Picked by Erica Van Horn. Erica is an American writer and artist. She has been living in Tipperary, Ireland for the last 22 years, a deeply rural setting from where her writings evolve in a daily journal. Recent publications include TOO RAUCOUS FOR A CHORUS, 2017 (Coracle), EM & ME, 2017 (Coracle) and LIVING LOCALLY (Uniformbooks). Her papers are held at the Beinecke Library, Yale University.
August is a strange time of year, especially in the city. It is the listless countdown to the end of summer: leaves droop tired and tawdry on dusty trees; a whiff of something subtly off-key hangs in the air. School holidays bring exodus and an emptying out for a few weeks until a new, brisker season returns: on the Continent, the great urban destinations such as Rome and Paris sensibly shut up shop, ignoring hordes of tourists descending like greenfly onto roses. In culture, August gives a sense of playing truant from reality and from the self, such as in Jacques Rivette’s 1974 film Celine and Julie Go Boating, a cult classic about two young women who swap identities and tumble down a phantasmagorical rabbit-hole one languid Paris summer.
I first saw it at the old Renoir cinema in London’s Brunswick Square, the same August I started my first ‘proper’ job – at the British Library, then part of the British Museum on Great Russell Street. My job, as a researcher on a seemingly endless project to digitise the library’s vast holdings of 19th-century books, allowed me to wander freely among the book stacks and dust motes. Here, on stiflingly hot afternoons, I read prodigiously – and not only three-decker Victorian volumes. At some point I discovered the wartime writings of the Anglo-Irish author Elizabeth Bowen – The Heat of the Day, her superb novel of the Blitz and betrayal – and short stories of forsakenness shot through with horror.
The most uneasy of these is ‘The Demon Lover’ (1941), in which the backdrop of a bombed-out London sets the scene for a fatal promise extracted during an earlier war. Bowen rapidly creates an atmosphere of claustrophobia and menace: late one sultry August day, with the weather about to turn, a middle-aged woman, Mrs Drover, makes a brief foray to her family’s boarded-up London house in a quiet square to pack up a few essential items before returning to the country where they have been evacuated away from the bombs. Though Mrs Drover is alone, we and she sense that she is being observed by someone, or something: “a cat wove itself in and out of railings, but no human eye watched Mrs Drover’s return”.
The emphasis here is on the ‘human’. Inanimate objects have taken on the suffering and disappointment of the war years and all is weirdly askew: “in her once familiar street, as in any unused channel, an unfamiliar queerness had silted up.” As “the unwilling lock” on Mrs Drover’s front door relents to her key, Bowen gifts us the entire arc of the story in the last, leaden sentence of its opening paragraph: “Dead air came to meet her as she went in.” The ensuing ghostly tale is as much about the psychological trauma of war (a period of “lucid abnormality” according to Bowen) and the passing of time, as it is conventionally supernatural. In the house – to which only she and a part-time caretaker have a key – a hand-delivered letter awaits Mrs Drover, apparently from the barely known soldier fiancé who has been missing presumed dead since they last set eyes on each other on a gloomy August evening in 1916, exactly twenty-five years before. It curtly reminds her of a promise made, an hour of meeting, an appointment which must be kept.
In a 1944 postscript to the first publication of The Demon Lover and Other Stories,Bowen explains how in these “between-time stories” “the past discharges its load of feeling into the anaesthetised and bewildered present.” The individual is all but smothered in an atmosphere of confusion and upheaval, where every positive has its reliably sinister negative. Thus Mrs Drover recalls “with dreadful acuteness” the “complete suspension of her existence” during the final days she had spent with her former lover, a passive deferment similar to the annihilating torpor of war. A long impasse has a way of turning against those who cease to be watchful: for, as it turns out most terribly for her: “You have no time to run from a face you do not expect.”
First published in The Listener, November 1941. Collected in The Demon Lover and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1945 and The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Vintage Classics, 1999. Chosen by Catherine Taylor, who is a critic, editor and writer. A former publisher and deputy director of English PEN, she has been a judge on prizes from the Guardian First Book Award to the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate and is part of the team behind the new Brixton Review of Books. She is writing a non-fiction book about the dark side of South Yorkshire in the 1970s and 80s. You can read Catherine’s full Personal Anthology here.
What did we do before selfies? We approached strangers. We asked them to capture the moment, to memorialise our presence at this temple, that statue. Twenty-four images in a standard roll of film. You had to think about what you were going to snap. Twenty-four pictures to sum up your holiday of a lifetime. Now we might take twice that in an afternoon at the park. In ‘Waiting for the Sun’, Mr Shering is a man on ‘perpetual holiday’. He likes to have his photograph taken. Over the years it has become an obsession, a kind of never-ending pilgrimage. Sicily, Marseilles, “palm-trees, flags, ruins and mountains”. He does not so much photograph his holidays as go on holiday in order to be photographed. “It was the necessity to combine being somebody with doing nothing which led him to this new interest.” (Perhaps something similar could be said about the vagaries and vulgarities about life in the online realm.) Mr Shering is always on the hunt for likely photographers: he eyes them up, assesses their potential. These holiday snapshots define him. “All the same, he was hard put to know what he was himself …”
Early on, we see him passing between two mirrors, “diminished but shining”. He thrives on the gaze of others. He needs the sun, of course: “His casual encounters were made only in its light”. When he climbs a hill at the end of a holiday in the south-west, searching for another photo opportunity, another defining tableau, he is dismayed to find that he has been upstaged by an eclipse and its crowd of gawpers.
There is always the sense of a life slightly askew or adrift, or even on the edge of disaster, in Davie’s stories. Witty and poetic, she takes the ordinary, the overlooked, and reveals in them something transcendent, macabre, beautiful. Under heavy skies he lived from hour to hour, dulled and diminished in his own eyes, making few contacts, seeing and hearing little of what was going on around him … Elusive as its shining was, the sun was the only dependable in his monstrously unreliable life.
First published in The High Tide Talker and Other Stories, Hamish Hamilton, 1976. Also collected In The Man Who Wanted to Smell Books, Canongate Classics, 2001. Chosen by Stephen Hargadon, whose short stories have appeared in Black Static, Confingo, Tales from the Shadow Booth, Structo, LossLit, Cafe Stories and Crimewave.
Maybe the summer, if you want to be all seasonal about it, is a good time to open up Mavis Gallant’s Selected Stories and turn to page 284. Here you will make the acquaintance of Walter Henderson, “a stripling to his friends”, who are the elderly folk of the French Riviera. They look at Walter, and listen to his sociable stories, but see a long-lost loved one, whether that means a lover or “an adored but faithless son”. But this is how Walter spends his winters (driving his car “gaily, as if it were summer”). His summers are a different matter, as he “lolls on a garden chair, rereading his boyhood books”. Only, in Walter’s forty-fifth year, a complication arises, in the form of a family visit…
The details are craftily, cattily observed, the intrigue of the story leisurely. Walter, so used to reading and telling stories of his own, has to acknowledge the discomfiting existence of other people’s. Meditations on age take place against the drowsy backdrop of a “breather” for his guests that they seem reluctant to end. The good news is that Gallant’s Selected Stories runs to nearly 900 pages, making it a pleasantly Walter-like companion for train journeys, sojourns in the sun.
First published in the New Yorker, 1963 and available online to subscribers here and collected in The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant, Bloomsbury, 1997. Picked by Michael Caines, who works at the Times Literary Supplement. He is the author of Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 2013) and the editor of a TLS bicentennial celebration of Jane Austen. He is writing a short book about literary prizes, and a slightly longer book about Brigid Brophy. He is founding editor of the Brixton Review of Books. You can read his full Personal Anthology here.
A mother takes her young sons to France to escape the Floridian heat of August. She believes the trip will release the writer’s block she’s experiencing, like a fish bone in her throat. Also, she hopes that the boys will pick up French the way they pick up dirt. The mother’s expectations, drawn from memories of a youthful summer spent in France, contrast both subtly and harshly with the reality of their adventure. I love how the writing balances the ferocity of maternal love with the banality of everyday tasks and the relentless thought-processes and decision-making it requires. Groff peels back the surface of this steely, independent mother and invites us to relate to the neuroses and unexpected joys that come with parenthood. But, you don’t have to be a parent appreciate it; ultimately, it’s a story about ambition and outlook altered by time and changed circumstances.
First published in Granta 139: Best of Young American Novelists 3, April 2017 and available to subscribers to read online here. Collected in Florida, Riverhead/William Heinemann, 2018. Picked by Clare Rees, who is a graduate of the MA Creative Writing: First Novel programme at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. She is a copywriter by day and a writer of fiction by night, and is currently working on the first draft of her second novel.