Once a week I facilitate a reading group in some sheltered housing where we read one short story, out loud, together, stopping every paragraph or so to talk about what’s happening. It’s a therapeutic thing more than a critical or literary thing, but I still try to pick stories that work in both ways. The narrator is sitting with her father, 86 years old and confined to his bed for health reasons. The father says, I would like you to write a simple story, just once more, like Chekhov or Maupassant. And then they start to have a deeper, more critical conversation about what that means, with her attempting to do what he asks, using neighbourhood characters as her material. As she tells and retells the neighbour’s story to her father, adding and subtracting detail, the actual hard work of fiction in defining what we think of as ‘character’ is laid bare. After listening to the whole thing, one of our group member’s Polish carer, who’d come in to push her wheelchair and help her drink a cup of tea, piped up “This story is like a Matryoshka doll!!”. At which point you know the story has won: smiley face emoji.
First published in the New American Review, 1972. Collected in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, 1974, FSG, and Collected Stories, FSG/Virago, 1994. Hear Ali Smith read it on the Guardian podcast here