The reason I think my sixth choice should have been a short story is that though it forms part of a novel, the rest of the novel is completely unmemorable, whereas this extract is striking, complete in itself, a dramatic whole. It is Jean Echenoz’s Au Piano. Two men are walking in the Parc Monceau in Paris. One is very smartly dressed. “He is going to die a violent death in twenty-two days’ time”, we are told, and though we are also told that that is not what he is afraid of, the impression builds that he is under the threat of immediate death or disaster. He is under the thumb of his smaller, scruffier companion, who is under the command, it seems, of a third man who is not present. The protagonist, Max, is refused permission to have a drink by his minder, who relies for compliance on the mere threat of a phone call to the absent third.
The minder steers his ‘victim’ (protégé?) past the statues in the park, studiously avoiding those representing composers. Max vomits twice with fear, and is again refused permission for a drink at a bar as they leave the park. Suddenly, they are ‘here’ – at building number 252. They make their way through hallways, passages, doorways and into a dark space. Is Max about to be assaulted? There is the noise of a swell or a crowd. And suddenly, the minder shoves Max through a curtain, the swell surges into a tempest, and “there it was – the piano”. The terrible Steinway is what Max has been viscerally dreading all this while. He is a concert pianist plagued by the most extreme stage-fright. He takes his seat in front of the fifty-two monstrous teeth, the conductor waves his baton, and they are off into the Second Concerto in F-minor, Op. 21, by Frédéric Chopin.
First published in Le Piano, Les Éditions de Minuit, 2003. English translation, Piano, published byVintage Press, 2005