My original idea of a personal anthology was of one grandly curated and thematically unified. However, in the end I simply chose 12 stories which have always stuck in my mind. What I’ve discovered is that I like my short stories short, and quirky (one might even say, more unkindly, gimmicky). If your tastes lie in the same direction, then you may enjoy:
J G Ballard is rarely conventional, but his more experimental work tends to be found in his short stories. One of my favourites is ‘Having a Wonderful Time’, written, as the title suggests, as a series of postcards. Diana and her husband Richard head off to Las Palmas for two weeks of sun and sand in July, only to discover that, when the time comes to return to England, their departure has been delayed, first by a day, but soon indefinitely. Diana adapts, pursuing amateur dramatics as well as a crush on Beach Counsellor Mark, but Richard claims the holiday complexes are “human reserves” and intends to form a resistance group. Written in the clipped, upbeat tone of the typical postcard (for those old enough to remember) Richard’s desperate rebellion plays out against Diana’s rehearsals.
First published in Bananas, Spring 1978 and collected in Myths of the Near Future, Jonathan Cape, 1982, and now available in The Complete Stories of J G Ballard Volume 2, Fourth Estate, 2014
It is always tempting to include Franz Kafka in any short story anthology, so what better way to avoid this than by including a Kafka tribute instead? Quim Monzo is a Catalan writer who delights in the absurd, and so is naturally attracted to riffing on Kafka’s work in a story where an insect finds itself transformed into a person. His family are surprisingly forgiving but, of course, small and remote, and, once he has gained control of his body and can walk to the bathroom, he is surprised to find himself upset by his nakedness. Monzo’s story is much shorter than Kafka’s but, despite making an entirely different point, it does confirm that it’s always the insects who suffer.
First published in the Catalan in Guadalajara, Quadems Crema, 1996, and in English in Guadalajara, Open Letter, 2011
Brian McCabe’s ‘Kreativ Riting’ remains, for me, the most accurate portrayal of the classroom in Scottish fiction. Lasting only one ill-fated lesson, it begins when English teacher PK (“ ‘cause his name’s Pitcairn and he’s a nut”) decides a period of creative writing is in order. The lesson is soon disrupted by the narrator, Joe, a pupil who, we soon discover, likes to be the centre of attention. Of course, any experienced teacher will tell you that PK’s plan – asking the pupils to empty their heads, listen to classical music, and write down “whatever floats into your mind” – is far from fool-proof. As well as being very funny, what makes the story interesting is that, although Joe’s favourite gambit is to impersonate a Neanderthal by hitting his head with his fist, his intelligence cannot be disguised – punning punctuation into punk-tuition for example. What he eventually writes, and what he does with it, make for a rather downbeat ending, however.
First published in In a Dark Room with a Stranger, Hamish Hamilton, 1993
I whole-heartedly recommend reading all of Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud’s stories available in English – which unfortunately, at the moment, encompasses only this single volume. ‘The Peacocks’ is a story of death – the death of the narrator’s lover, Marie, but also, we suspect, the death of everything: it’s apocalyptic poetry which predates The Road by thirty years. In five pages we learn of their life together, increasingly bereft of other people for reasons which are never explained, and the consolations of culture which cannot overcome the sadness at the heart of it. The two peacocks they have been living with provide the most horrific aspect of the denouement. When someone we love dies, it can feel like the end of the world; in ‘The Peacocks’ it is.
First published as ‘Les Paons’ in La Belle Charbonnière, Grasset, 1976. First published in English in A Life on Paper, Small Beer Press, 2010
James Kelman has, without doubt, a claim to be Britain’s greatest living writer (see, for example, two International Man Booker Prize nominations when it was awarded for a writer’s body of work) so it seems perverse to choose a story which is less than half a page long as representative of his skill. And yet ‘Acid’ has such power, told, as always, in a colloquial voice (which is not to say Glaswegian), the fragment of an overheard conversation, and with the seemingly throwaway phrase “who was also the young man’s father” deftly unparenthetical. A story to be read in single intake of breath. (And if that wasn’t enough, the story also appears in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, in the Index of Plagiarisms in reference to a non-existent chapter 47).
First published in Not Not While the Giro, Polygon, 1983, and available in Tales of Here and Then, thi wurd, 2020
Mouthful of Birds contains a number of wonderful stories, but perhaps my favourite is ‘Toward Happy Civilisation’ which begins like a Western and ends like an out-take from Kafka’s Amerika. It starts simply enough with a man being refused a train ticket. As a result, the train does not stop and the man is stranded and is soon lodging with the station master and his wife, yet he refuses to abandon his dream of boarding the train. The story performs a deft sleight of hand when the perspective shifts from being entirely Gruner’s and draws back (“Gruner’s actions that first day are the same as this of everyone who has ever been in his situation”) to emphasise his dream is not unique. Like so much of Schweblin’s work, the story’s ending allows us to feel something we already know only when it is revealed.
First published in Spanish in Pajros en la boca, 2010, and in English in The Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2019, and available to read online here. Collected in Mouthful of Birds, Oneworld, 2019
It is possible that ‘Near the Driver’ is my favourite Alasdair Gray story simply because I heard him read it before it was published; it is therefore a story I hear in his voice. The central character is a “kind, intelligent old lady” not much used to modern trains who feels safer when she sits near the driver. Though the logic of this is soon disputed by a child in the same compartment, the feeling remains. As the passengers reminisce about the days of steam and argue about politics, the same child discovers that no-one is driving the train – it is being controlled by computer (a much less fanciful notion now, as are the pocket televisions mentioned in its 1999 setting). In many ways it is a typical science fiction warning, but one delivered with Gray’s typical erudition and humour, and always with an eye on the effects of ‘modernisation’ on ordinary people.
First published in Ten Tales Tall and True, Bloomsbury, 1993, and collected in Every Short Story, Canongate, 2012
Slawomir Mrożek’s stories – or perhaps fables – are very short, and it is therefore difficult to pick a favourite, but ‘The Elephant’ is an excellent place to start. A satire of Communist Poland, it is just as easy to find its targets across the globe today. In the story the Director of a zoo, to save money and ingratiate himself with those above, refuses the funds to acquire an elephant and decides instead to make one much more cheaply out of rubber. The workers charged with inflating it quickly tire and have the ingenious idea of using a gas pipe to blow it up instead, with predictable consequences. My favourite detail, however, is the sign placed outside the elephant enclosure in preparation: “Particularly sluggish. Hardly moves.”
First published in Polish in 1958, and in English in The Elephant, MacDonald, 1962. Also available in Penguin Modern Classics, 2010
Like most of George Mackay Brown’s work, ‘The Wireless Set’ is set on Orkney, and begins when the first wireless set arrives in 1939, presented by Howie to his mother. Howie tells her it speaks the truth; his father, old Hugh, is less convinced, citing an inaccurate weather report as evidence. When the war begins, the wireless is at first a source of news for the village, but after accidentally tuning into Lord Haw Haw they become fascinated by his lies. The story ends with news of Howie’s death and its final pages are among the most moving I have ever read.
First published in A Time to Keep, Hogarth Press, 1969, republished by Polygon in 2015
Senor Otaola is science teacher of scientific precision: his lessons begin and end on time, and his marks are undisputed. In fact, “knowing him, one could understand why the heavenly spheres do not bump into each other…” And yet one day he decides to jump from the top of a flight of twelve stairs, as if defying the laws of nature. Fraile’s story is one that demonstrates the power of the unlikely; the success or failure of Senor Otaola’s jump does not matter, only that it takes place. Fraile came to the UK in the 1960s and eventually settled in Scotland. His stories exist in the borderland between laughter and tears, but are always gentle.
First published in Spanish as ‘Senor Otaola, ciencias’ in Descubridor de nada y otros cuentos, Editorial Prensa Española, 1970, and in English in Things Look Different in the Light, Pushkin Press, 2014
While putting this list together I learned that I have a type when it comes to short stories. Anything unexpected, anything about grief, anything focusing on family relationships. Here are twelve stories that continue casting their spells on me regardless of how many times I revisit them.
This tender and earnest story with a family of three at its core – a mother studying in America, the father and daughter left behind – sets up its premise in the first, forceful line: “When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters.” Arimah expertly navigates time and a young woman’s adolescence to talk about the love a father has for his daughter, a disintegrating marriage, how distance and the difference between where we live and where we want to live can change who we are and how we relate to each other.
First published online by Granta in April 2015 and available to read here Collected in What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Riverhead Books, 2017
With humour and sly asides about online dating, mothers, and visiting friends, this story slowly circles the grief a young woman feels over losing her sister. Even things that should be impossible (a dead sister talking from the lip of a carpet), seem plausible after Asi spends careful time building up details before confronting us with the otherworldly nature of her grief.
First published in Indiana Review, Winter 2019, Volume 41, Number 2