Certain kinds of personalities have great trouble with lists, and I have one of them: I can actually conceive of the entries left out as slighted objects with tangible emotions. So it’s a great temptation to begin this selection with a rush of obviouslykatherinemansfieldchekhovtessahadleymavisgallanttoo, tucked within which is a clear pleasedontjudgeme. But this is madness, and I have found myself freed by something that the great broadcaster Danny Baker said of his appearance on Desert Island Discs: it’s not an affidavit, you can change them all if you like. So these are stories that have made a great impression on me at some point in my life, but if I look too carefully at why it will all stop making sense. If I had to isolate one common element, it would be that, in completely different ways, they are all thrilling; they provoked in me a feeling of utter absorption and delight.
This is one of the first short stories I remember reading: in the days before YA, you simply raided your parents’ shelves, although I seem to remember my mother actually putting it into my hands. Three well-to-do ladies of a certain age take a long holiday in Antibes, which serves the dual purpose of incessant bridge-playing and a serious attempt to shed the pounds. Perhaps their greatest challenge beyond reduction is to find a reliable fourth for cards; and on this occasion they believe they’ve found the holy grail in the (irritatingly slim) shape of Lena. Vivid, witty and spiteful, it is perhaps at odds with contemporary conceptions of sisterhood, but the tales of trumps taken and “antifat” rusks eaten still makes me laugh with agonised recognition of weak will and its consequent mayhem. Read it, but perhaps even better, listen to Maugham reading it on Youtube, made all the funnier by his pronunciation of the “fet” the ladies are determined to banish.
(first published in Hearst’s International Combined with Cosmopolitan in 1933, collected in Vintage’s Collected Short Stories Volume 1, available online here)
In the sad days before Bertie Wooster’s chum Bingo Little found wedded bliss in the arms of the romantic novelist Rosie M Banks, he sought high and low for love, including an infatuation with would-be revolutionary Charlotte Corday Rowbotham. Before long, Bingo finds himself an entryist to the Heralds of the Red Dawn, a group committed to the overthrow of the aristocracy and to ushering tumbrils along the streets of Mayfair. The story contains an important life lesson: if emotional fulfilment requires you to disguise yourself with a false beard and heckle your family and friends at Speakers’ Corner, the relationship is unlikely to progress to a happy conclusion. Jeeves, Wooster, Aunt Dahlia, Gussie Fink-Nottle and Bingo himself were my constant companions through teenage years (along with Stalky & Co and Nancy Mitford’s aristocrats, make of all that what you will), and their misadventures still make me laugh.
(First published in The Stand in 1992 and collected in The Inimitable Jeeves, currently available from Arrow, which itself is in the Hutchinson Jeeves Omnibus 1 along with two other books.)
One of three stories inspired by the work of Henri Matisse, ‘The Chinese Lobster’ – first published with its companions in 1996 – seems thoroughly in step with today’s debates about power relations between men and women and the locus of authority. The Dean of Women’s Studies at a London university arrives in the supposedly neutral space of a Chinese restaurant to present an art historian with charges of sexual abuse that a female student has made against him. He is outraged, and cites the student’s lack of ability as a clumsy defence; but we are also encouraged to consider the pain he feels at her desecration of his beloved Matisse. Beyond its subject matter, it is remarkable for the creation of a palpable atmosphere of unease and ambiguous luxury, emblematised by the live lobster trapped in its tank.
(First published in The New Yorker in 1992, and collected in The Matisse Stories, Vintage)
‘Humphrey, what is Tebic? What does it do?’
‘Its duty – as Woolworth’s expects of it. Now go on to something else, you’re only halfway down.’
Tebic is a small gift – wrapped in silver paper, encased in blue plastic and embossed with a head of Athene – that Humphrey Warburton gives his wife Lydia in her Christmas stocking. The problem: he can’t remember what it is, and she throws it aside – until one day, it is seized on by a lunch guest who declares herself a “Tebic addict”. What I love about this story is that I still don’t know what to make of it, having it read it over and over again, or refined my ideas of what the mysterious Tebic might be – the best I can do is to say it sits in my mind with a black-and-white framed photograph of the back of a woman’s head that I’ve had for years.
(First published in The New Yorker in 1958, and collected in The Music at Long Verney)
This is a small cheat – one of a pair of novellas published together under the title The Hunters – but I’m chancing my arm because I admire it so greatly. It’s partly the evocation of London, from the point of view of a visitor, an American academic who might rather have been wandering the towpaths of Little Venice than the more down-at-heel Kilburn streets in which he comes to rest. But it is his downstairs neighbours that really revolt him – specifically, Ridley Wandor, who cares for her unseen mother and for their pet rabbits. The narrator becomes convinced that Wandor embodies some grotesque malevolence, possibly one that will end with her murdering her mother. It’s a tale with a twist – but so much more than that
(collected in The Hunters, Picador)
I still have my copy of this collection of fiction and non-fiction pieces, published in 1977 when I was nine, and could have chosen any of its stories, because they’re lodged in my mind: ‘The Swan’, in which a boy attempts to fly; ‘The Mildenhall Treasure’, an account of the discovery of Roman silver in a Suffolk field; the memoir, ‘A Piece of Cake’. But the title story – which tells of a wealthy gambler who believes he’s hit on the perfect system for beating the house – stands out because I can still remember Henry’s motto for living: “It is better to incur a mild rebuke than to perform an onerous task.” Quite so.
(collection first published 1977, available in a Puffin edition)
This is a celebrated story by a celebrated short story writer, and one of the most devastating I can remember reading. It’s a first-person account of a family: The Mother, the Husband, the Baby, who suddenly find themselves catapulted into the world of paediatric oncology and the prospect of grim treatment and grimmer prognoses. What makes it so breathtaking is the black humour, desperation, fear and rage that Moore injects into the Mother, the story’s first-person narrator – and also a writer who realises that she might need to capture the experience to pay for her child’s care. “Take Notes. In the end, you suffer alone. But in the beginning you suffer with a whole lot of other people.”
(First published in The New Yorker in 1997. Also in Moore’s Collected Stories, from Faber)
Before she leaves Harare to return home to north London, Pepukai visits a hairdressing salon – one that makes her normal place in Finsbury Park look like “the Aveda in Covent Garden”. Her hairdresser, she is told, is late; but it quickly emerges that “late” here means dead. She has been shot the previous evening, and what follows is a multi-voiced, roiling narrative, with speakers continually popping in to join in the drama and share information about Kindness’s death. For Pepukai – already laughed at by the staff for the old-fashioned “Shabba Ranks” braids she’s asked for – it’s an education in the realities, hierarchies and gossip of Zimbabwean inner-city life whose impact we can only wonder at as she boards the flight back to Britain.
(Collected in Rotten Row, from Faber. Shortlisted for the 2016 Sunday Times Short Story Award, where you can read it online)
This story became the opening of a novel of the same name, detailing the lives of the inhabitants of a fictional West Yorkshire village through the contents of a stolen postbox. As a standalone piece, though, it has more than enough complexity going for it, not least the 100 footnotes that an irate villager includes in a letter to the authorities to complain about that contentious subject: dog-fouling. It takes little time for us to realise he’s off his rocker – though quite possibly no more than anyone else. Written an awful long time before Brexit, it is nonetheless a sparky guide to the nature of our divided country.
(Appeared as a story in Granta 106. The novel was published by 4th Estate)
This is the best new story I’ve read for years – I was gripped, frightened, entranced. And I also felt better about the general crappiness of Christmas, because at least an unknown intruder hasn’t ended up leaching blood all over my carpet on the 24th December. The setting is pretty recognisable: ageing parents, their grown-up children, partners, grandchildren; excess, tension, resentment. But if you chuck a mysterious stranger, some hyper-violence and a loose reworking of Gawain and the Green Knight into the mix, then you are taken somewhere altogether unfamiliar and brilliantly, suggestively spooky.
(First published in The Pier Falls, Doubleday, 2016)
From Simpson’s collection Hey Yeah Right Get A Life (my favourite, along with Constitutional), Burns and the Bankers will induce a groan of fellow feeling in anyone who’s ever thought they might expire with boredom and discomfort at a corporate do. But although we are firmly in the territory of the affluent professional classes, Simpson’s portrait of a woman trapped in a swaggeringly masculine environment which she both intuits and boggles at could be transplanted to numerous other settings in which a pantomime of sociability is enacted despite being, apparently, to everyone’s detriment.
(Hey Yeah Right Get A Life is published by Vintage. The story is also in Simpson’s 2012 Selected Stories, A Bunch of Fives)
From Diaz’s second collection, This Is How You Lose Her – unsurprisingly, men in foundering or vanishing relationships feature heavily – ‘Invierno’ is a child’s-eye story. It recounts the arrival of the collection’s central character, Yunior, in the United States from the Dominican Republic. Yunior’s father has been living alone in America for the past five years, and the meat of the story is the family’s attempts to reconnect with one another. But the most affecting image is of Yunior and his older brother, Rafa, sequestered in their claustrophobic apartment, their father too protective to allow them outside to explore their new home.
(This Is How You Lose Her, 2012, published by Faber)