Introduction

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.

‘The Three Fat Women of Antibes’ by W Somerset Maugham

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)

‘Comrade Bingo’ by PG Wodehouse

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.)

‘The Chinese Lobster’ by AS Byatt

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)

‘Tebic’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner

‘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)

‘The Hunters’ by Claire Messud

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)

‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’ by Roald Dahl

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)