Some short stories continue to linger in the mind over many years. Others are soon forgotten. What is it that determines what we remember? Not inherent literary merit, I am sure of that. So what then? This was the question I found myself asking as I compiled this list. The conclusion that I came to is that the stories which leave a mark do so because they resonate with events in the reader’s own life.
As a result, the list I have compiled here operates as an informal autobiography. These stories are ones which I might not now admire, but they operate like old photographs or half-forgotten songs, bringing back times, places, emotional states. This is part of the joy of reading. Stories turn up at times when we need them and help us to navigate through our own experiences.
As these stories helped and comforted me, I hope they could perhaps do the same for others. In accordance with my thoughts on the autobiographical nature of reading, I have laid them out roughly in the order in which I read them.
I went away to boarding school when I was nine years old. I say that without a hint of self-pity. I loved my school. In particular, I loved Mr John Storr who was a brilliant and inspirational English teacher. He read us Saki’s short stories. While preparing this list, I began to revisit those stories and I can see that in many ways they are simplistic, but I can also see why they captured my attention so entirely. ‘The Lumber Room’ was the first Saki story that Mr Storr read to us. At that time, I already had good cause to know that adults often lie to children, but I also knew that I must never speak of this knowledge. Saki was putting into words what could not be said. I was hooked.
First published in the Morning Post. Collected in Beasts and Super-Beasts, John Lane 1914, and Complete Short Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000. Available variously online, including here
I also have very clear memoirs of Saki’s story ‘The Open Window’. Like the ‘The Lumber Room’ it is largely a story about lying. It is also about the subversive and disruptive nature of the child. At the time when I read it, I already had a sense of myself as a person who could wreak havoc if I ever opened my mouth. As a result, I spoke little but ‘The Open Window’ allowed me to savour the power I might have if I chose to speak. I lived the events of the story vicariously. I could have my revenge, the story suggested. But I preferred to allow the adults their silly little games. Like Saki’s children, I was not a pleasant child.
First published in The Westminster Gazette, 1911. Collected in Beasts and Super-Beasts, John Lane, 1914, and Complete Short Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000. Available online here
This story was read to me at that same boarding school by our Headmaster, Mr Gilbert Wheat. In both my home world and my school world, I had already noticed that appalling tragedy was often greeted with jokes and laughter. These strange emotional distortions made the world difficult to navigate. But in this story Graham Greene seemed to take these contradictions and celebrate them. How could he move so smoothly from laughter to pain? Forty years later, Greene remains one of my favourite writers and I continue to admire his ability to use shifts in tone to devastating effect.
First published in May We Borrow Your Husband?, The Bodley Head, 1967; Collected in Collected Stories, The Bodley Head, 1973 and now Penguin Classics, 2000
During my teenage years, the BBC produced adaptations of a series of Roald Dahl’s short stories, entitled Tales of the Unexpected. The themes were rather risqué for the apparently respectable world of my childhood. The stories revealed Dahl’s cynicism about human relationships and often suggested the possibility that life takes revenge on those who are immoral. I loved the nasty edge in those stories and the lack of comfortable resolution. Later I read them and this one, in particular, stuck in my mind.
First published in the 1959 issue of Nugget. Then in Kiss, Kiss, Alfred A. Knopf, 1960
I remember it so well. I was a student in Oxford – lonely, bored, disappointed. I had thought of Oxford as the Promised Land but Waugh’s “low door in the wall” leading to that “enchanted garden … not overlooked by any window” had failed to reveal itself to me. One evening I wandered into the cinema on Walton Street. They were showing a film called ‘The Dead.’ I had no idea about the film, I just wanted somewhere warm to sit for an hour, and a few moments of oblivion. But immediately the film started, I was captured. By the end of it I was crying and I didn’t stop crying for hours. I’m not the kind of person who cries in films. Immediately, I found a copy of Dubliners and read the story. I still think it is perhaps the greatest short story ever written.
First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914. Published in the Melville House Press Art of the Novella series. Available online including here
Overall, I am not a huge fan of Katherine Mansfield. I recognise the quality of her work but it doesn’t quite speak to me. This is doubtless my failing rather than hers. But this is a story I do remember. The lonely woman in the park. Her investment in the lives of others. Her belief that she is important, appreciated, valued. Then the nasty realisation that she is not. It is a bleak little story and I found it shocking. But it spoke to me when I was young as I myself felt endlessly peripheral, awkward, an outsider. A brilliant and painful read.
First published in the Athenaeum on 26 November 1920, and later reprinted in The Garden Party and Other Stories, Constable, 1922, which is currently available as a Penguin Modern Classic; also collected in the Selected Stories, Oxford World Classics, 2007. Available to read online here)
I was told of this short story (which I think is actually a novella) by Amanda Holmes Duffy, a writer and friend who now lives in Washington and works for the Politics and Prose Bookshop there. We became friends twenty years ago when we both lived in Brussels. She always recommends wonderful books. When she told me about this story, I was fascinated, and my interest only increased once I had read it. In this story, I think James manages to dramatize a problem which afflicts us all. Always there is that great, threatening, lurking fear. But what if our fear is only the fear of fear itself?
First published in the collection The Better Sort, Methuen & Co., 1903. Currently available in the Everyman Collected Stories Vol 2, 2000. Published as a Penguin Mini Modern Classic in 2011
This long short story (or is it a novella?) was another Amanda Holmes Duffy recommenddation. I read it when I was living in Brussels. The life we led there was affluent, comfortable and sociable. But what if that is not enough? Should there be something more to life? I did not feel that I was ever as shallow as Ivan Ilyich but Tolstoy’s story does sound alarm bells to all who read it.
First published in Russian in 1886. Widely translated. Currently available as a Penguin Little Black Classic and in the Melville House Press Art of the Novella series.
I bought a collection of V.S.Pritchett’s short stories after I won the prize which carries his name. It seemed only polite. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Even once I had started to read, I remained puzzled. His stories are so deceptive. On the one hand they appear small, fractured, empty, slightly bland. But they remain in the mind, they nag like minor toothache. With subtle skill, they pin down tiny moments in ordinary lives and make them universal and eloquent. I particularly love ‘Many Are Disappointed.’ One could fall in love with the story for that title alone.
First published in Sailor, Sense of Humour and Other Stories, Alfred A. Knopf, 1956. Collected in the Collected Stories, Chatto & Windus, 1982
James Salter has always been one of my absolutely favourite writers. Part of my fascination with him arises from the fact that, in reality, there are many aspects of his writing that I don’t admire. He doesn’t write good stories, his characters are shallow and not memorable. He writes about a world of spoilt, middle-class Americans who one doesn’t want to meet. But there is something in the prose which frequently leaves one gasping. His writing is wonderfully banal and cruel and sensuous. He takes you right the reality of what it is to live in this world. He was undoubtedly one of the top prose stylists of the last century and the short story is a form which suits him well.
First published in The New Yorker, November 2002, and available to subscribers to read online here. Collected in Last Night, Alfred A. Knopf 2005/Picador, 2007
I used to read David Constantine’s short stories in a wonderful literary magazine called The Reader. Sadly, that magazine no longer exists. But remembering it, I recently decided to order a collection of David Constantine’s short stories from the wonderful Comma Press in Manchester. The stories were just good as I remembered them to be. I feel that David Constantine is a writer who has never had the recognition he deserves. The thought that struck me on reading his work anew is how cleverly he interweaves sounds through his story so that the ‘background music’ binds the disparate elements of the text together. Beautiful writing, such emotional power and yet so restrained. In particular, I love ‘The Train.’
Collected in In Another Country, Comma Press, 2015
For the last twelve years, I have taught creative writing at Oxford University and I often teach students who write wonderful short stories. Sadly, the market for short stories in the UK is so limited that many of those stories are, I am sure, still lying around in drawers. ‘Histories’ by Sam Guglani, however, has happily made it out into the world. I may be slightly cheating by including it here because I’m not sure that it is a really a collection of short stories. It may be a fractured novel. It doesn’t have ‘stories’ with regular titles. Instead, it is broken up into section which are like testimonies. Each is a character telling some part of what goes on in the hospital. It hovers somewhere in between and that is part of its appeal. In any event, his stories are quiet, delicate and full of a gentle wonder which persists even in the face of struggle and tragedy.
Published in Histories, Riverrun, 2017