Introduction

While much has been written about the short story (though far less than about its show-off younger sibling, the novel) – and this fine series marks an excellent addition to that literature – what many have so far missed is a genuine guiding principle as to the form’s genius. I hope, reader, that you may find one in this list of humble recommendations, which, I trust, will go on to form the basis of a great canon.

‘The Signalman’ by Charles Dickens

Void of Dickens’s occasional lapses into sentimentality, this perfectly-structured piece is filled with other stories: the twisted nature of time, the uncanny effects of telegraphy, the hints of mental illness, the dissipation of a fixed narrative viewpoint, and spectrality and hauntology in all their forms run through it.

First published in All The Year Round, 1866. Read it online here

‘The Adventure of a Traveler’ by Italo Calvino, trans. William Weaver

Federico, who lives in the north of Italy, makes occasional long-distance train journeys to visit his lover Cinzia, who lives in Rome. He travels by night as it’s cheaper, and he is almost always guaranteed an entire compartment to himself. Each time, he undresses carefully and allows himself the pleasure of the enclosed space and precisely-allotted timespan to anticipate his arrival in Rome.  But this night, his solitude is interrupted.

First published in English in Difficult Loves, 1983

‘A Second Story’ by Georgi Gospodinov, trans. Alexis Levitin and Magdalena Levy

This story, for me, shows the value of the anecdote, a tittle-tattle tale overheard, misremembered or stolen, then worked into genius. The anecdote is one of the sources from which short stories derive their wonderful disreputableness. As we know, the greatest short stories have been written by women in faded print dresses drinking neat gin from chipped teacups, and by men possessing little more than a shabby overcoat and a hangover. They are the best of us. Gospodinov tells us about history, translation, love, and memory in a couple of pages. On a train.

First published in And Other Stories, Northwestern Universit Press, 2007