Chosen by Chris Greenhalgh.
Sansom’s story holds out the possibility of a perfect encounter on a romantic night in the streets of Rome. And everything seems to be going well for the narrator from its fairy tale opening – all too well, of course – until the final twist. The story is a bit of fun, but it is also a work of perfect scale, swiftly dispatched with a gut punch in just under two pages. Something of Hitchcock, Roald Dahl, with the compression of Kafka, or even Nabokov in gothic mode.
First published in A Contest of Ladies and Other Stories, London: Hogarth Press, 1956. Available to read online here
Chris Greenhalgh is the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors. He has published three volumes of poetry, two novels, and wrote the screenplay for Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky. You can read his full Personal Anthology here.
Nothing here by Chekhov or Borges, but then I see these as the equivalent of the given Shakespeare and the Bible on Desert Island Discs. Chief among the stories I have excluded for lack of space are the meltwater-fresh ‘Indian Camp’ by Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett’s ‘Dante and the Lobster’, almost anything by Lorrie Moore, Raymond Carver’s ‘A Small Good Thing’ and Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’. The selections that follow are instinctive. These are the stories that have had both an immediate and lasting impact on me. I found them all instantly thrilling and they have rewarded repeated readings over the years. Seven of them are very short indeed, between half a page and two pages long; the remaining five are more conventional in length.
Allegedly Kafka’s favourite short story, and lauded by Walter Benjamin and Elias Canetti, the tale shares the same subject matter as D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ as a mining disaster leaves a widow grieving, but the compression, historical sweep and fairy-tale quality make it very different in treatment, if no less affecting. Published in the same generation as Wuthering Heights, there is a shared fascination with a body miraculously preserved after death. I read the story around the time I also read J.M. Barrie’s account of his friend Captain Scott immortalised by ice in Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways,and the cryogenic fate of George Mallory chronicled by Wade Davis in his magisterial Into the Silence. This little nexus of texts made a powerful impression. Spooky and beautiful, Hebel manages to handle a local tragedy with a deep-time perspective, and lightness of touch, while capturing a wife’s feelings as she experiences extremes of love and loss. All in simple language, and just a couple of pages long.
First published in German in 1811. Collected in English in The Treasure Chest, Penguin Classics, 1994. Read the story online here
In a single paragraph within this beautifully paced story/essay, Orwell skewers the argument for capital punishment, and in broader terms mounts an oblique critique of colonialism. It is the uncannily eloquent yet baleful narrative of a man forced to supervise a hanging. The subject matter is grim but the effect is oddly life-affirming with its revelation of why human life is so precious. A local man walks barefoot on the way to the gallows for an unspecified offence. Confronted with a puddle, instinctively he steps around it. In this civilising impulse, Orwell detects the profoundly human spark that should never (willingly) be extinguished. I’d swap Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm for these few pages, which remind us what being alive really means.
First published in August 1931 in The Adelphi. Collected in Essays, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000. Read the story online here
A surreal tale. It appears in Paz’s Selected Poems, so definitionally it’s a prose poem. I ruled out Anne Carson’s ‘Merry Christmas from Hegel’ for this reason, so I feel I can indulge myself just once on this account. The very short story – only a couple of pages long – recounts the narrator’s walk at night when he is assaulted by a man looking to mollify his girlfriend with a bouquet of blue eyes. Does the narrator possess the prized eye-colour, or will he be spared the knife? Reminiscent of Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, but more conventionally structured. A model of how to use foreshadowing, employing the senses to anticipate the dramatic climax.
First published in Spanish in 1949. Collected in English in Selected Poems of Octavio Paz, New Directions, 1984. Read the story online here
A stand-alone short story, but also a chapter later incorporated into the autobiographical Speak, Memory, this is a brilliant and knowingly Proustian evocation of adolescent love in Paris. The narrator recalls his ten-year-old self, so no middle-aged Humbert here. The innocence is two-fold: one related to young love, the other an unstated prelapsarian sense of the world set to experience the trauma of the Russian Revolution and the First World War. As always with Nabokov, it’s the details that make the story a success. The ending is precisely observed, its recollections accelerating in a cinematic montage. As a treatment of piercing memory, it echoes MacNeice’s poem ‘Soap Suds’ and the coda to Lytton Strachey’s memoir of Queen Victoria. Achingly beautiful.
First published in The New Yorker as ‘Colette’, July 1948. First collected in Nabokov’s Dozen, 1958. Most recently collected in Collected Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2017. Read it online here
It is a wonderful moment when you recognise in some minor sketch that a great surreal or abstract artist can draw classically and wow you with representational finesse. So it is here with Marquez’s chilly distillation of small-town corruption. None of the magical realist brushwork in this short tale. Instead, the style is spare, austere even, as Marquez relates the potential revenge of a dentist realising he has the slaughterer of his revolutionary friends in his chair and at his mercy. The accumulation of simple details mixes the human and the political, the barber wrestling with professional and filial duties. A great last line.
First published in Spanish in 1962, and in English in Collected Stories, Penguin, 1996. Read the story online here
I’ve lived in Italy for several years, and always loved Calvino. Some of his work can be a little dry and systematic, but Marcovaldo, the central character of this tale, and the protagonist of a collection of Calvino’s stories, is his most human creation. I remember reading the stories on a plane and being delighted by them. Marcovaldo is the Italian neo-realist equivalent of Homer Simpson. Hapless, comic, but also affecting and poignant. The story reminds me of Cesare Pavese’s marvellous poem ‘Idleness’ in its mixture of foreground poverty and fantasy background. The ending is comic and sublime.
First published in Italian, 1963. Collected in English in Marcovaldo, Secker and Warburg, 1983, and in Vintage Classics, 2001
No one’s pan is more dead than Barthelme’s, and his humour is lethally brilliant here, though perhaps with less of the relentless whimsy that characterises the majority of his oeuvre. This recalls the scene in the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life, when the teacher must explain – and demonstrate – the act of human reproduction to a class of bewildered school children. It represents a great and original twist on the themes of eros and thanatos. Laugh-out-loud funny.
First published in The New Yorker, June 1974. Collected in Sixty Stories, Penguin Classics, 2003
Only space for one of either Updike, Cheever or Alice Munro in this selection. Cheever’s ‘Country Husband’ was a strong contender, as was Munro’s ‘Wild Swans’, but in the end it had to be Updike – the superior stylist, with the greater amplitude, the more comprehensive chronicler of late twentieth century America. It was a toss-up between ‘Pigeon Feathers’, ‘Trust Me’, ‘Bech and the Bounty of Sweden’, ‘Short Easter’, and ‘Separating’. The latter won because it is the most affecting and the most memorable. The tears of the narrator as he cuts the lobster in the mocking sunshine while his family regroup for a final family meal is superb, while the question asked at the end by the narrator’s son cuts to the quick.
First published in The New Yorker, June 1975. First collected in Problems and Other Stories, Knopf, 1979, and most recently in The Maples Stories, Everyman, 2009. Read the story online here
A comic assault on male power and a tale of female revenge, putting one in mind of Fellini’s carnivalesque City of Women, in which Marcello Mastroianni is seduced into a city where women rule and use him as their slave. Kingston’s story plots a similarly vindictive act as a man is captured and taken to the Valley of Women. The protagonist is ritually humiliated, but notes of local Chinese colour grace the tale. Just over a page in length, it has the lightness and sexiness but also the underlying seriousness of the best metamorphosis narratives. This one just edged out Angela Carter’s vengeful, feminist twist on the Pygmalion myth, ‘The Loves of Lady Purple’. Also, in a way I’ve had my quota of lushness with Nabokov – but it was close.
First published in China Men, Knopf, 1980
Cryptic, elliptical, with unanticipatable details such as the girl who mimes peeling a tangerine. (There is a separate anthology to be compiled on works using tangerines.) Unlike the swollen folly of Murakami’s later works, this is a breathy, beautiful and mysterious tale, exemplifying in some ways the Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi. A masterful performance, doing what every story should – keep you turning the pages, wondering what happens next.
First published in The New Yorker, October 1992. Collected in The Elephant Vanishes, Vintage, 1994. Adapted for a 2018 South Korean movie, Burning. Read the story online here
Less than a page in length, this little gem illustrates the ability of a great writer to communicate the uncommunicable. The prose mimetically – and hilariously – reflects someone speaking with hiccups. Virtuoso story-telling. Perfectly judged sense of scale. Given that Davis was translating Proust around the time this story was composed, it is also a feat of aesthetic self-discipline.
First published in Samuel Johnson is Indignant, McSweeney’s, 2001; more recently assembled in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009
Just a couple of pages in length, but it feels like the molten product of some golden imaginative moment. Similar in subject matter, though very different in tone to Carver’s ‘A Small Good Thing’ – and even better. If I had to rescue just one story of all those represented here from the flames, it would probably be this one. It is emotionally devastating, articulating the unthinkable. Simply brilliant and terrifying all at the same time. It shows that the author, famous for his sprawl, could also work in miniature. Don’t read it if you’ve just had a baby. Otherwise this is my pick for the finest story I know.
First published in Esquire, April 2009. Collected in Oblivion: Stories, Abacus, 2005 and now The David Foster Wallace Reader, Penguin, 2018. Read the story online here