Introduction

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. 

‘Unexpected Reunion’ by Johann Peter Hebel, translated by John Hibberd

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

‘A Hanging’ by George Orwell

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

‘The Blue Bouquet’ by Octavio Paz, translated by Eliot Weinberger

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

‘First Love’ by Vladimir Nabokov

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

‘One of These Days’ by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by J.S. Bernstein

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

‘The Wrong Stop’ by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver

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