Most years, I teach a class on the short story to undergraduates; that experience has guided my Personal Anthology. It’s in the nature of this exercise that I had to leave many worthy candidates off the list (Kafka, Bowen, Bezmozgis, Munro). But my twelve finalists are the stories I most love teaching. They are the stories I have the most questions about. Because to teach is to ask questions. But not any question will do. They have to be just right: neither vague nor leading, with tentative rather than definitive answers, asking things I too want to know. When it’s just twenty or so of us in a room with nothing more than our copies of the texts we learn more than we do when we’re reading on our own. The dynamic that arises from a particular group of people at a particular time is changeable, unpredictable, sometimes thrilling, sometimes deadening, invariably idiosyncratic. It’s as impossible to teach the same text twice as to cross the same river. Something new is created every time. In one way, writing this piece vitiates the experience of the classroom, making the mutable immutable. In another, however, this anthology is yet another creation, this time inspired by those countless fifty-minute class periods.
I could have chosen any number of stories by Malamud, especially those in his marvelous first collection, The Magic Barrel. The title story, featuring Salzman, a ravenous marriage broker (“always in a rush,” he mutters to a client as he takes a smoked herring from an oily paper bag and strips it from its skin), would have made a fine choice. As would ‘The Mourners,’ in which Kessler, a former egg candler no one much likes, refuses to leave the apartment he feels he has wrongly been evicted from. Or ‘The Bill,’ about a man who takes the credit offered him by the proprietor of the corner store across the way (the same kind of store Malamud’s parents owned) without any earthly way to pay it back.
But I had to choose ‘The First Seven Years,’ the story of Feld, a shoemaker, and his assistant, Sobel, a Polish Jew “who had by the skin of his teeth escaped Hitler’s incinerators,” a nebbish who falls in love with the boss’s daughter. ‘The First Seven Years’ has many pleasures: its reworking of the story of Jacob and Rachel; its infusion of Yiddish syntax and diction into its English (Feld, remembering how Sobel came to work for him: “Thinking that with, after all, a landsman, he would have less to fear than from a complete stranger, Feld took him on and within six weeks the refugee rebuilt as good a shoe as he”); its depiction of the American-born Miriam, Feld’s daughter and Sobel’s beloved, who battles lovingly but firmly against her father’s expectations (an unfortunately rare example in Malamud’s work of a fully-realized female character); and its exploration of how selfishness can be mixed with love.
My students and I spend a long time parsing the subtleties of the story’s first sentence: “Feld, the shoemaker, was annoyed that his helper, Sobel, was so insensitive to his reverie that he wouldn’t for a minute cease his fanatic pounding at the other bench.” We note the characteristic Malamud interest in work, such that name and occupation appear as a unit. We consider the connotations of “helper,” as opposed to “right-hand man” or “assistant.” And we think about narrative perspective, the way we inhabit Feld’s point of view. (Who is insensitive, the hardworking helper or the boss who resents the labour being done on his behalf?) And we explore the difference between “reverie” and “fanatic.” The latter sounds worse than the first. But here as elsewhere in the story, Sobel proves to be devoted rather than zealous, while Feld is self-serving instead of dreamy. The pressure to assimilate to American life may be inescapable, but it seems the Old World still has things to teach the New.
First published in Partisan Review, September-October 1950. Collected in The Magic Barrel, Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1958, The Complete Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997, and Bernard Malamud: Novels and Stories of the 1940s & 50s, Library of America, 2014. Read the story here
Rosemary Fell, fabulously wealthy and dreamily vague, is approached on the street by a pale, thin woman who asks her for the price of a cup of tea. Rosemary decides to take the young woman, who gives her name as Miss Smith, home with her, pushing the dazed, starving “creature,” as Rosemary puts it, into her upholstered car. Rosemary ignores Miss Smith’s protestations—she is, in a peerless phrase, “longing to begin to be generous”—preferring to remain lost in unfinished, perhaps unfinishable thoughts about the lesson she will impart to a woman she already thinks of as her protégé: “She was going to prove to this girl… that women were sisters.” But a cream tea and cigarette so revives Miss Smith that Rosemary’s husband remarks on her astonishing beauty. That’s enough for the older woman to send the younger packing. Students love this story about the paradoxes of charity and the difficulty of affirming what we today would call intersectionality.
I learned of “A Cup of Tea” from David Trotter’s The English Novel in History: 1895 – 1920, which features a brilliant close reading of the seemingly unremarkable line “The discreet door shut with a click.” (Rosemary is leaving her favourite antique shop.) Why, asks Trotter, does Mansfield speak of “discreet door” instead of saying “The door shut with a discreet click”? Wouldn’t the latter make more sense? We can imagine how a click could be discreet—it could, for example, refer to the sound of the door closing. But to call the door itself discreet, what could that mean? Trotter emphasizes the—sometimes mild but always consequential—disturbances of ordinary syntax and good sense that characterizes modernist writing.
I emphasize to my students that the very language used to describe the world of the story, which seems neutral or omniscient, is in fact imbued by the preferences of Rosemary and her milieu. If you’re rich enough, everything is discreet. And yet not every rich person is equally privileged. As Rosemary learns at the end of the story, as a woman she is forced to live by rules designed by and for someone other than herself. The discreet door, then, might be a metaphor for the way even someone like herself, who “would go to Paris just as you and I would go to Bond street,” is in her own way an outsider. Too bad the patriarchy makes it impossible for her to realize she’s as much at the mercy of the world as Miss Smith.
First published in The Story-Teller, May 1922 and The Doves’ Nest and Other Stories, Constable & Co., 1923. Collected, among other places, in Selected Stories, edited by Angela Smith, Oxford UP, 2002. Read the story here
For me, Mavis Gallant is the greatest Canadian prose writer. Of the many choices I might have made from her magisterial oeuvre—’An Autobiography,’ ‘The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street,’ ‘The Fenton Child,’ the list goes on—I’ve settled on ‘Voices Lost in Snow,’ one of her lovely evocations of 1930s Anglo Montreal. I just love how weird this story is: it begins as a kind of essay in interwar child-rearing strategies before becoming more straightforwardly narrative, but even once it does we’re hard-pressed to know what’s going on (which is fitting, since its subject is the power of childhood ignorance). Most of my students don’t really care for this story, but those who do (and there’s always a handful, it’s quite gratifying) care for it a lot.
Gallant is the master of obliquity: not even in the final section, the most dramatic, is it obvious that the narrator’s father has suggested to her mother’s friend, one of the child’s many godparents, that they embark on a long-contemplated affair (more than that, even, that they run away together), but only if the child is part of the package. It takes all our readerly efforts to see this silent offer being first made and then rebuffed. Reflecting on this moment later in life, the narrator announces “I brush in memory against the spiderweb” of lies, half-truths, and evasions that marks adulthood. That description sends us back to an earlier moment in the story, the description of the narrator’s escape from serious illness: the child’s new doctor, French Canadian, and thus a scandal to the story’s Anglo characters, solemnly declares, “Votre fille a frôlé la phtisie”—she had a brush with consumption. ‘Voices Lost in Snow’ is made up of such echoes, which readers brush past in near incomprehension.
Above all, I love it for a scene in which father and daughter, trudging through the snowy streets of Montreal, hear “a mob roaring four syllables over and over,” “the name of a hockey player admired to the point of dementia.” The father jerks back as if in physical pain, a look of helplessness on his face. He spits out this heartbreaking line (so resonant to any introvert): “Crowds eat me. Noise eats me.”
First published in The New Yorker, March 28, 1976. Collected in Home Truths, Random House, 1985 and Varieties of Exile, NYRB Classics, 2003. Read the story here
I love this story of Nawab, a handyman to a landowner in 1980s rural Pakistan, known for his skill (Mueenuddin calls it “his genius for crude improvisation”) in keeping the seventeen tube wells that irrigate the land running. Having inveigled a motorcycle from his employer, Nawab darts about the countryside, threatening recalcitrant motors with wrenches; making deals on the side; “fixing” watches, none of which ever keep time again; and generally busting his ass to come up with dowries for his twelve daughters. The story begins aimlessly enough, mostly intent on showing Nawab as an appealing mix of clever and clueless. But halfway through, it switches gears, as it were, and narrates a single incident in detail. Riding home one night, Nawab is ambushed by a man with a gun. In the ensuing scuffle, Nawab is shot in the groin; the robber, in turn, is shot by some locals who come running to investigate the noise. Taken to a local pharmacy (the district’s equivalent of a clinic), Nawab is saved because he can afford medical attention. The robber pleads with Nawab that he pay for his care too; Nawab loftily and self-righteously declines.
In teaching the story, I emphasize its use of character. E. M. Forster’s distinction between round and flat characters might be almost 100 years old, but it’s still useful. A round character, he says, has the capacity to surprise. Does Nawab surprise us? He does—and not necessarily for the better. We’re left with a lot of questions. How are we to think of his choice in this moment of life and death? Is he right to reject the pleas of a man who would have, as Nawab says, left his wife and children bereft of their breadwinner? Or has he failed a test of magnanimity? Has what was colourful become checkered? How can we tell what attitude a story takes towards its protagonist?
First published in The New Yorker, August 20 2007. Collected in Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Norton 2009. Read the story here
At the center of ‘Field Study’ is Martin, a graduate student researching water pollution in a neighbouring country. As he takes samples from a river, he sees a young woman and her eleven-year-old son bathing. Later, at the restaurant in his guesthouse, he recognizes the woman as his waitress. Her son is doing his homework at the bar. He strikes up a friendship with them, the boy, Jacek, translating between Martin and the mother, Ewa. The initial results show high levels of a dangerous chemical, and Martin warns the pair not to swim in the river anymore. On the last night of the field study, Ewa invites Martin for dinner. Jacek translates until the wine loosens Martin and Ewa’s tongues; it gets late; the boy falls asleep at the table. Martin leans forward to kiss Ewa, but she gently but firmly rejects him. The next morning, the final results come in from the lab back home. The new data contradicts the old: the chemical’s concentration is normal. Martin thinks about telling Ewa and Jacek it’s ok to swim again, but then he doesn’t. The road home follows the river; soon he is at the border. “His chest it tight with shame, but the border guard is waving him through now, and he is driving on again.”
Seiffert never names her countries—presumably Germany and the Czech Republic or Poland—and I like asking students to think about the effect of this decision. Borders in this story are at once porous, meaningless (they can’t stop pollution) and impermeable, effective (especially so for those who come from poorer parts of the world). ‘Field Study’ isn’t critical of science per se, but it rejects the belief that subjects can be kept rigorously separated from objects. In that sense, it is much more at ease with uncertainty (with mix and muddle) than its protagonist. I love teaching this story, because its straightforward syntax and “relatable” subject matter (they’re always fascinated by the scene of rejection) draw even recalcitrant students in, making them open to seeing how much there is to what appears a simple tale.
First published in Granta 81: Best of Young British Novelists 3, April 14 2003. Collected in Field Study, Pantheon 2004
‘The Fight’ is a story from Nabokov’s Berlin period. Oddly structured, it begins with a lengthy description by the first-person narrator—an émigré in Berlin, presumably someone like Nabokov himself—of the excursions he regularly makes to a lake near the city, where he swims and lolls in the sun. There the narrator regularly sees an older man, with whom he can only haltingly converse, but who seems genial and pleasantly anarchic. Later, while strolling through an unfamiliar neighbourhood, he stops at a bar which, it turns out, the man, one Krause, owns. The narrator becomes a regular, and takes pleasure in watching the developing romance between Krause’s daughter and a young electrician named Otto. On a sultry day, with a storm about to break, the narrator watches as Krause and Otto argue over whether the latter, who thinks of himself as one of the family, should have to pay for his drinks. Matters escalate and in a matter of a sentence or two the men are fighting with bare fists on the street, to the glee of a crowd that has gathered from nowhere. Krause knocks the electrician out. The narrator vainly, rather heartlessly, attempts to comfort the girl with a kiss. And that’s it. The story’s over.
For me, ‘The Fight’ is a parody of the chart known to every high school student, Freytag’s Pyramid, the one that details initial exposition followed by gradually rising action leading to climax and descending to resolution. Instead of these hoary conventions, this story asks instead: In what way does a climactic action need to be prepared for? What happens if that action isn’t resolved?
There’s delight, too, in Nabokov’s language, nicely apparent in his son Dmitri’s translation: as a class, we always linger in wonder over the narrator’s description of a barfly with “appetizing folds of fat on his nape” and his offhanded revelation that the fight reminds him of “a splendid scuffle I had once had in a seaport-dive with a beetle-black Italian, during which my hand had somehow got into his mouth and I had fiercely tried to squeeze, to tear, the wet skin inside his cheek.” Beetle-black. Somehow. Decorous, mandarin Nabokov is, as always, unsettling and sordid.
First published in Russian in 1925. Published in English in The New Yorker, February 10, 1985. Collected in The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, Knopf 1995