‘Maria Concepción’ by Katherine Anne Porter

This astonishing story, set around the time of the Mexican revolution, is one that keeps coming to mind while driving around the peaceful country roads and village markets near our home in Thailand. Porter’s sensuous descriptions are uniquely memorable for the way they evoke landscapes and the characters situated in them. Maria Concepción is a stunning character, a powerful woman trying to adhere to the rules of her village society while longing for a child. Discovering her husband’s infidelity, she murders his mistress and appropriates her infant. Her actions are condoned by the community, which seems to survive only at great cost to individual women. Thanks to the enormous skill of the writer, the conflicts inherent in the patriarchal and colonial setting are not shrill and strident but woven intricately into the fabric of the story, which has the overall impression of a light-filled fresco. In an interview, Porter said that she took no more than an evening to pen a short story, with little further revision. Her extraordinary artistry is evident in this piece.

First published in 1922. Included in Flowering Judas, Penguin Random House, 2014. Available online here. A video interview with the author—from 1973, when she was in her eighties—is here

‘The Lady with the Dog’ by Anton Chekhov, translated by Constance Garnett

Chekhov, like Chopin, is an artist who expresses an exquisite and open-ended vision of the sadness, hope, and folly of our lives. ‘The Lady with the Dog’ is one of my favorite Chekhov stories (tied neck-and-neck with his dog fable ‘Kashtanka’). The tale is one of petty adultery narrated in such a non-judgmental manner that you are drawn towards the characters and into the enduring mysteries of love. Gurov, a chauvinistic and womanizing Moscow banker, is on a summer vacation in Yalta, where he is attracted to Anna, the lady with a little dog, who is visiting from a provincial town. After a swift seduction and several weeks together, they return to their respective unhappily married lives. But the interlude is no summer fling, for each has been touched, for the first time, by love. Meeting in secret, the story ends with the lovers facing with grim resilience the troubles that must lie ahead. The writing is so compassionate towards the characters and their transformation, and to the arc of time itself, that it leaves you not only with a lump in the throat but a sense that so many of us are “birds of passage, caught and forced to live in different cages.”

First published in 1899. Included in The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories, trans. Constance Garnett, Penguin Classics, 2002. Available online here

‘We Didn’t Like Him’ by Akhil Sharma

Sometimes a good story arrives in a style that appears plain and unadorned, devoid of any of the sartorial displays seen in the stories of Nabokov or Hemingway. ‘We Didn’t Like Him’ is a tale of relationships corrupted by social prejudice. Sharma writes clean and sonorous prose, making little use of visual descriptions, focusing on situations that reflect the harsh social attitudes of the narrator and his community. The narrator is an angry misanthrope, and his narrative voice has an authenticity that grows on you with each reading. The story, set in Delhi, is about his relationship with the widely disliked neighborhood bully Manshu, who grows up to become a corrupt priest and then falls prey to misfortune. The narrator’s dislike for Manshu and humanity itself is only tempered at the end of the story, when after several begrudging and angry acts of charity towards Manshu, he finally shows him some respect. All in all, it is a beautifully constructed piece, steeped in the rituals of life and death in a deeply hypocritical religious society.

First published in the New Yorker, May 27, 2013. Available online here

‘Enoch Soames’ by Max Beerbohm

I find it hard to explain why I like Max Beerbohm’s stories so much. The British caricaturist and dandy, author of the classic Oxford satire Zuleika Dobson, though witty, is not as great a short story writer as his fellow-Edwardian satirist Saki, and certainly not as funny or lovable as his contemporary P. G. Wodehouse. My attraction to Beerbohm is probably due to his prose style, for he was a student of Walter Pater, one of the great aesthetes of the Victorian age. Beerbohm’s somewhat frivolous but captivating story ‘Enoch Soames’ is encapsulated within the story itself in these memorable lines:

a riter ov th time, naimd Max Beerbohm, hoo woz stil alive in th twentieth senchri, rote a stauri in wich e pautraid an immajnari karrakter kauld ‘Enoch Soames’—a thurd-rait poit hoo beleevz imself a grate jeneus an maix a bargin with th Devvl in auder ter no wot posterriti thinx ov im! It iz a sumwot labud sattire but not without vallu az showing hou seriusli the yung men ov th aiteen-ninetiz took themselvz.

By arrangement with the Devil, Enoch Soames, a self-absorbed, absinthe-swilling fin-de-siècle poet whose most successful book sold no more than three copies, is projected to the Round Reading Room in the British Museum precisely a hundred years later (that is, to the afternoon of June 3, 1997), to discover the verdict of posterity. By then, people wear dull uniforms with their identification numbers sewed on, and they use a phonetic spelling (perhaps a nod to Beerbohm’s Café Royal fellow-patron George Bernard Shaw, who proposed one such spelling ‘reform’).  The only reference Soames finds to himself is in a historical survey of late 19th-Century literature, quoted above. Naturally, the Devil comes to collect, but is that the end of Soames? Beerbohm’s narrator points out that anyone visiting the Round Reading Room on that afternoon in the future would be able to confirm, contrary to the historian’s claim, that Soames was far from imaginary. A short story penned by the American magician Teller and published in the Atlantic Monthly in November 1997, tells of the events that transpired on a visit to the Round Reading Room on the prescribed date. 

First published in 1916. Included in Seven Men, Heinemann, 1920. Available online here. Teller’s sequel in the Atlantic Monthly is here

‘The Island at Noon’ by Julio Cortázar, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine

As a teenager, I had the good fortune to spend many of my summer holidays in the library of an uncle who owned a substantial collection of Latin American literature in translation. While I greatly enjoyed the colorful company of Amado, Asturias, Lispector, García Márquez, and many others, the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar was unknown to me until a decade later, when I read his story ‘The Southern Thruway’ in a class taught by his close friend, the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes. Cortázar, who seemed like a cosmopolitan kindred spirit, wowed me with the way he spun a story around a traffic jam, creating a stylish and surreal, time-stretching tale of how a sense of community can arise spontaneously and then briefly flourish before being swallowed up by humdrum reality. 

Since then, one story of his that has become something of an obsession for me is ‘The Island at Noon’. It is the tale of Marini, an airline steward on the Rome-Tehran run who becomes obsessed with a Greek island called Xiros that they fly over every other day at noon. Seen from the plane window,the island was small and solitary, and the Aegean Sea surrounded it with an intense blue that exalted the curl of a dazzling and kind of petrified white, which down below would be foam breaking against the reefs and coves.Marini eventually escapes his relentless schedule (of travel and brief trysts with stewardesses) and gets down to Xiros, where after a swim, he climbs up a hill and gazes up into the sky, wondering if he will be able to completely obliterate his past self. It happens to be noon, and flying overhead is his plane, which is now doomed. By the end of the story, a circuit is completed; past and present, death above and life below are finally re-connected. Entranced by this story, I wrote a sequel ‘The Island Hereafter’, published in 2016.

First published in Spanish in Todos los fuegos el fuego, Sudamericana, 1966. First translation in All Fires The Fire, Pantheon, 1973. Available online here. A video, in Spanish and French, of the writer talking about his night walks around Paris is here

‘An Astrologer’s Day’ by R. K. Narayan

R. K. Narayan’s short stories, simple and unpretentious on the surface and full of touches of gentle and absurd humor, reveal a mastery of literary technique that won him worldwide acclaim, placing him among the very greatest exponents of the form. Malgudi, a fictional town brought to life in a most whimsical and playful manner, is featured in many of Narayan’s novels and stories. Its marketplace provides the setting for ‘An Astrologer’s Day’. A man who has fled his distant village sets up shop at noon daily, duping people with astrological predictions based, as one might expect, on shrewd guesswork and a firm grasp of human psychology. One evening, after the other vendors have switched off their makeshift lighting and are packing up, a stranger shows up in the dark and demands a reading. Striking a match to light his cheroot, the stranger begins his consultation, with the astrologer managing to pinpoint astonishingly accurate details of the stranger’s narrow escape from an attempt on his life. The astrologer reassures the stranger, telling him that the fellow who tried to kill him has died. With the forecast done and money in hand, the astrologer returns home and upon retiring to bed, tells his wife that a great weight has been lifted: for years, he lived with the guilty feeling that he had blood on his hands. Yawning, he then falls asleep, while the reader absorbs the ramifications of his newly revealed relationship to the stranger.
 
The obvious irony in this classic ‘twist in the tail’ ending is that Fate, into which the astrologer so deceitfully claims insight, is what ultimately helps resolve the protagonists’ problematic relationship. Coming at the end of the astrologer’s day, the story’s dénouement draws the reader back to recap the marketplace setting, where as darkness falls, true insights into human relationships arrive in a flash of illumination. All in all, an 1800-word marvel that Maupassant himself may have endorsed.

First published in 1966. Included in Malgudi Days, Penguin Books, 2006. Available online here

‘Sunrise, Sunset’ by Edwidge Danticat

The Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat is one of the outstanding voices of contemporary American fiction, and over the years she has won numerous international awards. The title of her short story ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ is the name of a charming little game played by Carole, the grandmother in a Haitian-American family in Miami: “Carole likes to entertain Jude with whatever children’s songs and peekaboo games she can still remember, including one she calls Solèy Leve, Solèy Kouche—Sunrise, Sunset—which she used to play with her children. She drapes a black sheet over her grandson’s playpen and pronounces it ‘sunset,’ then takes the sheet off and calls it ‘sunrise.’ Her grandson does not seem to mind when she gets confused and reverses the order.” 
 
Gathered together to celebrate new life at a christening, it is impending death that casts its shadow like a black sheet over Carole’s family, for she has been exhibiting the symptoms of dementia. The story revolves around Carole’s relationship with Jeanne, her daughter, who has post-partum depression, with each woman struggling to keep their footing in the midst of life changes. Carole wishes Jeanne would understand that she can’t afford to be sad. “Where would the family be if Carole had stayed sad when she arrived in this country? Sometimes you just have to shake the devil off you, whatever that devil is. Even if you don’t feel like living for yourself, you have to start living for your child…” There are flashbacks to Carole and her husband Victor’s life in Haiti, and the homesickness she felt in Miami when Victor left for work each day. “She was so lonely and homesick that she kept kissing her babies’ faces, as if their cheeks were plots of land in the country she’d left behind.” The relationships among multiple family members unfold like the petals of a flower, until a frightening moment involving the baby Jude that culminates in heartbreak. The tenderness that marks our finer moments and the impetus towards survival against all odds are themes that pervade Danticat’s beautiful writing.

First published in the New Yorker, September 18, 2017. Available online here