Introduction

These are the stories that came to mind as I was thinking about my personal anthology, the ones that have stayed with me the most in recent years. I guess this selection is pretty representative of my reading these days – mostly writers from the mid-20thcentury, some pieces in translation here and there, and a fondness for character-driven fiction. I hope you find something of interest across the mix.

‘A Glutton for Punishment’ by Richard Yates

Few writers capture the crushing pain and disillusionment that can accompany everyday life quite as well as Richard Yates, and this story illustrates it beautifully. Here we have a classic Yates protagonist, Walter Henderson, a rather unassuming young man who works in a Manhattan office in the heart of NYC. A graceful and gracious loser all his life, Walter is convinced he is about to be fired from his job, and in spite of his wife’s best efforts to make their home life as bearable as possible, the weight of this expectation hangs over Walter on a permanent basis. In writing this story, Yates exposes some of the anxieties of life, the sense of pride and respect we all crave from those around us. Moreover, it also highlights the different roles a woman was expected to play back in the late 1950s/early ‘60s, the various modes she had to adopt irrespective of how taxing or frustrating they proved to be. A period piece that still has some relevance today.

Collected in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, Little, Brown and Co. 1962, currently available as a Vintage Classic

‘The Letter-Writers’ by Elizabeth Taylor

While this may not be Elizabeth Taylor’s best story (I’m still working my way through them, slowly but surely), it’s certainly one of her most memorable. A lonely middle-aged woman named Emily is preparing to meet a man she has been writing to for the last ten years. Over the years, she has confided such intimacies in Edmund – he had always seemed so approachable and attentive at a distance, perhaps overly so. As she waits for Edmund to arrive at her cottage for lunch, Emily worries that their meeting will be a mistake. Can she live up to the impressions created by her letters? Will Edmund be disappointed by the real Emily once he meets her in the flesh? Will he ever write to her again? Somewhat inevitably, the lunch is rather strained – the atmosphere made all the more difficult by the most awkward of starts and the interference of a nosy neighbour, the pushy Mrs Waterlow. The story itself is quietly devastating, and yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end.

First published in Cornhill Magazine. Collected in The Blush and Other Stories, Peter Davies 1958, republished by Virago Modern Classics, 1986. Also in Complete Short Stories, Virago, 2012

‘Verochka’ by Anton Chekhov

What can I say about Chekhov that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot other than to reiterate his genius as a master of the short story form. In ‘Verochka’, a twenty-one-year-old country girl by the name of Vera declares her love for Ivan Ognev, a somewhat naïve statistician who has been visiting Vera’s father on business. When Ognev leaves the country to return to the city, Vera accompanies him to the outskirts of her village where she makes her feelings as clear as decently possible. It’s a story of missed chances, pain and regret as Ognev struggles to respond to Vera’s advances. There is a sense here of individuals’ lives turning on the tiniest of moments as the choices they make set the direction for their future.

First published in New Times. Collected in In the Twilight, 1887, available in a new translation by Hugh Aplin from Alma Classics 2014. Available online in Constance Garnett’s earlier translation here

‘It’s the Reaction’ by Mollie-Panter Downes

Back in the days of WW2, Mollie Panter-Downes wrote stories featuring ordinary British people – mostly women – trying to cope with the day-to-day realities of life on the Home Front. Panter-Downes’ style – understated, perceptive and minutely observed – makes for a subtly powerful effect. She is particularly adept at capturing the range of emotions experienced by her characters, from loneliness and longing to fear and self-pity. In this, my favourite of her stories, a lonely young woman is buoyed by the camaraderie of war when she finally gets to know her neighbours as they shelter together during the Blitz. However, once the sequence of air raids is over, life in Miss Birch’s apartment block reverts to normal – and when she tries to rekindle her new friendships, Miss Birch soon discovers the fickle nature of relationships, even in times of hardship and war.

First published in The New Yorker, 1943, available to subscribers here. Collected in Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, Persephone 1999

‘Sally Bowles’ by Christopher Isherwood

Undoubtedly the standout piece from Isherwood’s novel in short stories, Goodbye to Berlin, this story features Sally Bowles, a young English girl who has come to Berlin in the hope of finding work as a singer/actress. By the time she meets Christopher, Sally is just about scraping a living, singing (quite badly) at one of the city’s bars. Nevertheless, she makes quite an impression on Christopher, dressed as she is in black silk “with a small cape over her shoulders and a little cap like a page-boy’s stuck jauntily on one side of her head”.Fairly soon after their first meeting, Sally invites Christopher to tea at her lodgings, a gloomy semi-furnished place presided over by a rather eccentric old matron. Before long the pair strike up a somewhat unlikely friendship, spending time with one another on a fairly regular basis – much to the delight of Christopher’s landlady, Frl. Schroeder, who imagines Sally as a possible partner for her favourite boarder. It’s an utterly charming story, a wonderful tribute to a provocative character from Isherwood’s past.

First published by the Hogarth Press in 1937, and then in Goodbye to Berlin, The Hogarth Press, 1939 and The Berlin Novels, both currently available from Vintage

‘The Velvet Dress’ by Silvina Ocampo, translated by Daniel Balderston

I am very grateful to NYRB Classics for introducing me to the stories of Silvina Ocampo, an Argentine writer from the mid-20th century. There is a childlike sense of mischief and wickedness which runs through several of Ocampo’s pieces, especially those from the 1950s and ‘60s. This particular story features a woman who is having a dress made-to-measure, a velvet gown featuring a dragon motif embroidered with sequins. In writing this tale, Ocampo is playing with the dual nature of velvet, a fabric that feels smooth when rubbed one way and rough the other, something that has the power to repel as well as attract. Without wishing to give too much away, this brief but highly effective tale takes a rather sinister turn as it moves towards its conclusion. Perfect reading for Halloween or a stormy night in the middle of winter.

First published in The Fury, 1959. Collected in Thus Were Their Faces, New York Review Books 2015.