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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Several of Saki’s stories feature mischievous children rebelling against disagreeable, strait-laced guardians. ‘The Lumber Room’ is a prime example of this, as young Nicholas must remain at home while the rest of the children in the family are treated to a day out. It is his punishment for an earlier misdemeanour at the breakfast table, one involving a frog and a basin of ‘wholesome bread-and-milk’. At an early stage in the story, Saki paints a revealing portrait of Nicholas’s rather draconian aunt, the woman in charge of the household – in reality, however, she is only the boy’s ‘aunt-by-assertion’. Convinced that young Nicholas will try to sneak off to the prized gooseberry patch while his cousins and brother are away, the aunt maintains a close watch on the garden in an attempt to spoil the boy’s fun. However, unbeknownst to the aunt, Nicholas has other plans for the day – he wishes to gain entry to the mysterious lumber room, a place generally kept under strict lock and key, only to be accessed by the most privileged members of the household. This is a very effective story in which the knowing child enjoys a moment of triumph over his loathsome guardian.
First published in the Morning Post. Collected in Beasts and Super-Beasts, John Lane 1914, and Complete Short Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000. Available variously online, including here
A superb story from one of my favourite writers, a woman who understood the loneliness and alienation of life as an outsider. The story – one of Rhys’ last – focuses on Miss Verney, an elderly lady who lives on her own in a cottage in the country. Her garden is dominated by the presence of a large iron shed, a looming presence that seems likely to outlast her. Add to this the problem of rats, and life for Miss Verney is beginning to seem hopeless. It’s a sobering piece, dealing as it does with the challenges of ageing, isolation and a feeling of helplessness. There is a sense that the Miss Verneys of this world have been abandoned by society, left to fester away without care or support. By the time it was first published in 1976, Rhys was in her mid-eighties and only a few years away from death herself, a fact that adds an extra note of poignancy to the story.
First published in Sleep It Off Lady, André Deutsch, 1976. Collected in The Collected Short Stories, Penguin Classics 2017
I love this author’s talent for conveying a mood, his ability to capture the emotional intensity of a moment in such graceful prose, irrespective of the context. Walter’s wife, Marit, is terminally ill with cancer. Unable to tolerate the pain any longer, Marit has asked Walter to hasten her death, a wish we assume he has agreed to carry out even though we are not privy to any of their earlier discussions. The story hinges on Marit and Walter’s last night together. Their final supper has ended, the lethal injection lies ready and waiting in the fridge, and the appointed time is approaching. We think we know how this story will unfold, how both of these individuals deserve our sympathies as they confront the nature of Marit’s mortality; but just when we least expect it, Salter wrongfoots us in the most surprising of ways, a move that prompts us to question our assumptions about values, morals, intentions and motives. This is a highly memorable story, one with the potential to haunt the reader for some considerable time.
First published in The New Yorker. Collected in Last Night, Alfred A. Knopf 2005/Picador, 2007. It is available to read online here
Like Silvina Ocampo, the Russian writer, Teffi, is another relatively recent discovery for me. During her literary career Teffi wrote satirical articles and plays, but by the age of forty she was publishing mostly short stories. In 1919, in the midst of the Russian Civil War, Teffi left Russia for Europe, eventually settling in Paris where she became a prominent figure in the émigré literary circles. Rasputinis one of Teffi’s most memorable pieces, a piercing account of her personal encounters with this legendary figure. While Rasputin is immediately drawn to Teffi, the feeling is far for mutual. As a consequence, the great mystic simply cannot understand why Teffi fails to respond to his charms – he is not accustomed to meeting such resistance from anyone, let alone a woman. For her part, Teffi detects something profoundly unpleasant and chilling about the atmosphere surrounding Rasputin: ‘the grovelling, the collective hysteria – and at the same time the machinations of something dark, something very dark beyond our knowledge.’ There is the sense that one could quite easily fall under his hypnotic spell and never be able to break free from it.
Collected in Subtly Worded, Pushkin Press 2014
A classic story of mix-ups and confusions shot through with gentle humour. Having grown accustomed to spending their winters in the South of France, Mr and Mrs Brown are travelling back to England for a family gathering at Thompson Hall. Mrs Brown’s younger sister is to be married, and this will be the couple’s first opportunity to meet the girl’s fiancé in person. With her fondness for the traditions of the season, Mrs Brown is eager to get to the Hall in time for Christmas Eve. Her husband, however, seems reluctant to make the trip for fear of aggravating his weak chest and throat, a condition which causes the couple to break their journey to spend the night in Paris. When his wife asks him if there is anything she can do to relieve his suffering, Mr Brown identifies just the thing – the application of a mustard compress to the throat is sure to be of great help. (As it turns out, Mr B is something of a hypochondriac.) What follows is a hilarious sequence of white lies, misunderstandings and coincidences, culminating in a most embarrassing predicament for Mrs Brown. To say any more might spoil the fun.
First published in The Graphic. Collected in Why Frau Frohmann Raised Her Prices and Other Stories, 1882. Also collected in Christmas at Thompson Hall and Other Christmas Stories, Penguin Books 2014
I’m breaking the rules a little here by highlighting a collection of linked stories united by virtue of their setting, a modest terraced house in the Ranelagh suburb of Dublin – a house featuring the same walled garden with a laburnum tree, the same three steps down to the kitchen, and the same linoleum on the bedroom floor. The autobiographical pieces on Brennan’s childhood which open the collection are followed by a series of stories on the Derdons, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is characterised by an intense emotional distance, something that seems to have developed over several years. Brennan is particularly insightful on the small cruelties of human nature, the tricks we play on one another to score minor victories for the pettiest of reasons. If I had to single out one story, it would be the titular piece featuring Min, the embittered twin sister of the third occupant of the house, Martin Derdon. Min has spent most of her adult life resenting her sister-in-law, Delia, for taking Martin away from his family after their wedding. Now that both Martin and Delia are dead, the elderly Min is ensconced her flat in Wexford where she can wallow in a perverse kind of satisfaction fuelled by jealousy and bitterness, surrounded as she is by the couple’s furniture and former possessions. It’s a brilliant story, shot through with layers of insight and meaning.
First published in The New Yorker. Collected in The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin, Mariner Books 1998. It is available to read online here.