‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ by Margery Williams

When I was two, my family – Mum, Dad, and my new-born brother – left the UK, and settled in a suburban town around thirty miles from New York for a few years. We lived in a stocky, clapboard house; the garden was enclosed by tall strands of yews and firs. In winter, you had to use a shovel to excavate the car from the heaped-up snow. My memories of The Velveteen Rabbit – certain scenes, some intermittent sense of its tone and feel – have become so confused with the patchy impressions of childhood that when I re-read the story now, the narrative unfolds into those impressions – the terrible bonfire of toys is about to take place in that snowy, out-of-town garden; the woodland in the story – initially the site of the rabbit’s shame but where his final, joyful liberation takes place too – belongs both to Margery Williams’ description, and to some dim, watery sense of early life. Mum must have read the story to me again and again: the velveteen rabbit’s humility, his yearnings and disappointments, the finely judged material presence of the bedroom and garden settings – the “mechanical toys with their superior ideas” and “the games in the raspberry thicket” – the first story I consciously remember bringing with it some kind of atmospheric change.

First published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1921 and widely in book form since

‘A Painful Case’ by James Joyce

To Chapelizod’s “most quiet quarters” now (I lived in Dublin in my twenties) and Mr. Duffy and Mrs. Sinico’s late evening walks. Joyce lays the ground with exacting authority: Duffy’s aloofness and self-regard are tenuous buffers to a solitary, regimented existence (have a read of the description of Duffy’s monastic room, the assiduous itemisation of a solitary life, the lens moving closer and closer in…). The principal characters, too, are carefully and finely woven – this delicate work (although there’s a wonderful instinctual ease to Joyce’s prose here too) paves the way for subtle, human paradox. Duffy is haughty and dry – we’re told about his “unamiable mouth” and the “harsh” character of his face – but then we’re made to dwell on his gaze: “there was no harshness in his eyes which… gave the impression of a man ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others…” Similarly, Mrs. Sinico – a forty-three-year-old mother whose husband captains a boat which sails to and from Holland – is revealed by the almost anatomical investigation of her eyes: “their gaze began with a defiant note but was confused by what seemed a deliberate swoon of the pupil into the iris, revealing for an instant a temperament of great sensibility.” Mr. Duffy’s final wanderings in the park – that beautifully realised transition from age-old defensiveness into a hard and honest accounting of his “moral nature” – is a remarkable passage. All the while, below the crest of the hill, Dublin “burns redly and hospitably.”    

First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914, and widely republished since, including by Penguin Classics, 2000

‘Ping’ by Samuel Beckett

In a letter written about ‘Ping’ from Ussy in August 1966, Beckett explained that “months of misguided work have boiled down to 1,000 words.’” And that he’d written “something suitably brief and outrageous all whiteness and silence and finishedness.” Its outrageousness? No personal pronouns, very few conjunctions, definite articles, prepositions. Punctuation is winnowed down to a series of full stops. But in spite of the text’s brevity – its “whiteness and silence” – some sense of a “scene” emerges. A body (I imagine a man) lies in a white(ish) room of indeterminate size. The body’s parts – legs, heels, toes – seem to be “joined like sewn” or, in the case of the face, “nose ears white holes mouth white seam like sewn invisible over.” Only the eyes – “a pale blue”, a rare intrusion of colour – are perhaps operational and unfixed. They track momentary changes in the “grey almost white” surroundings: “blur”, “light”, “traces.” The terse descriptions (nouns placed side by side, the occasional adjective) are initially rooted in immediate sensory experience: dim, fleeting, impressionistic. An interior life, beyond the momentary and the physical, feels remote. Then comes line 21 (my copy numbers the sentences, separating them out on the page): “Murmur only just almost never one second perhaps not alone.” The brilliance of ‘Ping’ – aside from its formal audacity, Beckett’s smashing up of all the rules – lies in these tiny, vivid eruptions of feeling and memory, the flickering presence of some long-buried self, still somehow just about present, even as the body gets ready to let go.

First published in French as ‘Bing’, Editions de Minuit, 1966, and collected in First Love and Other Shorts, Grove Weidenfeld, 1974; also in That Glimpse of Truth: 100 of the Finest Short Stories, ed. David Miller, Head of Zeus, 2014

‘Proust’ by Samuel Beckett

The only writer to appear in my list twice. Beckett wrote this essay in Paris during the summer of 1930, at the age of twenty-five. James Knowlson describes him working “feverishly in the Ecole Normale library or in his room, sometimes until dawn.” And Knowlson goes on to detail the rash (the “barber’s itch”) which surfaced onto his face – and about which Beckett felt acutely self-conscious – when he handed in the manuscript to Chatto and Prentice in London. What follows – an eighty-page response to In Search of Lost Time (he’d just read Proust’s megalith twice!) – bears some of the unruly flashiness of youth: it’s abstruse and trickily allusive but it’s also a sweeping and unguarded work. The preoccupations which Beckett would loop back to for the next sixty years are all here: his dissatisfaction with “literary conventions” and “geometry”; his distrust of neatly packaged intellectual systems (the “primacy of instinctive perception”, “the free play of every faculty”) alongside expansive – florid, excitable and ireful too – commentaries on what would become the taut through-lines of his later plays and prose: selfhood, memory, and “the poisonous ingenuity of Time”.

First published by Chatto & Windus, 1931, and by John Calder, 1999

‘Death in Venice’ by Thomas Mann

William Faulkner, on receiving the Nobel Prize in 1949, proposed that “the human heart in conflict with itself… alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” Death in Venice is a superlative (superlative!) example of the “heart in conflict with itself” but it’s also a meditation on the artist’s life – the mental and physical toll of literary production. Gustav von Aschenbach is a world-famous author. He lives in Munich, waking early every day, to his “cold, inflexible, passionate” writerly duty. He has, for the sake of “perfectionism”, ‘curbed and cooled his feelings.” We meet him in May – “a premature high summer” – as he wanders back from the Englischer Garten to Munich’s North Cemetery. There he notices a man – bold, wild, and, so Aschenbach assumes, from “distant parts.” The stranger leaves the cemetery but something in Aschenbach has changed, an “extraordinary expansion of his inner self.” He imagines a place – a tropical swampland: rank, fecund and riotous – with hallucinatory vividness. He understands this vision (Mann’s ironic treatment of Aschenbach’s psychological blindness is foundational to the story’s sinewy architecture) as “a simple desire to travel”. The writer journeys to Venice. He first notices Tadzio, a beautiful Polish adolescent, in the foyer of the hotel. And so begins the emotionalising of his life – the battle (although only fully acknowledged late on) between discipline and duty and sensuous, voluptuous desire.

First published in German by S. Fischer Verlag, 1912; first published in English translation, by Kenneth Burke, in The Dial, March-May 1924. Widely republished, including in Death and Venice & Other Stories, Vintage, 1998

‘The Ghost Birds’ by Karen Russell

It’s 2081. Some years have passed since the ‘Great Death.’ Even so, “still-burning fires” encircle the ruins of Portland. The wealthy live in “domed compounds” (my partner, the kids and I spent a rainy afternoon at the Eden Project recently; we stood on the tread of a metallic, zig-zaggy staircase, next to a sign which warned you about the time the queue was likely to take, due to the over-populated dome, waiting for the troop of people who had already gone up, to descend from the high-point of the tropical rainforest viewing balcony…). The “domed compounds” tuck in like “bubble-wrap” on the smouldering, scalded earth. Everyone wears “respirators”. Oxygen has been commodified. School? Of the permanently virtual kind. Starling – the narrator Jasper’s daughter, expertly characterised as a no-nonsense teenage girl – acquires knowledge via “the blue sinkhole of the Hololight.” “Your eyes cannot distinguish between a digital hallucination and a real ghost,” Jasper says. “A critical window is closing.” Even though living avians are long extinct, engulfed by the burning carbon sinks, Jasper is fanatical in his pursuit of the ghosts of birds – snowy owls and nightingales, tundra swans and geese – which are sometimes detectable to the human eye, or if not, to Jasper’s spectrograph. His singular wish? To take his daughter to Chapman Elementary School, the location of a recent sighting of a flock of paranormal swifts. On arrival at the abandoned building, a tomb of ash and dust, father and daughter read the engraving on the school’s door: “Send us Forth to be Builders of a Better World.” The ending – part thriller, part numinous elegy – is dazzlingly, achingly memorable.   

First published in The New Yorker, October 2021, and available to subscribers to read here. You can also listen to Karen Russell reading the story here

‘The Death and Ivan Ilyich’ by Leo Tolstoy

Terror, humour, pathos, anguish, illumination: a full – and wondrous – house! Ivan Ilych, forty-five-years-old, leads a seemingly “straightforward, ordinary” life. He’s pursued “the path of duty” assiduously – a promotion to the Court of Justice (“all that mattered was five thousand a year”), “chit-chat with colleagues”, dinners, evenings spent playing whist. Small disturbances – the animosity between husband and wife; the cool relationships with his daughter and son – are put to one side. Afterall, the delights of Ivan Ilych’s working life demand his full attention. “The knowledge of the power that he wielded,” Tolstoy deftly explains, opening up a knowing distance between narrator and subject, “the possibility of ruining anyone that he fancied ruining, the gravitas (even if it was all outward show)…all of this gave him pleasure.” Then the swift – barely noticeable – turn of the cogs: Ilych falls awkwardly from a ladder in the drawing room of the family’s fashionable new home (notice the moment the accident happens: he is demonstrating to a “dull-witted” upholsterer how to hang draperies – more concern with “outward show”). A bruise appears; Ivan Ilych is wrong to be unconcerned. During the next thirty-nine pages, Tolstoy anatomises – while simultaneously inhabiting (the extraordinary intensity and mobility of the characterisation feels as much rooted in the author’s body as his mind) the dying man’s loneliness, his memories (my favourite passages include those hyper-charged visions which arrive from childhood) his terrors and regrets. As Ivan Ilych approaches the end, the tumults of his physical suffering intersect with a desperate and terrible moral awakening: “What,” the dying man wonders, his kindly servant Gerasim sleeping peacefully at his side, “if I’ve really been wrong in the way I’ve lived my whole life?”  

(p.s. see also ‘This is Water’, David Foster Wallace’s address to Kenyon College in 2005)

First published in Russian, 1886. Widely available in translation, including as a Penguin Classic, 2006, and online, including here

‘Waiting Up’ by John Updike

The first of The Maples Stories, ‘Snowing in Greenwich Village’ beds in two years after Joan and Richard’s wedding; in the last, ‘Grandparenting’, the pair await the birth of their daughter’s child at Hartford Hospital (“it was the Sunday of the Super Bowl and the announcers were revving up”) although upon reaching this final knot in the rope, we learn that Joan has remarried, the pair long since divorced. And in between these two bookends: sixteen more rich, rangy, gorgeous, brutal interludes delineating the bit-by-bit fragmentation of Joan and Richard’s suburban Boston lives.

My choice, ‘Waiting Up’, lifts off somewhere near the middle. Richard – in the throes of an affair with close family friend Mrs. Mason (“her shoulders caped in the morning sun coming through the window, the very filaments of her flesh on fire”) – is nervously awaiting his wife’s return from an evening of recrimination at the Masons’ home. When Joan does finally arrive, the dialogue – and the seamlessly achieved modulations of mood – are pitch perfect. Wry humour and cool analysis (“all year she’s been dancing up to me with this little impish arrogance I couldn’t understand”) replace what would have become a lazily dramatic scene in lesser hands. And Updike’s prose – that finely tuned instinct for when to hold back and when to let fly; the apparently effortless conjuring of a solid, palpable world, finely selected details resonating beyond their modest presences – always a thing to relish and behold.

First published in Your Lover Just Called, Penguin, 1980, and collected in The Maples Stories, Everyman’s Library, 2009

‘The Surrogate’ by Tessa Hadley

The intelligence Hadley brings to her work is never showy or flouncy – she’s an exquisitely steely writer – both muscular and piercing, cooly authoritative too. ‘The Surrogate’, written in 2003, is perhaps a little looser than some of Hadley’s other stories (very occasionally, the prose feels somewhat less honed) but it’s structurally brilliant – and it does what Hadley does best: it welcomes in the female body, taking happy ownership of all of its fluctuating unpredictability. Clara, an undergraduate student, has fallen in love with Patrick Hammett, her English lecturer. “His looks were a power,” she tells us. “I felt physically ill.” The central section of the narrative pivots around a series of fantasies – each involving the object of Clara’s devotions, Patrick, and each an artfully constructed story of its own (“Nothing could happen in them that was absurdly improbable or out of character”). Every imagining is furnished with youthful, romantic detail: a “cathedral wood”, a “gate…washed silvery by the rain.” But then Clara meets Dave – Patrick’s physical double, the ‘surrogate’ of the story’s title (or is he?) – and fantasies of a different kind gallop over those first muddled dreams. The ending – with its shocking, clever inversion, its unabashed statement of philosophical intent – makes for a deeply satisfyingly whole.

First published in The New Yorker, September 2003, and available to subscribers to read here; and collected in Sunstroke and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 2007

‘-’ by Jay Bernard

The New Cross fire took place a mile away from where I live in south-east London. Jay Bernard’s author’s note at the beginning of the collection explains: “in the early hours of Sunday morning, on 18th January 1981, a fire broke out at 439 New Cross Road. It was Yvonne Ruddock’s sixteenth birthday party, and she had arranged a party with her cousins to celebrate. The fire spread quickly, killing thirteen young people and injuring twenty-seven others.”

Surge is a fierce and formidable exploration of the events – and the injustices – set into train that January night. It is also a shining work – taut, tender, strange and otherworldly. Bernard’s gaze is unsparing: they return us to the night of the fire, dropping us down into the flat on New Cross Road. In ‘Songbook’ the exuberance of “the rum” and the dancing and the “green nails done nice” slips into sudden, vivid horror: “black smoke”, “screamin”, “flames ah furious red.” And a mother – shoeless – crying on the road. People look on but “to help dem refuse.” Those poems which re-animate the dead, voicing them, individualising their imaginations and deathly experiences are some of the most wrenchingly affecting. This from “–”:

“And then you came and I was calling out to you, dad – and I know you heard me because here we are, dad – come back – don’t bury me – I can’t stand it – I can barely stand it when the lights go off – and I’m here – and spend the whole night listening for you, dad – I want to crawl between mum and you – in your bed, in your sheets, dad – that’s the only kind of burying I want –”

Published in Surge, Chatto and Windus, 2019

‘Gold Watch’ by John McGahern

“It was happiness such as I’d never known,” proclaims the narrator during this stunning story’s airy opening. He and an old girlfriend (unnamed throughout; “beautiful as ever”) have been reunited on a “lazy Saturday morning” in Dublin. The pair soon move into a flat. The narrator buys “fruit or wine or a bowl and, once, a copper pan”. They marry quietly – “two vergers as witnesses” – in a Franciscan church down by the quay. But romantic love – all bliss and ease and freedom – is very much a counterpoint here, a foil to the story’s real centre of gravity – the dismal, grinding pull of the narrator’s family home.

“‘And yet you keep going back to the old place?’
’That’s true. I have to face that now. That way I don’t feel guilty. I don’t feel anything.’
I knew myself too well. There was more caution than any love or charity in my habitual going home.”

The meetings between father, son, and stepmother Rose, in the “old place” re-enact age-old psychological battles (this unhappy domestic triangle make strained appearances in other stories too). McGahern portrays – with a touch at once light and grave – each stage of the internecine struggle: the vituperative aggressions, the “false heartiness” of the truces, the doleful silent retreats. And the story’s final, remarkable scene – hinging upon the gift of a gold watch – sees the terrible, eerie transubstantiation of the father’s cruelty into both physical and symbolic form.  

First published in The New Yorker, 17 March 1980, and collected in High Ground and Other Stories, Faber & Faber, 1985, and Collected Stories, Faber & Faber, 2014

‘Tricks’ by Alice Munro

And to finish: Munro. Her short stories defy the form’s very own laws: “a glimpse of something viewed from the corner of the eye,” V.S. Pritchett tells us; “a certain unique or single effect,” Edgar Allan Poe instructs, while Carver emphasises narrative compactness too: “Get in. Get out. Don’t Linger. Move on.” ‘Tricks’ is slender, yes, (at just over thirty pages it’s not butting up against the ‘novella’ tag) but – as with so many of Munro’s works – it carries a disproportionate heft. Instead of singular ‘glimpses’, abrupt entrances and exits, characters are observed and felt at multiple points in space and time – whole lives fanning out in front of us amid remarkable sworls of detail (the name of the thing and the name of thing before it became the thing, an almost geological approach…). And yet, in spite of their stature, Munro’s characters feel stealthily – almost mystically – remote.

‘Tricks’ spans forty years of Robin’s life: her burdened youth (her asthmatic, snipy sister); her romance with Danilo, a Montenegrin who repairs clocks – the door opening to a new world of change, “the risk of her life”: “I will be here next summer in the same place,” Danilo promises. “The same shop. I will be there by June at the latest.” And then an interlude in Robin’s sixties (her hair, once “dark”, now “charcoal-gray”) in which she nurses patients at ‘The Sunset Hotel’, the town’s psychiatric ward. The story is in playful dialogue with As You Like It(Robin’s annual escape from her “makeshift, temporary’ existence sees her take a trip by train to see a Shakespeare play) but even though there’s a tying up of loose ends – the outing of confusion in the story’s final phase – ‘Tricks’ is less a comedy, more a troubling meditation on the incalculable impact of slights of fate, the longevity of shame, the stark disjunction between our public and private selves.

First published in Runaway, Vintage, 2019