The invitation to choose twelve short stories immediately triggers a questioning of the genre itself, and its limits. I have tried to choose examples of the not-exactly, the unintentional, the could-have-been or might-be. But some acknowledged instances of the genre creep into my list, usually through some relation – of similarity, derivation, anticipation or reversal – to a selected pseudo-story.
A short story is not always short, though Penelope Lively found that was the fixed conviction of those signed up to her workshop, who declared that it is a piece of prose three thousand words long, no more and no less. But it is indeed typically in prose; it encompasses one action; has fictional human protagonists; is not purely philosophical and certainly not a chunk of history; is self-contained; and is a comparatively modern invention – a classical myth, a Hellenistic romance, is not a short story. Most of my picks break one or other of these rules.

‘This is Not a Story’ by Denis Diderot, translated by P. N. Furbank

The first is Denis Diderot’s ‘Ceci n’est pas un conte’. Although in one sense it succeeds in nullifying its own title, ‘Ceci n’est pas un conte’ does come short of the definition of a short story on a number of counts. It is not one tale but two contrasting tales with a scene-setting scenario that is part of neither. It opens with the narrator stating that in any scenario of story-telling, there must be a listener or interlocutor. Diderot (narrator) then stages a conversation with the one who is about to be his audience, concerning the reception of a story supposedly just heard by both of them. Only then does he launch into his twinned stories of a cruel woman and a good man, followed by one about a cruel man and a good woman. The listener frequently interrupts, and seems to know as much or more than the narrator about the characters, and to disagree with the narrator’s assessment of the rights and wrongs of their actions. Some of the characters are in fact historical persons. Diderot is rather staging the telling of short stories than actually telling one. His aim is to disturb and complicate both the form (which hardly existed) and the anticipated reader reaction. 

First published 1798, ed. Jacques-André Naigeon, translated as ‘This is not a story’ in This is Not a Story and Other Stories, OUP, 1993

Chapter 26 of Part 1 of ‘Life: A User’s Manual’ by Georges Perec, translated by David Bellos

The second is an extract from a long book, therefore not a self-contained traditional short story. It is Chapter 26 of Part 1 of Georges Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi. Slyly, Perec gives his book the subtitle ‘romans’, which should mean ‘novels’; but the narration of the lives (or episodes from the lives) of the many inhabitants of a single Parisian block of flats approximates to a series of short stories, though the same characters can come round more than once, forming a kind of syncopated short story for each.

Bartlebooth, an Englishman, has his own short story. Chapter 26 opens with a description of the ‘anti-chamber’ of Bartlebooth’s apartment, followed by short descriptions of the three servants who await his orders there. Then there is a little labyrinth motif in the text, followed by an exposition of how Bartlebooth spends his life. Bartlebooth employs an artist neighbour, Valène, to teach him the art of water-colour painting. It transpires that the former’s life-plan is to achieve perfection in a restricted sphere: to ‘seize, describe, plumb’ a portion of the world by means of painting marine landscapes – all the same size and at a fixed rate of production over twenty years. He sends them back to a craftsman, Winckler, who lived (past tense because he is dead by chapter 26) in the same building. (The protagonist of the whole book is in one sense the building itself.) Winckler was tasked with turning the paintings into puzzles of 750 pieces each, which Bartlebooth on his return was to spend the next twenty years reassembling – at the same fixed rate. The pictures would then be returned each to its original site of production and plunged into a solvent to remove the paint, leaving a virgin piece of Whatman (what [is] man?) paper.

This project results from Bartlebooth’s answer to his own question as to what he wanted to do with his life, which is “Nothing”. The saving grace of this grim attempt to control time, space and action in the service of nihilism is that, at the end of the whole book, Bartlebooth is found dead in his chair in his apartment, with a last piece of (the last?) puzzle in his hand. The space in the almost completed puzzle is that of an X: but the piece in the dead man’s hand is W-shaped. (W for Perec signifies his lost childhood.) Lethal perfectionism foiled! Turning back to the first chapter, on Winckler’s death long ago, we remember that Winckler had planned a “longue vengeance” . . . Clearly, Bartlebooth is the direct descendant of . . . 

First published by Hachette, 1978. Translated  by David Bellos as Life A User’s Manual, Harvill Press, 1987, rprt. Harper-Collins, 1992, and Vintage, 1996

‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ by Herman Melville

Bartleby’s determined, heroic nihilism, his consistent answer to his work, his employer and to life, “I would prefer not to”, are too well known to require further exposition. The book is incontrovertibly a long short story. It is, though, almost too philosophical to count, the pushing of an obsessive idea beyond the bounds of credibility.

First published in Putnam’s Magazine, November-December 1853, and collected in The Piazza Tales, Dix & Edwards, 1856. Now widely available, including in Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories, Penguin Classics. Available online at Project Gutenberg

‘The Tailor of Gloucester’ by Beatrix Potter

My fourth choice is The Tailor of Gloucester, by Beatrix Potter. Yes, it is a children’s tale – Potter’s dedication to a child called Freda references fairy tales. Potter claims in the same dedication that the story is true – in part. It is about animals as much as humans, Simpkin the cat being the protagonist, whose moral growth (his longue vengeance is finally abandoned) is the turning-point of the story. But I cannot resist including it, for it is also a story for adults, and it is so beautifully written that it seems to me to exemplify the ideal rhythms of the greatest English prose. 
“In the time of swords and periwigs and full-skirted coats with flowered lappets – when gentlemen wore ruffles, and gold-laced waistcoats of paduasoy and taffeta – there lived a tailor in Gloucester.” Compare: “What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions are not beyond all conjecture” (Thomas Browne, Urn-Burial. 1658). Potter’s prose is almost poetry. “‘No breadth at all, and cut on the cross; it is no breadth at all; tippets for mice and ribbons for mobs! for mice!’ said the tailor of Gloucester.”
The story relates the near-downfall of the tailor, who must finish making a beautiful waistcoat for the Mayor of Gloucester’s wedding, but lacks “one single skein of cherry-coloured twisted silk” for the one-and-twenty button-holes. The tragic refrain “No more twist!” runs through the tale. Simpkin the cat is sent out on Christmas eve to buy some provisions and the twist. But while he is out, the tailor hears tapping noises, and frees little mice from under the tea-cups in which Simpkin had imprisoned them with a view to eating them later. On his return, Simpkin takes his revenge by hiding the vital skein of cherry-coloured silk in the teapot. The mice shame Simpkin with their Christmas eve songs, and their chorus of “No more twist!” Repentant, he hands over the twist to the tailor – too late! it seems, for the tailor is too ill to make one-and-twenty button-holes. But the little mice, in gratitude (it took me a long time, as a child, to deduce this) work all night to embroider the button-holes, all but one, to which they pin a tiny note, ‘NO MORE TWIST’. The tailor has the strength to make the last button-hole: the waistcoat is finished in time. The twist is his W, and this time it fits. I think The Tailor of Gloucester is my W.

First published by Frederick Warne, 1901

‘Love, and a Question’ by Robert Frost

Fifthly: Some of Robert Frost’s poems, especially those from North of Boston (1914), are in effect short stories. ‘The death of the hired man’ is a prime example, though the lines “Home is the place where, when you have to go there/ They have to take you in” are assuredly better in poetry than they could ever be in prose. ‘The ax-helve’, from a different volume, New Hampshire (1923) is another good candidate. It does not build to any dramatic conclusion, just quietly finishes, with the French immigrant craftsman completing the task of making a new axe helve for the poet; yet it is perfectly rounded as an event, filling an evening. But counter-intuitively, I would choose an earlier poem, ‘Love, and a question’ from A Boy’s Will (1913) as my Frost short story. It is only four stanzas long, each of eight lines. It is a very short story ending on a question that reverberates well beyond the poem’s end. 

A bridegroom is asked for hospitality by a stranger on his wedding night. The cottage in which the groom and his bride are awaiting nightfall is isolated; winter is coming on. The groom would normally be generous, but – 

whether or not a man was asked
          to mar the love of two
by harboring woe in the bridal house,
          the bridegroom wished he knew.

First published in A Boy’s Will, David Nutt, 1913. Available to read online here

From ‘Piano’ by Jean Echenoz, translated by Mark Polizotto

The reason I think my sixth choice should have been a short story is that though it forms part of a novel, the rest of the novel is completely unmemorable, whereas this extract is striking, complete in itself, a dramatic whole. It is Jean Echenoz’s Au Piano. Two men are walking in the Parc Monceau in Paris. One is very smartly dressed. “He is going to die a violent death in twenty-two days’ time”, we are told, and though we are also told that that is not what he is afraid of, the impression builds that he is under the threat of immediate death or disaster. He is under the thumb of his smaller, scruffier companion, who is under the command, it seems, of a third man who is not present. The protagonist, Max, is refused permission to have a drink by his minder, who relies for compliance on the mere threat of a phone call to the absent third.
The minder steers his ‘victim’ (protégé?) past the statues in the park, studiously avoiding those representing composers. Max vomits twice with fear, and is again refused permission for a drink at a bar as they leave the park. Suddenly, they are ‘here’ – at building number 252. They make their way through hallways, passages, doorways and into a dark space. Is Max about to be assaulted? There is the noise of a swell or a crowd. And suddenly, the minder shoves Max through a curtain, the swell surges into a tempest, and “there it was – the piano”. The terrible Steinway is what Max has been viscerally dreading all this while. He is a concert pianist plagued by the most extreme stage-fright. He takes his seat in front of the fifty-two monstrous teeth, the conductor waves his baton, and they are off into the Second Concerto in F-minor, Op. 21, by Frédéric Chopin.

First published in Le Piano, Les Éditions de Minuit, 2003. English translation, Piano, published byVintage Press, 2005

The episode of Paolo and Francesca by Dante Alighieri

The seventh choice is too early, too poetic, too perfect ever to count as a short story. But I should love to someone to write it again in a kind of continuing mise en abyme. It is Dante’s episode of Paolo and Francesca in the Inferno (V. 70-138). Francesca was married off to Gianciotto, but fell in love with her husband’s brother Paolo. (The story was so well known that Dante skimps on all the details that might have extenuated the lovers.) When the character Dante asks the lovers what sin has put them there in hell, buffeted by the winds that hardly ever lull, Francesca tells him how irresistible love brought them together. They were reading together one day the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere, adulterous lovers lured and betrayed by Gallehault – Galeotto. Their eyes met once or twice over the book; their colour came and went. But when they reached the line about the smile that called forth the fatal kiss, Paolo kissed Francesca on the mouth. “Galeotto fu ’l libro, e chi lo scrisse.” “The book was a Gallehault, as was its writer.” 
Already two stages of betrayal have taken place – the writer (the author of the Arthurian tale) and the book are both seducers. In a further stage, Paolo seduces Francesca by means of the reading, though she is complicit too: “That day we read no further in it”. I should like to read a story about a professor of Italian reading this passage of Dante to a susceptible female student, and their falling into one another’s arms.

First published in 1472.

‘Providence’ by François-Guy Abauzit

A failed seduction along these lines is the subject of my eighth choice, ‘Providence’, by François-Guy Abauzit. It has not been translated yet. An aging professor of French literature, great admirer of Stendhal, in a tired marriage, is attracted to their student lodger, Marina. He does not push his luck; but one evening, she comes into the dark garden where he is smoking, asks him for a cigarette, and collapses in tears on his shoulder. Her boyfriend is leaving for Italy: she asserts that there is no one like him in the whole world. In genuinely avuncular mode, the protagonist puts his arm round her shoulders, and crassly explains that the only reason she attributes every virtue to the boy is because she is in love: it is what Stendhal calls ‘cristallisation’. She curses ‘his’ Stendhal – “encore un vieux con”, the “encore” implying ‘like you’, and storms inside. The prof’s appeal to a literary predecessor has done nothing but alienate the young woman. But paradoxically, he feels more tender towards his wife – although he sits down to write, in French, the story (the récit) of what has just happened, specifically because his wife does not read French. He betrays her without having betrayed her.

Published in the collection Puits de lune, Éditions de la Fenestrelle, 2015

‘Clay’ by James Joyce

My next two stories are undoubtedly short stories in the classic tradition. They are short, in prose, about a single main character or event. They ‘cristallize’, in another sense: they are heart-rending vignettes, in a small space. One is from James Joyce’s Dubliners, ‘Clay’ (First published 1914; read here in Penguin Popular Classics 1996, pp. 110-18). The other is from Vladimir Nabokov’s A Russian Beauty. They are intimately connected in that, in each case, the protagonist does not understand that a personal disaster hangs over her, while the people around her do. But the way this is conveyed in the two stories is utterly different. 
In Joyce’s ‘Clay’, the protagonist Maria, a tiny person with a lowly job in a laundry, is going to visit her brother Joe and his family for the evening of Hallow-e’en. Maria buys treats for Joe’s children on the way to his house: she is a generous soul whom everyone loves – and pities, though this she is unaware of. They all play a Hallow-e’en game which involves being blind-folded, and choosing a saucer, by touch alone. When Maria’s turn comes, she picks a saucer with something soft and wet on it. There is an embarrassed silence, and the bigger girls are ticked off severely, and told to throw it out. The only clue as to what this might have been, and its traditional significance, is in the title of the story. Then the company urge Maria to sing: she sings “I dreamt that I dwelled in marble halls”, repeating one verse by mistake, though no-one points this out. Her brother Joe, to whom she had been a little mother when they were young, is so moved that his eyes fill up with tears, and “he could not find what he was looking for and in the end he had to ask his wife to tell him where the corkscrew was”. The pathos of an impending death is completely down-played.

First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914, now widely republished, including in Penguin Classics. 

‘Breaking the News’ by Vladimir Nabokov

In the Nabokov story ‘Breaking the News’, Eugenia Isakovna is an elderly widow, rather deaf, living alone in exile in Berlin. She has an only son, working in Paris. At least, she thinks she has: in fact the second and third sentences of the story are: “Her only son had died on the previous day. She had not yet been told.” He had fallen down a lift shaft. The story relates how her friends the Chernobyskis hear of this first. They distractedly debate how to break the news, whether to tell her somehow “by degrees”, suggesting first that he is very ill. A group of emigré friends assemble for tea at the widow’s house, getting more and more agitated as they fail to break the news. Finally, in anguish, as she pushes her hearing aid toward her visitors fearfully, “sobbing Chernobyski roared from a distant corner: ‘What’s there to explain – dead, dead, dead!’ but she was already afraid to look in his direction”. The metaphorical aspect of her literal deafness is terrifying; though Nabokov almost over-does the effect with the letter from the son recently received by the widow, which speaks of his being “plunged up to the neck in work and when evening comes I literally fall off my feet, and I never go anywhere.” The twisting of “literally” to mean “metaphorically”, but as it turns out, horribly literally, is shocking.

First published in Russian in 1935. Published in translation by Nabokov and his son Dmitri Nabokov, in A Russian Beauty and Other Stories, McGraw-Hill, 1973. Collected in The Collected Stories, Penguin, 2016.

‘A Retrieved Reformation’ by O. Henry

Eleventh is this story that my father used to read us. (My childhood friends’ enduring memory of my father is of his reading stories to us all in the evenings.) It is hopelessly romantic – a tear-jerker – but I loved it. The protagonist, crack safe-breaker Jimmy Valentine (suitably named, as will be seen) receives news of his pardon for a four-year sentence while working in the shoe-shop of the prison work-place. A recidivist, after being freed he cracks three more impossible-seeming safes, and is pursued by the detective who originally arrested him, Ben Price. He makes for an obscure little town, Elmore; and the first thing that happens is that he sees the girl of his dreams, Annabel Adams, entering the bank. It turns out her father owns the bank. Smitten, Jimmy books into a hotel as Ralph D. Spencer, and soon sets up in the shoe business, and becomes engaged to Annabel. 
His life has turned around, and he plans to bequeath his safe-breaking tools to a pal. He carries them with him in a suitcase on an expedition to buy wedding clothes with his bride-to-be and some of her family, which includes two nieces of Annabel’s, little May and Agatha, aged nine and five. But her father wants first to show off his new state-of-the-art safe in the bank. While the adults are chatting, the older girl locks the younger in the safe, which has not yet been primed with its codes for opening. Hysterical cries rend the air (as O. Henry does not quite write) and Annabel turns in all innocence to Jimmy to do something. Jimmy looks at her “with a queer, soft smile on his lips”, and asks for the rose she is wearing, which he stuffs into his vest pocket. “With that act Ralph D. Spencer passed away and Jimmy Valentine took his place.”
Meanwhile, the detective Ben Price has discovered Jimmy’s whereabouts, and is looking in through the windows of the bank preparing to nab him when he comes out. He watches as Jimmy unpacks his tools, works away at the safe, and in full view of all present, has it open within ten minutes. The little girl is saved!
Jimmy walks out, ignoring a despairing “‘Ralph!’” from Anabel. At the door he finds a big man somewhat in his way – the detective. Jimmy offers himself for arrest, saying nothing now matters to him. But Ben Price behaves rather strangely. “‘Guess you’re mistaken, Mr. Spencer. Don’t believe I recognize you. Your buggie’s waiting for you, ain’t it?’ And Ben Price turned and strolled down the street.”
The wonderful thing is that my father, the most upright citizen you can imagine, was in the shoe business himself.

First published, as ‘A Retrieved Reform‘, in The Cosmopolitan Magazine, April 1903. Collected in Roads of Destiny, 1909

‘Alien Adventure’ by Lawrence Eagar

As for the twelfth slot, I should like to keep it open, to be filled one day by one of my children or grand-children. One good candidate is ‘Alien Adventure’, by Lawrence Eagar, aged 9. It is full of gems such as “They disposed of the alien space-craft merrily”, and “‘What th . . . th . . . ?’ he pondered, surprised.” But no doubt there will be many more to choose from.