If you believe Ali Smith (I do; see ‘True Short Story’), for Cynthia Ozick, a short story acts like a talismanic gift, something that we carry with us, that has a mysterious power that might well be hard to fathom. While I have limited truck with the idea that stories — and by extension storytelling — have some kind of sacred moral purpose (what Tim Parks calls ‘the piety that they are somehow necessary’), it’s important that you understood how seriously I take Ozick’s proposition, how fully I inhabit that method of understanding how short stories — at least, the good ones — work. The stories that populate this fantasy anthology are among my current talismen. I carry them around in my head like some people carry old coins in the pocket of a beloved pair of jeans. Every now and then, I mentally rub them together and see what sparks they bring. They are not necessary, but I can’t tell you how pleased I am that they exist, that I have them in my head. To borrow from Deborah Levy, they make my world a better place to live. On which subject…
I have the most ungodly crush on this story. I love its racing, bracing passage, its exuberant leaps in time and imagination, its magnificent yearning. It is a thing of extraordinary beauty, a battered love story about being alone and lost and adrift in the world even when you’re not. Most of all, at times like these – and despite/because of the grief at the story’s heart – I love its affirmative power: ‘We said Yes in all the European languages. Yes. We said yes we said yes, yes to vague but powerful things, we said yes to hope which has to be vague, we said yes to love which is always blind, we smiled and said yes without blinking.’ Not a bad way to live in 2018: don’t blink, say yes.
In Black Vodka (And Other Stories, 2013)
I cannot make up my mind whether it is the case that, as I get older, I become more in touch with my emotions, or whether, as I get older, life’s painful reality becomes more apparent. Perhaps they amount to the same thing. Either way, I cry more now than I used to. This Chekhov story might stand as a marker of the change. A long time ago — fifteen years at least, perhaps twenty — I went on a Chekhov jag, reading his stories and little else for months. I read this story then, I know I did, but it vanished from my memory until I read it again last summer and found myself bawling at its end in a way that might have made my younger self laugh. Also, that line about cakes of snow falling off the horse’s back.
In Anton Chekhov’s Short Stories (W. W. Norton, 1979) and available online here, in a different translation
I probably could have chosen any of the stories from this extraordinary collection. (For instance, I could happily have chosen ‘Julia K.’ simply on the basis of that one line — you know the one: ‘Language, as she deployed it, was neither a line cast nor a bullet fired. It was a catholic mechanism: the sharp twist of a pilot biscuit into the waifish body of Christ’). As it is, I choose this. I choose it because of the near total brilliance of its execution. The way, the more you read it, the more everything seems to slot into place, not neatly and tidily, but raggedly and bloodily; from the palindromic title — those two ones with nothing in between — to the playful, cutesy doubling, too self-consciously cool to be taken seriously, until it slowly resolves into something that cannot, by any measure, be taken lightly. Oh, and did I mention the language? Hell on earth, the language.
In Things to Make and Break (CB Editions, 2014)
I’ve known David for a long time, which perhaps accounts in part for the profound effect this collection had when I first read it at the fag end of last summer. In part, but not entirely. It’s a wonderful book and this is a wonderful story, which, from its everyday opening — Andy, sitting on a train, looking out of the window — enacts a gradual stepping away from the profane and the usual into a world of such rich invention and beauty that it takes the breath away. The beauty and invention that most beguiles here is not the kind associated with language or phrase – although there is plenty of that too — but the beauty of thought and of execution. It’s a story that both asks everything from us and nothing at all. I’m not joking — or exaggerating — when I say that this story, and this collection more widely, jolted me out of some pretty tired habits of reading.
In Darker With The Lights On (Little Island Press, 2017)
A woman, hitchhiking across Spain, walks into a quiet bar in a quiet village in the middle of a quiet afternoon and orders a drink. Out of so slight a frame emerges a story I’ve read countless times and yet cannot quite put to bed. Of course, one reason lies in its audacious sin of omission, that little artificial gap in the story’s surface that seems to contain the clue to its interpretation. (Raymond ‘No Tricks’ Carver, you suspect, would have hurled the book across the room.) And yet there’s so much more to it than that, from the poise and restraint of the writing, to the echoing sound of that fly swatter coming down hard on a flat surface to signal that the story, in its material sense, is done. In recent times, I’ve come to thinking that the story represents an answering call to Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour’: ‘“Free! Body and soul free!”’
In The Loudest Sound and Nothing (Faber & Faber, 2007)
Once upon a time, I had the best job in the world. For four years in my mid-twenties I spent much of my time travelling in southern Europe on behalf of several independent American publishers, one of which was responsible for the volume from which this story is taken. Those were heady times, both highly social — meetings, dinners — and highly alienating — long nights in lonely hotel rooms, too much coffee. I mention the context because I have a particular memory of reading this story on one of those trips, late at night, in a hotel room high above Plaza d’España in Madrid. Marias does late Spanish nights as well as anyone — just think of Tomorrow in the Battle… — and this story pivots out from just such a late night, an encounter in a night club between the story’s narrator and a Hungarian footballer by the name of Szentkuthy. Now, Marias isn’t a great short story writer. And this isn’t a great short story, but it does contain within it a great passage. It’s the part when the narrator recalls a goal Szentkuthy scored when playing for Real Madrid against Inter Milan, a goal of such bewildering and unnecessary brilliance that ‘it was not so much that he had stopped time as that he had set a mark on it and made it uncertain’. As well as being a brilliant passage of writing, it seems to me to provide a wonderful account of one aspect of the art of storytelling: the deferral of the end until the author decides it should arrive. It’s all about timing, that moment when the elastic snaps back and we can all breathe again and tend to our bruises.
In When I Was Mortal (trans. Margaret Jull Costa, New Directions, 2000)
Another story I’ve read countless times and yet cannot seem to get to the bottom of; it changes, or seems to, each time I read it. The characters are lodged in my brain — Kezia, of course, our Else, and, most of all, the remarkable Aunt Beryl, who despite appearing only twice, briefly, at the beginning and end of the story, nonetheless rises to the status of unforgettable. Nor does the story need any rehashing; it’s all there, clear as a bell — the divisive doll’s house, all oily and green; that bloody lamp; the vicious clamouring of girls at school; the endnote with the Kelveys in the field with the patient cows. If I could paint, I’d be able to paint it without looking once at the source text. And yet, and yet… what is it, actually? Is it a story of the power of goodness to bring hope for the future, to bring about change? Or is it a story of stasis, of the futility of goodness, a recognition that nothing ever changes, that there is no hope and that we will all always be like those two girls, sitting in fields, staring mutely at cows and musing over symbols that promise much but deliver little?
In The Collected Stories (Penguin, 2007), and available online here
I have an enormous soft spot for Bolaño. Indeed, I spent several years trying to write like him. In part this is because, if you aspire to be a writer, he seems so desirable to imitate; his subject, especially in the short stories, is you, yourself — or him, as you would want yourself to be. He’s no mean imitator himself, of course. Intone the opening paragraphs of this in a darkened room and you could be listening to the opening of a Borges story, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ say. Despite its satiric possibilities, I can’t help clinging to this quickly delivered story — of a bad writer who ascends to a kind of heroic status — as a form of consolation, (rather than the warning it claims to be).
In Last Evenings on Earth (trans. Chris Andrews, Harvill Secker, 2007) and available online here
This really is the most exquisitely crafted story, which captures the wordless intimacies we exchange with the strangers we fall into step with. The language has an intense, compacted elegance, each phrase unfolding into the next with a knowing sure-footedness. After all, the story is not ignorant of what will happen when an ageing copywriter, out for his evening constitutionals, begins to encounter a vigorous young boxer out on his training runs. Indeed, it teases us with the imagery of blood and bone, of the shattering force of impact. Even so, it does not prepare us for the groundswell of loss that accompanies the ending. When it’s over, I can’t help thinking of those lines by Thornton Wilder: ‘And I, who claim to know so much more, isn’t it possible that even I have missed the very spring within the spring? Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God’.
In Homing (Umuzi, 2010)
I read this story ten years ago, pretty much to the month. I was bowled over by it and parts of it — the bit where Carr encounters the girl with the cygnet on a leash, for instance; or when the judge’s wife comes to visit — have remained lodged in my mind ever since. Although it all begins in relatively innocuous fashion — an ill-advised approach in a bar — as the title suggests, the story doesn’t hide its intention. On the contrary, it powerfully — terrifyingly — represents the ineluctability of fate. Once the pattern is set, the story continues without mercy along its rutted track. The writing, the phrasing, the wit, the imagination — all are of the highest order. Dreamy, in the way of a nightmare.
In The Paris Review 183 (Winter 2007) and available online here, if you’re a subscriber
I’m going to describe this story as a palate cleanser, which is a wildly inappropriate term, while at the same time getting somewhere close to rapidly articulating the effect reading the prose of Christine Schutt has on me. These are dark materials, but the writing is astonishingly clean, astonishingly sharp. Here, a woman is in bed, with her lover on top of her. Beneath her, under the bed, trussed, it seems, in canvas, is a former lover, now dead. A haunting, then, or something like it, charged with guilt in the face of a new, better desire. At the end, however, which hits hard, we might come to look again at the title and think about the plural noun.
In Nightwork (Dalkey Archive, 1996)
Cortázar is right up there in my personal pantheon and I could probably have filled this whole anthology with his stories, from ‘Blow-up’ to ‘A Continuity of Parks’ to ‘The Night Face Up’ to ‘House Taken Over’ and on and on. Over the years, I have stolen from him shamefully and repeatedly. This great story, about the young man going again and again to see the axolotls in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, can easily — on account of our foreknowledge of the appearance of its subject — seduce us into thinking it’s a cute little story, kind of funny and kind of playful. It kind of isn’t, though. It’s kind of horrifying. Two lines (a half line in one case) spliced together, stop me in my tracks: ‘I began seeing in the axolotls a metamorphosis which did not succeed… They were lying in wait for something, a remote dominion destroyed, an age of liberty when the world had been that of axolotls’. Reading that, I come to think that we are all metamorphoses which did not succeed; we are all stalled and unfulfilled dreams, trapped forever in a larval stage of never-becoming. Happy New Year!
In Blow-up and Other Stories (trans. Paul Blackthorn, Pantheon Books, 1985) and available online here