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)