So much has been written about Chekhov that I could hardly add anything original, but I just love the way he writes a few words and trivial details of the most ordinary lives of his summer guests, doctors on call, hunters in the field, riders on ferries, passers-by, city people displaced to the country, country people out of place in the city. There’s no plot, just an impression of these lives in their waves, repetitions and unexpected resolutions. He refuses to pass judgement. He said, ‘The fire in me burns evenly and sluggishly, without flashes or crashes. So what I write is neither outstandingly stupid nor remarkably intelligent. I have little passion. In matters of morality, I’m neither above or below the average. I’m like most people.’
First published in 1899. Widely collected, including in Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, trans. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky, Modern Library, 2000
As a writer, Hemingway preferred the world of soldiers and hunters rather than crooks and cops, but his short story ‘The Killers’ is one of the best crime short stories there is. Two men in black overcoats and derby hats enter a diner in a small town. The owner asks them for their order, but the two men do not know what they want and prevaricate. It eventually transpires that they are there to assassinate one of the regulars at the diner. What follows is a masterclass in veiled threats and subtle shifts in power as the two men assert their authority and control over the owner, the cook, and a customer called Nick Adams—all done almost entirely through menacing, Pinteresque dialogue. The situation is a kind of foreshortened version of Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games, with violence threatening to erupt at any time and the story seething with tension. And all this in just six pages.
First published in 1928. Collected widely, including in The Essential Hemingway, Vintage, 2004
Nabokov’s story bears a passing resemblance to Chekhov’s in that it is about a man who meets a woman in a seaside resort, but this time the man reflects on an affair already over rather than one about to begin. In Fialta, a fictional Mediterranean town on the Riviera, the narrator bumps into Nina, a fellow Russian exile who moves in the same social circles, and the meeting prompts him to recount to us the previous eight or nine encounters between them over the past 15 years. What follows is a kaleidoscopic portrayal of a love affair that never quite happens and, reading very carefully between the lines, it soon becomes clear that, although the highly-unreliable narrator claims the attraction was mutual, Nina has obviously been trying to avoid the narrator’s attempts at ardour from day one. It’s a fabulous, ever-shifting mix of time past and time present with the usual Nabokovian linguistic acrobatics.
First published in 1936. In My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro, ed. Jeffrey Eugenides, Harper Perennial, 2009. Also in Collected Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2001, and Nabokov’s Dozen, Penguin Modern Classics, 2017.
Monte Veritá is not one of du Maurier’s best-known stories but it is an astonishing piece and my favourite by her. An unnamed narrator and his friend, Victor, are mountaineers. Victor meets a quiet beauty, Anna, who unnerves our narrator with her preternatural calmness. Victor and Anna marry and soon go off to a mountain range in some unnamed Southern European country that contains Monte Veritá. One morning Anna disappears and Victor is told of that she has almost certainly been inducted into a strange sect that lives in isolation just below the summit of Monte Veritá. He goes off to discover if the myth is true… A stunningly original story of Truth, fidelity and denial with a cruel twist in its tale.
First published in 1952. In Don’t Look Now: Stories, ed. Patrick McGrath, New York Review Books, 2008. Also in The Birds: Stories, Virago, 2015.
Antonioni is my master. I remember watching L’Avventura for the first time with a mixture of utter euphoria and complete bafflement. He was the first artist to show me how one’s response to life could be approached in art. His elliptical and enigmatic films are riddles and still have a freshness about them that many films of that era lost long ago. His stories are no different. They are a sketchbook of outlines and aperçus but always they are about the inability of people to connect. As a child in Ferrara, Antonioni was fascinated by buildings. He would make models and place people inside them, making up stories as to why they were there. This interest in space, and the relationship between people and space, runs through all his work. The story I have chosen for this list is about Antonioni catching himself in a street, watching a man point at something. Antonioni looks but can’t locate what he is pointing at. A woman leaves a shop and the pointing man is reflected in its window suddenly pointing accusingly at Antonioni himself. A spine-tingling moment.
In That Bowling Alley on the Tiber, trans. William Arrowsmith, Oxford University Press, 1986)
These stories remind me of Harmony Korrine’s Gummo—all bleached-out bubble gum colours and grotty interiors with ‘sooty light … interrupted only by tangles of viny plants’. Among this bunch of drifters and dropouts is Rayme, the young daughter of an Argentinian father and a nameless mother who committed suicide in Argentina ‘a long time ago’. Rayme has, as we would say today, ‘mental health issues’. She piles furniture into the corner of a room and turns pictures on the wall upside down. She has a picture of a ‘blue Krishna riding his white pony’ and builds an altar to him in her room. The narrator says “That was her worst summer”. This is the whole of a damaged life captured in just a few pages, but it’s also about the narrator, who we only find out in the last few lines of the story is a woman named Kate who has just had an abortion. Kate names the date, too—September 1974—when she and Rayme travel to Arizona to swim in a deserted lake. The story ends with the apocalyptic image of Rayme, several hundred yards out, swimming naked in the water as a storm approaches.
In Fast Lanes, Faber & Faber, 1987
Reminiscent of Bruno Schulz and Paul Auster’s The Red Notebook, this collection of stories is presented as a series of documentary-style testimonies from ordinary people living along the river Po in northern Italy. We hear the life stories of mavericks, the displaced, mismatched lovers and holy fools searching for their roots, making amends or trying to realise impossible dreams. There is also a touch of Italo Calvino’s arithmetic fabulousness in these stories, told so dryly and all permeated with an overpowering sense of coincidence and predestination. I could have chosen any of the stories but I’ll pick the opening one, the tale of a young man who befriends via radio broadcasts a man called Archie who lives on a remote island in the Atlantic. What follows is a tale of psychogeography, self-imprisonment and re-enactment. I’ll leave it there.
In Voices from the Plains, trans. Robert Lumley, Serpent’s Tail, 1989
In her ‘white culottes and sexy pink sweater’, seventeen-year-old blonde Mary Anne is smuggled into Vietnam by her medic boyfriend Mark Fossie. They spend weeks sleeping and sunbathing together while the other GIs stationed there go green with envy. But Mary Anne is curious. She visits the local village and asks about weapons and the war. She learns to disassemble an M-16. She cuts her fingernails and her hair, wrapping it in a dark green bandana. She starts fraternising with the squad of six Green Berets also stationed there. Mark gets nervous and suggests it’s time for her to return to Cleveland, but she refuses and, after a showdown, Mary Anne disappears the next morning with the Green Berets. It’s three weeks before she returns and Mark knows by the dead look in her eyes that she is lost to the jungle. In the end, Mary Anne goes out on nighttime raids that even the Green Berets balk at. Eventually, she never comes back at all, but some swear they have seen her ‘sliding through the shadows … wearing a necklace of human tongues. She was dangerous. She was ready for the kill.’
In The Things They Carried, Broadway Books, 1990
A narrator, called Fuckhead, arrives at a midwest farmhouse to score some opium only to be met by a man called Dundun, who tells Fuckhead that he has just shot a man called McInnes. The three of them drive to a hospital but McInnes dies on the way. Fuckhead says, “Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.” I could have chosen any one of the 11 short stories that make up this remarkable collection about the heroin-sodden lives of a bunch of junkies and thieves. There is no honour here, just a struggle to score the next fix. Hallucinatory, intense, breathtaking—it’s the finest collection of stories I’ve ever read.
In Jesus’ Son, Faber & Faber, 1992
As is the case with so many of Munro’s stories, ‘Jakarta’ is set in the Vancouver area in the 1950s, during the height of the Korean War and the execution of the Rosenbergs. Sonje, who is described as ‘calm’ and ‘Nordic’, is married to Cottar who, at 38, is significantly older than her. Cottar teases Sonje mercilessly about her bourgeoise aspirations. Cottar is a journalist who has scandalously travelled to communist China. He believes in free love and encourages Sonje to sleep with other men, the thought of which makes Sonje unhappy and so she doesn’t follow through. Sonje and Cottar are on vacation in a rented cottage for the summer when Sonje meets and befriends a woman called Kath, who lives in the area permanently with her husband Kent. During their days on the beach, Sonje and Kath discuss the relationships in the book they are reading—DH Lawrence’s ‘The Fox’—but the subtext of their discussion is their own attitudes towards their husbands and marriages. The story explores the fault lines of marriage—the personal struggle either to adhere to conventional notions of marriage or to find alternatives to it. The argument Kath and Sonje have about DH Lawrence’s ‘The Fox’ illustrates this perfectly. Kath and Sonje can’t admit it to themselves, or each other, but they have married the wrong people. What is left so beautifully understated in the story is that, deep down, they both know it.
In The Love of a Good Woman, Vintage, 1998
Maxwell is a vaguely successful novelist on a trip back to his hometown of New Orleans when he bumps into an old friend, Rita Richard (“It’s Ree-shard”), who attended the same writing programme in Vermont. Rita has fallen on hard times and is shockingly overweight, but she has a proposition for him… Martin writes so well about how the histories and destinies of two people can become locked in mortal battle—entangled to such a degree, in fact, that it is only (and precisely) the antagonist’s demise that will make possible the protagonist’s rise, or vice versa. As Gore Vidal said, “It is not enough to succeed; one’s best friend must fail.” This is one of the main themes of Martin’s writing. The same battle takes place in her award-winning novel Property and her superb follow-up The Confessions of Edward Day. Martin is one of my favourite writers—she never puts a foot wrong—and I dare you to read this story and not squirm and flinch at its honesty in how badly we can treat our fellow travellers.
In The Unfinished Novel and other stories, Phoenix, 2006
Maria Fusco is one on the wittiest, most adroit and vibrant writers in the UK. Yes, that’s a good word for her—‘adroit’. Fusco started as a practising artist before switching to writing and now writes with ease across disciplines. ‘The Hare’s Course’ is the opening story of her debut collection of stories The Mechanical Copula. It’s a difficult story to sum up. It starts and ends with vomit. It seems to be about the ASMR-like quality to wrapping presents or doing the ironing. Maybe the story itself is an ASMR. It could be about the digestive system. Or OCD. Perhaps it’s a story about being in the wrong relationship, or a story about ‘the sort of people who care more about what’s on the outside than on the inside’. Who knows? Magnificent.
In The Mechanical Copula, Sternberg Press, 2010