This list is incomplete. It’s a bodge job, a let’s-fuck-off-home-early-eh number, a half-formed thing. I didn’t mean it to be but it is. I have lost my copies of Borges’ Labyrinths and Peter Carey’s Collected Stories. I let a friend borrow Krzhizhanovsky’s 7 Stories and he never gave it back. The anthology that contains Bartleby is at the bottom of a box under a dustsheet in an upstairs room. And so on. So there’s no ‘Life And Death In The South Side Pavilion’ here, nor ‘The Quixote of Pierre Menard’, nor ‘In The Pupil’. I didn’t want to write about them if I didn’t have them to hand.
It’s incomplete for other reasons, too. It’s incomplete because I’m incomplete (regrettably, woefully so). I haven’t read enough. More specifically, I haven’t read enough writers of colour, or non-European writers, or gay writers, or women writers. My list and I are twin inadequates.
And it’s incomplete because I made it that way. It should have more comic stories in it (there’s no Wodehouse, no Runyon, no Thurber) and more detective stories (no ‘The Big Knockover’, no ‘The Purloined Letter’) but I left them out. Curators gonna curate. And I left out some stuff I know you’ll have all read already (of course you’ve all read Eley Williams’ stories, of course you all know ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’). But I wouldn’t want you to think I left out Raymond Carver for that reason. I left him out because I can’t abide him.
Gogol was in some ways the most 19th-century-Russian-novelist of the 19th-century Russian novelists. He has some of the louche wit and sophistication of Lermontov; some of the brisk amorality of Leskov; a little of Dostoevsky’s intensity (but, thank goodness, far less of his frantic earnestness); in private he shared with Tolstoy a religious agony. He was a visionary with a cocked eyebrow. ‘Nevsky Prospekt’ is a darkly entranced waltz through St Petersburg, city of clerks and civil servants, an improbable dream-city (but one later spun into yet more oblique fantasy by Andrei Bely). Gogol shows us the cracked passion and miserable suicide of the artist Piskarev, and the thwarted philandering of the officer Pirogov – but most of all he shows us the city (no, his city) with wide-panning camerawork that at times recalls Dickens’ cinematic swoops through London in Bleak House. “Everything here breathes deception,” the narrator warns. With ‘The Nose’ and ‘The Overcoat’, ‘Nevsky Prospekt’ completes a metropolitan trilogy that presents St Petersburg in treacherously shifting light: at once a city of the dead and a theatre of the absurd.
First published in 1835. Collected in The Diary Of A Madman, The Government Inspector and Selected Stories, Penguin, 2005
Stanislaw Lem wrote robot fairy-tales. These are stories that feel like myths, built on teetering hypotheticals and imparting cryptic robot morals. Robot kings send robot knights on madcap quests; engineer-cosmogonists construct competing universes. In ‘The White Death’, Aragena, ruler of the Enterites, confines his people within their crater-pocked planet, for fear of cosmic invasion. The planetary interior is a vision (“with a system of pipes they pumped light into the heart of the planet… they had their choice of dawn, or noon, or rosy dusk… they even had their own sky, where in webs of molybdenum and vadium flashed spinels and rock crystal”) – but this is a story of hubris and nemesis, modelled, surely, on Poe’s ‘Masque of the Red Death’ (1842), wherein Prince Prospero’s opulent apartments prove no barrier to a terrible plague. Here, the ‘white death’ is a mould that arrives on a spaceship and brings rust to the Enterites’ planet. The king’s engineers destroy the ship (an extraordinary passage tells of how they “smashed it on anvils of platinum… immersed the pieces in heavy radiation, so that it was reduced to a myriad of flying atoms, which keep eternal silence, for atoms have no history”) – but a single spore escapes, and a “brownish leprosy” consumes the Enterites and their works.
First published in 1977. Collected in Mortal Engines, Penguin, 2016
Mis-spelling has a distinguished literary history. It can have an emotional kick (nowhere more so than in Hardy’s Jude The Obscure: Little Father Time’s note “Done because we are too menny” was rewritten in Michael Winterbottom’s 1996 adaptation Jude as ‘becos we are to many’, presumably with pathos in mind) but more often the effect is comic: Geoffrey Willans’ Molesworth is of course the exemplar here (“Gaze in mirror at yore strange unatural beauty”). Sometimes, though, the comedy is unintentional, as in The Young Visiters, written by nine-year-old Daisy Ashford and a surprise bestseller in 1919; it begins “Mr Salteena was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking peaple to stay with him”, and continues in a similar vein for some time. Ring Lardner’s ‘The Young Immigrunts’, written contemporaneously with the success of Ashford’s book, is a knowing take on the theme. Lardner was a pioneer in the use of the US vernacular, championed by (among others) Virginia Woolf. Less flashily brilliant than, say, Damon Runyon, he wrote comic stories that were dense and characterful, and by 1919 had already created the baseball player Jack Keefe, one of literature’s great mis-spellers. The narrator of ‘The Young Immigrunts’ – supposedly Lardner’s four-year-old son – is a wonderful mix of Keefe and Ashford (“Wilst participateing in the lordly viands my father halled out his map and give it the up and down”). There’s magic in every line, and perhaps the most famous exchange in all Lardner’s work: “Are you lost daddy I arsked tenderly. Shut up he explained.”
Collected in Selected Stories, Penguin, 1997
If all you know about Dorothy Parker is that she had a zinging wit and a sad love life then you will pretty much know what to expect from ‘A Telephone Call’. It’s zingingly witty and achingly sad; it squeezes the rueful empathy of Parker’s longer works like ‘Big Blonde’ into a crammed monologue of infatuation, self-doubt and thwarted hope (we’re a long way, here, from the brilliant but frivolous ‘The Waltz’, a monologue that might seem to be from the same mould). “Oh, it’s so easy to be sweet to people before you love them!” the narrator cries, as she waits for her lover to call. Emotionally, it’s an exhausting thing to read, as one switchback slingshots you into the next; as a commentary on sexual politics, it’s uncompromisingly raw: “They don’t like you to tell them they’ve made you cry. They don’t like you to tell them you’re unhappy because of them. If you do, they think you’re possessive and exacting. And then they hate you. They hate you whenever you say anything you really think. You always have to keep playing little games.”
First published 1950
‘Ariadne’ is a story about other people’s stories. It’s about Shamokhin, who corners the narrator aboard a Crimean steamer and proceeds to tell the tale of a love affair (“When Germans or Englishmen meet, they talk about the price of wool, the crops, or their personal affairs,” he says, by way of prelude, “but for some reason when Russians come together they only discuss women or sublime truths, but women most of all.”) Shamokhin, with his “little round beard” and embittered misogyny, is an intriguingly recognisable figure in the ‘Cat Person’ era, but I love ‘Ariadne’ for more than its sexual politics; I love how how the story unfolds at one remove or more, coming across, in fact, less as a story than as a study (of Russians, of men, and indeed of stories); I love the narrator’s poised indifference, his splendidly bored detachment. “The day after this meeting I left Yalta,” he ends, with a shrug, “and how Shamokhin’s love affair ended I don’t know.”
First published 1895, collected in Lady With Lapdog And Other Stories, Penguin, 1986
The narrator’s father takes the family out into the woods search of the rattlesnake plantain, an unprepossessing bog orchid. “He doesn’t want one of these plants for anything; if he found a rattlesnake plantain, all he would do is look at it. But it would be reassuring, something else that is still with us. So I keep my eyes on the ground.” This story is about vanishing worlds: memories – the narrator’s, and the narrator’s ailing father’s – that slip away; species that are driven to extinction. ‘My father has a list in his head of things that are disappearing,’ she writes. ‘Leopard frogs, certain species of wild orchid, loons, possibly. These are just the things around here.’ Atwood writes about wild things with measured introspection: “With dead birches, the skin outlasts the centre, which is the opposite from the way we do it. There is no moment of death for anything, really; only a slow fade, like a candle or an icicle.”
First published in Harper’s Magazine, 1986, and available online here. Collected in Bluebeard’s Egg, Vintage, 1996
Very little in modern fiction lives up to its hype. This of course says more about the hype than about the fiction. One recent collection that did was Eley Williams’ Attrib.; another was Carys Davies’ The Redemption of Galen Pike, which has very little in common with Attrib. other than an air of complete competence, an improbable sure-footedness on what ought to be uncertain ground. ‘The Travellers’ translates a suburban sitcom motif – a middle-aged couple arguing in a car – into a stark Siberia, all samovars and balalaikas and vodka-bottles and lubki prints. Anger and estrangement, love and loss, are shown stripped to their bare bones. It’s funny and extraordinary and it has a seriousness, too, that catches you off balance.
Collected in The Redemption Of Galen Pike, Salt, 2014
Here’s another city of dreams: Budapest. It’s a bruised and beautiful place that for much of its modern history has led a twin existence, persisting in reality and being re-imagined again and again in the memories of its exiles. There’s a sad romance to the Budapest of Endre Ady, the Budapest of before the first world war (because we know what came after). Ady’s was a world of raffish journalists and kávéházintellectuals, and ‘Ten Forints’ Bridegroom’ – one piece from a vast sheaf of hackwork that Ady turned out for the Budapest newspapers in those pre-war years – encapsulates the city’s Grub Street scene (the ‘ten forints’ bridegroom’ of the title is a worn-out journo in desperate pursuit of his next freelance fee: “By noon he’d have to throw another one of his stories down the insatiable gullet of the Journal. Yes, another story…”). It’s a short piece but we see a lot: the writer’s tussle with the demands of commerce and art (how can he squander his great inspiration Zenobia (“what a novel she would make some day!”) on a mere newspaper piece?); the weary misery of the hand-to-mouth worker’s life; his loathing of the “lively fellows” who consume his work: “It was for their edification that tales had to be told for ten forints so that when they came again the next day, they could discover another tale in the Journal, and conclude how devilishly clever these strange story-telling chaps were.”
First published 1905. Collected in Neighbours Of The Night, Corvina, 1994
I love it when a writer has a brilliant idea and is able to carry it a long way without once fumbling it. That’s what Simon Rich is doing here. It’s a high-concept comic piece about Herschel, a Jewish immigrant to Brooklyn who is pickled in a brine barrel in 1912 and revived in the modern day to find the borough crawling with hipsters: “They tell me they are ‘conceptual artists’ and are ‘reclaiming the abandoned pickle factory for a performance space’. I realize something bad has happened in Brooklyn.” Rich puts himself in the story, as Herschel’s great-great-grandson, looking on bitterly as Herschel’s artisanal pickle business takes off (a Williamsburg blog reviews the product: “The pungent taste is not for everyone. And the floating salt scum takes some getting used to. But guess what? This is what pickles are supposed to taste like. If it’s too much for you to handle, head to Walmart, I guess.”). The clash of values than ensues is less predictable than you might expect. This isn’t a one-joke story, or if it is it’s the most brilliant and drawn-out one joke I’ve ever heard. The fish-out-of-water stuff and Borat lingo would soon pall were it not for Rich’s ability to push the concept forward on each page, testing its elasticity, cranking out new sub-ideas, showing off a staggering capacity for invention.
Collected in Spoilt Brats, Serpent’s Tail, 2014
There’s something about Sherwood Anderson’s writing that makes me reach for the term ‘neurasthenia’, used by Robert Graves to describe his own deadened nervous state in the years after the first world war. Anderson in fact underwent a mental breakdown of some kind in 1912 – what effect this might have had on his prose I can’t say (and would sooner not guess). There’s no sense in Anderson’s work of the deliberate and disciplined austerity of later writers like Hemingway; tonally, he has more in common with poets like Vachel Lindsay and Edwin Arlington Robinson. His voice has an unaffected melancholy, a natural minor key. ‘In A Strange Town’ is reflective and sombre (more sombre, actually, than much of his other work). A philosopher takes a trip to a strange town: “Often I do things like this, come off alone to a strange place like this. ‘Where are you going?’ my wife says to me… ‘I am going to bathe myself in the lives of people about whom I know nothing.’” In the course of a broken narrative – the pauses in the prose do a lot of work – we learn why the man retreats like this. It’s do with numbness and feeling, awareness and the business of being alive. I’d understand if someone told me they wanted to slap the narrator of this story, and Anderson, too, while they were at it, but I’m very fond of it anyway.
First published in 1929. Collected in The Egg And Other Stories, Penguin, 1998