Short stories are like literary fireworks, dazzling and short-lived, they are precisely conceived explosions. Every word counts. The Chinese invented fireworks, and rather like the Miscellany texts of Li Shang-Yin, they produce dosed light. Historically fireworks were designed to enchant their subjects and illuminate castles. However, the field of pyrotechnics, like that of the short story, is far from fulfilled. Like the mystery of how to produce forest green fireworks, there are many short stories that are yet to be invented….
This Personal Anthology is a voyage, a wandering back in time through skies lit by short stories, pyrotechnic texts I’ve been reading and illuminated by since I was a little girl.
The story ‘Spit Nolan’ comes from a dog-eared, Puffin collection, ‘The Goalkeeper’s Revenge and other stories’ by Bill Naughton, that I’ve had since I was eight. This collection of deftly crafted stories combines a Northern English Maupassant vibe with a lyrical touch of Laurie Lee, unsentimentally and humorously depicting boys playing, fighting, living and dying, characters like Skinny Nancy and Waldo the lion-tamer. Amongst tales about eating seventeen oranges and a mam obsessed by reading and writing, is ‘Spit Nolan’, a story about a thin, lad with one lung who is a champion trolley-rider, and the sacred day he rides his final race.
From The Goalkeeper’s Revenge and Other Stories, Harrap, 1961
‘Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams’ is a delirious short story, about the nine to five job of “a dream connoisseur. Not a dream-stopper, a dream-explainer… but an unsordid collector of dreams,” a rogue secretary, who devotes her spare-time “to none other than Johnny Panic himself.” Set in a psychiatric clinic, this darkly comic, oneiric and well-pitched tale, delves into the secretary’s dream records, her capture by the Clinic director and concludes with a terrible finale, featuring Johnny Panic himself, “the air crackling with his blue-tongued lightning-haloed angels.”
Written 1958; first published posthumously in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, Faber and Faber, 1977
I am including Nin’s erotic collection, as when Fifty Shades of Grey hit the world, supposedly revolutionizing literary female sexuality, many of us said, “Why the hell weren’t people reading the more exquisite, sensual words of Anais Nin?” ‘Mandra’, set in New York, where “the illuminated skyscrapers shine like Christmas trees” is the story of Mandra and her erotic adventures with Mary and Myriam, with and without their clothes on.
Written in the 1940s. First formally published posthumously, in Little Birds, Harcourt Brace, 1979. Now available as a Penguin Modern Classic
When I think of the story ‘Hygiene’, by Julian Barnes, I think of the image of the aged, feeble major, stuck up a ladder during his yearly gutter-cleaning task. Suddenly, unpredictably, he is terrified that he will fall. The major is frozen on his rung, unable to go up or down, he is “Scared fartless. Of the whole damn thing.” ‘Hygiene’ is a story, carried by the Major’s perfectly honed voice, about aging and sexuality, detailing his long-term relationship with a London prostitute called Bab. Yet, ‘Hygiene’ is not so much about sex, as it is about change, the loss of landmarks and moments in life when you realize you are no longer the person you used to be.
First published in the New Yorker, September 1999. Collected in The Lemon Table, Picador, 2004. Also available as a Storycuts digital single
Swallowing Geography dazzles, bites and snarls. A disorientating wandering between physical bodies and lands, Levy’s book can be read as fragments, short stories, or from beginning to end. In the collection, we meet cowboys, a tourist “a wanderer, bum, émigré, refugee, deportee” and the furious, gin-drinking Lillian Strauss. In the book “beginnings and ends curls into each other.” Language startles and unsettles. The story ‘The Terrible Rages of Lillian Strauss’ is a vivid, piercing depiction of daughterly love, an aging mother’s anger, and Lillian’s excellent habit of planting red-hot pokers in her garden, ready for them to bloom. If Swallowing Geography were a firework, it would be a Screaming Spider, fast-burning, noisy and hard-bursting, shooting out straight stars into the night sky like dozens of little spider’s legs.
From Swallowing Geography, Jonathan Cape, 1993. Swallowing Geography was republished together with Beautiful Mutants in Early Levy, Penguin, 2014 and on its own as a Penguin Essentials, 2019
Isaac Bashevis Singer writes intricate short stories, densely populated by languages (Yiddish, Polish, German and English), New York intellectuals, Holocaust survivors, demons, and ghosts. In ‘The Séance’, the aging Dr Kalisher, who has researched the system “according to which all things from the smallest grain of sand to the Godhead himself are Union” finds himself reduced to weekly spiritual séances, automatic paintings and vegetarian suppers with the “painted bulldog” Mrs. Kopitzky, who channels the spirit of Bhaghavar Krishna. Dr. Kalishner, who is suffering from a prostate complaint, and lives in a bug-ridden room, knows the séances are a joke. But ‘The Séance’ is a story about faith, what we need to believe in, and a particularly human, and hairy type of hope. Universal Rebirth.
From The Séance and Other Stories. First published in Yiddish in 1964. First English publication 1968, FSG/Penguin
‘Love of Fat Men’, one of my favorite short story collections, is a bleak landscape of a book, inhabited by shifting characters. Facing transition, not quite fitting in, men and women fall in and out of focus, sharply defined and then blurred, questioning who they are… Dunmore leaves a lot of space in her stories, a territory, which as Blanchot writes, “ can’t be printed anywhere.” In ‘The Ice Bear’, Ulli is on a Baltic ferry crossing, at the end of her summer travels. With only enough money left to buy two buns, she sits across a café table from a newlywed missionary, coming from “holy people with sweet cake and their shiny pails….” Her attention veers from the straight-laced man, to a group of drunken Finns on the slippery deck. Where does she belong, gulping schnapps or sharing breakfast with an ice bear “wooly and white but they’ll claw you up for the use of their mate and their young”?
From Love of Fat Men, Viking, 1997
‘As They Rode Along The Edge’ is from Carrington’s collection The Seventh Horse and Other Tales. Haunting, humorous and viscerally violent, these surrealist texts are unearthed from fairy tales and nightmares. Carrington wrote “I’ve always had access to other worlds. We all do because we dream.” ‘As They Rode Along the Edge’ is the story of Virginia Fur who “has a mane of hair yards long and enormous hands with dirty hair” and travels the countryside on a wheel, surrounded by fifty cats. It is a gruesome myth of revenge against hunting, wild boars, one hundred nuns and a terrible feast, attended by a million birds of the night.
From The Seventh Horses and other Tales, EP Dutton, 1988. Also Penguin, 1988 and Virago, 1989
In ‘The Artist at Work’, Jonas, a painter, achieves fame, and then physical and mentally retreats from society. He moves his studio behind a curtain, into the bedroom, the bathroom, and finally onto a tiny platform in his hallway where he hides for weeks. Here, he claims to be working on a painting, a blank canvas with a word that can be made out” but without any certainty it should be read as solitary or solidary.”
‘The Artist at Work’ is an existential story about reconciling two unbridgeable contradictions: our need for communion and belonging, with our sense of personal freedom. Just before Camus’s untimely death he drafted a note for his final novel, intertwining this duo of seemingly opposing parts of each human existence, “I’m resolved on autonomy, I demand independence in interdependence.”
First published as ‘Jonas, ou l’artiste au travail’, 1957. Collected in Exile and the Kingdom, 1957. Available in a new translation by Carol Cosman, Penguin, 2006
‘The Intensive Care Unit’ is a beautifully paced dystopian text written by Ballard in 1977, the very dark tale of a physical family reunion. Against all government recommendations, and having spent a lifetime only communicating via screens – in courtship, marriage, pregnancy and child-rearing – two parents and their children finally get together, for the first time, in real life.
The result, well, I think I should let you imagine how J.G. Ballard would write such a scene of unbounded love…
In terms of pyrotechnics, there is an article dealing with this subject entitled: How to Light Fireworks at Home – Without Getting Dead.
In Myths of the Near Future, Jonathan Cape, 1982. Also in The Complete Stories, Vol 2, Fourth Estate, 2014 and English Short Stories from 1900 to the present, Everyman Classic, 1988
Okojie’s brilliant and bold writing (which I have just discovered) is a cocktail of dark and comic surrealism stirred with prosaic human tragedy, and a pinch of London. Think of: foot fetishes, a boy who grows a tail, a story about Asda and electric brains. Okojie’s words light the sky with resistance, resilience and ambiguity. These are tales that explode at the end of our firework show, igniting a questioning sky. To finish this anthology on a cheerful note, or at least with a light display celebrating humanity, read the story, ‘Why is Pepe Canary Yellow?’ about the infamous bank-robber dressed as a chicken, who listens to customers, and leaves behind recipes for coconut cakes, because “If the intentions are good, certain things are forgivable.”
From Speak Gigantular, Jacaranda, 2016