Remembering favourite short stories and not just relying on recent reads is always the balance, the deal we have to strike with books, films and many other things. The pressure of the now, the brain elevator that stores our yesterdays on lower floors of recall has to be resisted, or at least tempered by a resilience of memory! 

(I’ve missed Thomas Hardy because of memory elevator problems, but he writes great short stories which I haven’t read since childhood, would love to read more African and Asian short stories, and I seem to remember Peter Carey writing some corkers, but alas all erased from hard drive, and finally medieval ghost stories which I love but can’t remember either!)

In no particular order, other than that of (trust me) freestyle recollection…

‘A Pair of Eyeglasses’ by Anna Maria Ortese, translated by Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee

Literally how a child sees the world, another tale from Europe’s recent past of poverty, lest we forget how recently we were like ‘the others’ that fortress Europe seems intent on turning away. A girl literally made sick by seeing things clearly. Reminds me of the Bushwhack Bill song ‘Ever so Clear’: “I had to lose an eye in order to see things clearly.” Quite.

First published in English in The Bay is Not Naples, Collins, 1953, most recently republished as Evening Descends on the Hills, Pushkin, 2018. Also collected in The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, Penguin, 2019. Available online here

‘The Wedding Trip’ by Cesare Pavese

An elegant, languid, timeless almost noirish tale of how we fuck each other up in the name of love and how money fucks everything, the absence of it, poverty perverting our relations with those we should love, and what is love anyway. As only the Italians can write, timeless.

First published in English in Festival Night, Peter Owen, 1964, then in The Leather Jacket, Quartet, 1980 and The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, Penguin, 2019

‘The Last Picture Show’ by Ryu Murakami

A terrible snob at times, I love the fact that not many people know Ryu as opposed to his more famous namesake Haruki. As the Stones were (for some) to the Beatles, this Murakami is the Rolling Stones, or better still for me, the Small Faces of that face off. His novels are mind-blowing and his shorts let us glimpse corners of the bigger picture that is modern/post war Japanese pop culture.

First published in Ryu’s Cinematique, 1985. First published in translation in Tokyo Decadence, translated by Ralph McCarthy, Kurodahan Press, 2015. Available to read online here

‘Inakeen’ by Wendy Erskine

This collection blew me away by how observation of the parochial can be so simply amplified into a bigger picture, resonating with the world as it is. This story, of loneliness, imagination and the power of the other to fascinate us, is funny sad, and being written in a minor key allows us to expand on it, bringing our imagination to bear on hers…

In Sweet Home, Stinging Fly, 2018/Picador, 2019

‘Unnamed Caves’ by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Unique as a piece of short fiction/short journalism. How native American culture resonates today, how its very presence has become hidden until revealed in a multiplicity of ways: in this story, physically and spiritually, and of course fiduciary!

First published in the Paris Review 196, Spring 2011 and available in part online here. Collected in Pulphead, FSG/Vintage, 2012

‘Brothers and Sisters’ by Ursula le Guin

She rules. This is just a taste of what she can do with a story. These realist tales make a mockery of the ghettoisation of sci-fi as genre. Transcendent realism perhaps, but her distancing devices work to polish the mirror of self-reflection.

First published in The Little Magazine, Vol. 10, Nos. 1 & 2, 1976. Collected in Orsinian Tales, Harper & Row, 1976, most recently Harper Perennial, 2004

‘The White People’ by Arthur Machen

Tales of horror and the supernatural, making Christianity sexy one story at a time. Machen’s tales find fertile ground in the persistence of pagan energy and ideas in the British/European countryside. Has to be some horror in this list and I remember these from when I was a kid. Machen’s influence on writers like Lovecraft, M John Harrison, Stewart Lee, Alan Moore and Robert Holdstock and undoes the received view of what it means to be English, British or whatever, revealing, hinting at, a seething otherness below.

First published in Horlick’s Magazine, 1904. Collected in The House of Souls, Grant Richards, 1906 and, most recently, The White People and Other Weird Stories, Penguin Classics, 2012

‘The Rebbe’s Son’ by Isaac Babel

The blood and guts and comedy of war, the messiness of revolution, the yearning of the human soul for nourishment, these tales are cut from the truth of what new and women do in war and how revolutions change the goalposts, however briefly, for what it means to be human. Reminds me of Moorcock’s wonderful Colonel Pyat novels, these Babel romps have been part of me since my twenties. Alive with a swashbuckling, frolicking sincerity that belies so much current ‘academic fiction’ like the perfect dead prose of Ben Marcus and Ben Lerner… and the few, few words of this short story will make you cry the endless tears of what came next.

First published in English in Red Cavalry, 1929, latest edition from Penguin Classics, 2005

‘All the Dead’ by Pinckney Benedict

Meet Doolittle and Makepeace, this is Huck Finn by way of Tolstoy. The cadence of these stories leaps unmediated from the page. Pure storytelling reminds me of Harry Crews and the disenfranchised voices of the American poor, which are in the majority although you wouldn’t know it from the fiction lists and prize jamborees. From-the-heart storytelling, again like Babel, funny sad tragic screams from behind the screen of stereotype and cliche.

In Town Smokes, Minerva, 1995

‘The Day the Cisco Kid Shot John Wayne’ by Nash Candelaria

There are some great western short stories. In fact the Italians love western/cowboy graphic novels and short stories alongside their own Giallo pulp fictions. This isn’t one, really, a great story from the other side, where we, the English speakers are the ‘Indians’. Kind of.

From Pow Wow American Short Fiction, edited by Ishmael Reed and Carla Black, Da Capo, 2008