This is the anthology I would give to myself, if I had lost all my memories of reading. These stories are ones that make me gleeful and uproarious, that enchant me and make me squirm. They would remind me what a short story can do, and make me hungry to read all the other great stories in the world. Which I could then make into new personal anthologies, to give to myself should I ever lose all my memories of reading…
All these stories are entertaining – some in a more cane-twizzling, top hat-tipping manner than others. At least one of them I would call ‘fun’, which would not be to belittle that story. They are all serious in their own way, but they are also sometimes funny, sly, or irreverent – sincerity can be tiring. These are not the ten best stories I have ever read, but they are the ones I would want in that anthology, when I open my amnesiac eyes and reach for a book, wondering what could be inside it.
Atwood, it strikes me, is into revenge: it is writ large in her recent Hagseed; it is the fantasy driving The Robber Bride (a favourite of mine). ‘Stone Mattress’ has one of the most delicious opening lines I’ve read, enticing us to follow Verna as she coldly calculates a revenge most satisfying. In many ways this is a simple story. Verna is aboard an arctic cruise ship when she encounters the man who turned her life upside down forty or so years before. Will he recognise her, and apologise, and if not, what should she do? The glory here is in the quiet organisation as she plots her method, disturbing yet immensely cathartic, even more so in the wake of #MeToo. It is also in Atwood’s hilarious characterisation of the other men in Verna’s life, and Verna’s honed flirtation techniques, ‘perching the Magnetic Northward nametag just slightly too low on her left breast’, pronouncing Bob’s name with a ‘small breathy intake, a certified knee-melter.’ Refreshingly, nobody in this story has an epiphany, or goes through some profound change. Revenge is best served at arctic temperatures.
In Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales (Virago, 2015) and in The New Yorker, available to read online here
I got into Garner as an adult, when I was thinking more and more about English vocabulary, and how our decisions to use Latinate or Germanic words in our writing profoundly alters its effect. Garner’s understanding, and control, of language, is astounding, and The Stone Book Quartet is a masterclass in how to draw the reader’s emotions straight from the gut with even a simple tale. Alongside almost pure Germanic (or Anglo-Saxon) vocabulary, Garner also freckles these stories with local dialect, including words now entirely lost to most of us. This does not hinder understanding, but enhances it. At the beginning of ‘The Stone Book’, we watch Mary take her father’s lunch to him at work, which means climbing the scaffolding right to the top of the new church spire. ‘“You’re not frit?”’ he asks her. She is not, and so with one heft he has her up sitting on the golden weathercock at the spire’s pinnacle, which he then spins, round and round, as Mary whoops and gazes out at the green world spread beneath her. If you can read this without gulping, from fear and heart-swell, you are a hard reader indeed.
In The Stone Book Quartet, Flamingo new edition 1999, first published 1979
Rhythm is the beating heart of this story, and were the audio version of Selasi reading it herself still available, that is where I would send you. Every line is structured to produce a rhythm that starts to affect your heartbeat and your own speech after a while, but that seductive beat reaches new heights of incantatory beauty whenever the narrator, Webster, talks about ‘Madam’. Webster is the driver for a rich family in Ghana, and Madam is the wife of his employer and the forbidden object of his affections. Selasi’s silken voice and intimacy with her own writing make her delivery a blissful seduction in itself. Try this out loud, huskily: “Madam has the contours of a girl I knew in Dansoman and sculptures sold at Arts Centre and Bitter Lemon bottles. Slender top and round the rest. A perfect holy roundness that is proof of God’s existence and His goodness furthermore.” Gorgeous.
In Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4 (2013), read online with a Granta digital subscription here
I first heard this story on the New Yorker Fiction podcast, being read and discussed by Cynthia Ozick. Her love of the story was evident in her careful delivery, and I was quite captivated. In this elegant Borgesian fable, King Harad IV’s court miniaturist creates beautiful, intricate works of art, including a toy replica of the King’s entire palace with 600 rooms. But soon, the artist is not satisfied by these intricacies, and begins to create smaller and smaller objects. It’s not long before he needs a magnifying glass to see what he is working on. His miniatures become almost invisible to the naked eye, then completely invisible… Is this a parable, and if so, what does it mean? That is part of the pleasure in reading this story – we envy the miniaturist his artistic vision and drive as he delves alone into an uncharted creative realm, but we wonder if it is really just madness. So, a story that is a salve for writers who wrestle with this question every day.
In Dangerous Laughter, Vintage, 2009, and in the New Yorker to read online here, or listen on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast here
I include this because it’s a story that gave me one of those heart-stopping moments, falling in love, aching with envy, resolving to try and keep trying to write. I also once used it in an exercise on a writing course, where I had to compare the qualities – literal and metaphorical – of a story I admired with one of my own. Depressing, but instructive. The Erl-King is the bad-boy type you’re not supposed to fall for, and are therefore seduced by – after all, he does have goat’s cheese, wild mushrooms and rabbit stew in his one-room woodland hut. He also has cages full of birds, a metaphor too heavy for most writers to handle but one Carter whisks into this plum pudding of a story with ease, probably with a cigarette in the other hand. Reading this is a feast, of a kind that nobody can now reproduce. Carter’s brew transcends fashions in fiction, and thank goodness; this is an antidote to minimalism should you ever need one, but most glorious when read on its own luscious terms.
In Burning Your Boats, Vintage, 1996; first published in The Bloody Chamber, Gollancz, 1979
There is much glee indeed to be had reading Dahl’s stories, but this is the one that makes me wince the most, and with painful joy. A cruel and clever plot, an odious swindler of a protagonist, and a pair of wise fools make for a comedy that breezes along towards devastation. I listened to this as part of an audio book as I walked through London, the streets around me transforming into the summery Buckinghamshire countryside that Mr Boggis traverses in his station wagon, scouting for country houses he might relieve of their antiques. When new levels of deviousness are about to deliver him a major prize that will one day – he is sure – be known as The Boggis Commode, “All the buttercups in the field were suddenly turning into golden sovereigns, glistening in the sunlight. The ground was littered with them, and he swung off the track on to the grass so that he could walk among them and tread on them and hear the little metallic tinkle they made as he kicked them around with his toes.” Kicking buttercups comes before a fall, and one that made me giggle as much as Boggis does at his seeming fortune.
In Completely Unexpected Tales, Penguin, 1986; first published in Esquire (1958), available online here