‘The Coat’ by Carys Davies and ’The Overcoat’ by Nikolai Gogol

Jorge Luis Borges says that short stories can be the perfect form for novelists too lazy to write anything longer than fifteen pages.
 
It is rare for a Davies story to last that long: ‘The Coat” clocks in at eight and-a-half. Her recent novel, West,musters only 149. Mistress of the art of concision, her stories are also, like Wodehouse’s, precisely engineered, their final lines slotting into place in ways that both surprise and satisfy. 
 
Evangelina Hine keeps her handsome blacksmith husband Joseph’s coat hanging by the door he walked out of a year ago because she can’t – or won’t – see him as “a man who was doing his best to disappear”. The narrator, Margaret, sent to comfort her, and perhaps make her see sense, finds herself feeling more than pity. When Joseph unexpectedly returns, it is not as a ghost, but as a woman; a story about pity for an abandoned wife suddenly becomes one about the self-pity of the still-married Margaret.
 
A lazy writer could get away with giving us far less plot: it takes real effort to craft so much in so small a space. But not everything is about concision. Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ runs to twice Borges’ outer limit. It plunges us straight into a rambling, chatty voice: 
 
And so, in a certain department there served a certain clerk; a not very remarkable clerk, one might say – short, somewhat pockmarked, somewhat red-haired, even with a somewhat nearsighted look, slightly bald in front, with wrinkles on both cheeks and a complexion that is known as haemorrhoidal … No help for it! the Petersburg climate is to blame.”
 
In short, it looks like we’re in a tale (notably, the Granta edition is The Collected Tales– not stories), an anecdote that will follow the rambling byways of the teller’s mind; in reality, this first paragraph is as self-aware as Ali Smith’s, its descriptions as pitch-perfect as Wodehouse’s.
 
Half a dozen pages in, our not very remarkable clerk, Akaky Akakievich, visits the tailor Petrovich to get his old coat repaired. (“Of this tailor, of course, not much should be said, but since there exists a rule that the character of every person in a story be well delineated, let us have Petrovich here as well.”) Repair is impossible: Akaky Akakievich must buy a new coat he cannot afford; after months of scrimping – and dreaming of his new coat – he finally manages to buy it, only to be robbed at once. By now we’re twenty pages in, and we know the only question is just how much worse things will get for poor Akaky Akakievich. 
 
And on we go, through a rollicking, devastating, genuinely affecting satire that makes one wonder whether Borges might not have got things back-to-front. Perhaps the novel is the perfect form for writers too lazy for short stories.

‘The Coat’, in The Redemption of Galen Pike, Salt, 2014. ‘The Overcoat’, in The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, trans. By Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Granta Books, 2003, and available online, including here

‘The Piano Teacher’s Pupil’ by William Trevor

William Carlos Williams says that the short story, which acts like a flare of a match struck in the dark, is the only real form for describing the briefness, the brokenness and the simultaneous wholeness of people’s lives.
 
If Gogol’s artful rambling was part of the point, William Trevor was the master of the kind of writing in which every word earns its place, pays its taxes and volunteers for good causes on the side. Over 20-odd novels and a dozen story collections, there’s no shortage of broken lives to choose from. In the middle of the first page of ‘The Piano Teacher’s Pupil’ we find the following paragraph: 
 
Now in her early fifties, slender, softly spoken, with a quiet beauty continuing to distinguish her features, Miss Elizabeth Nightingale considered that she was fortunate in her life. She had inherited a house on the death of her father, and managed without skimping on what she earned as a piano teacher. She had known the passion of love.
 
How’s that for giving us the briefness, the brokenness and the simultaneous wholeness of someone’s life? For telling us what she believes about the fullness of her life and what she lacks, and how both can be true at once. In less than sixty words.

Published in Last Stories, Penguin, 2019

‘The Darkness of Wallis Simpson’ by Rose Tremain

Walter Benjamin says that short stories are stronger than the real, lived moment, because they can go on releasing the real, lived moment long after the real, lived moment is dead. (Smith, says: I’m sure Benjamin didn’t put it quite like that.)
 
When I was planning this anthology, I had a Rose Tremain story in my head about Nancy Reagan caring for Ronald after Alzheimer’s got the better of him. I remembered it for its audacity and its astonishing empathy. But I searched and searched and when I finally tracked down ‘The Former First Lady and the Football Hero’, I found it is in fact another A.M. Homes story from Things You Should Know.  Which I should have known.
 
What I did know, but had forgotten, was that ‘The Darkness of Wallis Simpson’ is an equally audacious trip inside the mind of the dying Duchess of Windsor. The story for which the Duchess is known is not her story; the woman for whom Edward VIII gave up an empire has forgotten he ever lived.
 
It’s a brilliant, queasy read. But, in my fantasy anthology there’s a story that lives on past the real, lived moment, a story by Rose Tremain about Ronald and Nancy Reagan…

In The Darkness of Wallis Simpson and other stories, Vintage, 2006

‘Pastoralia’ by George Saunders

Cynthia Ozick says … a short story is more like the talismanic gift given to the protagonist of a fairy tale – something complete, powerful, whose power may not yet be understood, which can be held in the hands or tucked into the pocket and taken through the forest on the dark journey.

Saunders is one of those writers who had a powerful influence on me when I started writing, and this story is the one that has stuck with me for eighteen years. Absurd, slightly twisted reality is nothing new in literature – I’d read a lot of Vonnegut when I was young – but Saunders’ combination of deadpan surrealism, a perfect blend of pedantic corporate- and slacker-speak, and a genuinely humane appreciation of the ways in which late capitalism fucks with our heads? That really was. Above all, Saunders trusts the reader to go with him, to work out what’s going on. Reading it gave me the gift – a talisman, if you will – of knowing that such things could be done. It helped me get going – as soon, of course, as I stopped trying to imitate the inimitable.

‘Pastoralia’ depicts an anthropological amusement park in which the narrator and his colleague, Janet, share a cave, are given a raw goat and a box of matches each day – a rare privilege – and are expected to grunt, not talk in English. Janet chafes against the absurdity and cruelty of it all; the narrator worries her chafing will get them both in trouble:

“Will you freaking talk to me?” she says. “This is important. Don’t be a dick for once.”
       I do not consider myself a dick and I do not appreciate being called a dick, in the cave, in English, and the truth is, if she would try a little harder not to talk in the cave, she would not be so much in the shit.

Published in The New Yorker, April 3, 2000, and included in the collection Pastoralia, Bloomsbury, 2001

‘jellyfish’ by Janice Galloway

Alice Munro says that every short story is at least two short stories.

We’re back in Scotland, where I wrote much of this. Galloway’s stories are brutally funny: like Saunders’, they also trust the reader to work stuff out. “This was what happened: you thought you had problems till you found a whole new set in whatever ward they put you in.” (from ‘and drugs and rock and roll’)

In ‘jellyfish’, a divorced mother treats her son to a trip to the seaside the day before he’s due to start school. Being the parent of a four year-old can be funny and boring and full of love, and Galloway gives us all of that. It is also scary. His whole world rested on a terrifying level of trust that shocked and moved her in equal measure. And when they find jellyfish stranded on the beach, a story about a mother worried about how her son will cope without her gradually becomes – at one and the same time – a story about how a mother will cope without her son: 

soft, transparent animals, open as wounds, lying where the tide settled them to simply wait.

jellyfish’ was commissioned for Headshook, ed. Stuart Kelly, Hachette, Scotland, and included in jellyfish, first published in 2015 by Freight Books, Glasgow. Republished with additional stories by Granta Books, 2019

Introduction

It’s a bit mindblowing. And also sensitive to time. If I was asked to do this 2 years ago or 3 years in the future some of these picks might change. But I suppose my requirement as a reader wouldn’t. I want to see the spine of a story. Orwell’s view: transparent prose, like a window pane. I like to move in and out of a text. I don’t like to fight to find something. More and more I’m drawn to a piece that might have a social significance – something about sexuality or gender, something about heritage, something that moves me, that hurts me, or thrills me. For this Personal Anthology, I chose all female contributors – including trans female. I chose queer texts, a metatext and a children’s story. I chose 1 song and 1 play. I chose 2 longer texts – that maybe fall into the category of novella. It’s just a way to process the world of words – long, short, shorter. I’m interested in form and because I’ve written for many mediums so I didn’t want to limit myself. I’ve been teaching in universities for over 10 years and I taught Creative Writing in prisons for 5 years. Often it feels as if story lists and set texts are predominately bio male, white, heterosexual. This is a little re-dress.

‘Brokeback Mountain’ by Annie Proulx

I include this for its confidence and scale. I re-visit this story often – to see the way that Proulx crafts the final detail of the men’s shirts interlaced one against the other, the passage of time, the masculinity. I saw the film before I read the story and find I cry throughout both. The intensity of the desire and the repression. I always loved Heath Ledger and admired his courage in taking this role that he said terrified him. Proulx squeezes the maximum out of this story of impossible love over 20 years. Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar are indelible figures set against a raw rural working world – from the first encounter in the tent, to Del Mar’s vomiting, to the sex scene in the hotel: “The room stank of semen and smoke and sweat and whiskey, of old carpet and sour hay, saddle leather, shit and cheap soap.” A story of men and class and desire and love. Devastating at its core with Del Mar’s inability to create a different life for them. Unrelentingly heartbreaking and unrelentingly real. “I wish I knew how to quit you.”

First published in The New Yorker, October, 1997. Collected in Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Harper Perennial, 1999