Julian Barnes Homage to Switzerland, by Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) I chose Ernest Hemingway because he is deeply out of fashion, still over-admired by the literary boys-with-toys brigade, still shunned by women readers put off by the macho myth. His style is wrongly thought to be both simple and imitable; it is neither. His novels are better known than his stories, but it is in the latter that his genius shows fullest, and where his style works best. I deliberately didn't choose one of the famous stories, or anything to do with bullfighters, guns or Africa. "Homage to Switzerland" is a quiet, sly, funny story (Hemingway's wit is also undervalued) which also – rarely – is formally inventive. It has a three-part, overlapping structure, in which three Americans wait at different Swiss station cafés for the same train to take them back to Paris. Each man plays games of the sort a moneyed and therefore powerful expatriate is tempted to play with the nominally subservient locals – waitresses, porters, and a pedantic retired academic. But as the story develops, it's clear that social power and moral power are not on the same side. I hope "Homage to Switzerland" will make you forget the swaggering "Papa" Hemingway of myth, and hear instead the truthful artist.
William Boyd My Dream of Flying to Wake Island, by JG Ballard (1930–2009) In the short history of the short story – not much longer than 150 years – very few writers have completely redefined the form. Chekhov, pre-eminently, but also Hemingway and Borges. JG Ballard has to be added to this exclusive list, in my opinion. Ballard's models for his haunting stories are closer to art and music, it seems to me, than to literature. These are fictions inspired by the paintings of De Chirico and Max Ernst, which summon up the mesmerising ostinatos of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Character and narrative are secondary – image and symbol dominate with a surreal and hypnotic intensity, and the language reflects this. Ballardian tropes – empty swimming pools, abandoned resorts, psychotic astronauts, damaged doctors, the alluring nihilism of consumer society and so forth – are unmistakably and uniquely his. "My Dream of Flying to Wake Island" is a true Ballardian classic.
Helen Dunmore My Oedipus Complex, by Frank O'Connor (1903-66) The Irish writer Frank O'Connor was a committed nationalist who joined the Irish Republican Army at the age of 15 and fought in the Irish war of independence. He drew on these experiences in one of his most famous stories, "Guests of the Nation", which deals with relationships between two captured British soldiers and the IRA soldiers who guard them. The story's realism, complexity and humanity exemplify the qualities that made O'Connor one of the most celebrated Irish writers of his generation, and also reveal how much he learned from great short-story writers such as Isaak Babel. O'Connor is now best remembered for his short stories and autobiographical writing. The story I have chosen, "My Oedipus Complex", draws on O'Connor's own childhood in Cork with a mother whom he loved deeply, and a father who was mired in alcoholism and debt. It is a fiercely comic, touching story written from the viewpoint of Larry Delaney, a recurring character in O'Connor's stories of childhood. Larry is outraged when he is relegated to second place in his mother's attentions by his father's return. He cannot understand why she tolerates "this monster . . . a total stranger who had cajoled his way back from the war into our big bed". Larry plots to overthrow his father, but the outcome is not what he expects. I love this story for its narrative voice, its rare combination of warmth and detachment, and its lightness of being.
Margaret Drabble The Doll's House, by Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923) I first read "The Doll's House" in one of those big children's annuals that we were given every Christmas, where this classic story took its place among puzzles, Christmas games and jolly messages from Enid Blyton. I can remember the illustrations now, and how fascinated I was by the strange name of Kezia. I found it heartbreaking then and I still do. Every child dreads being the playground victim, the one whose family is an embarrassment or a source of shame, and this story encapsulates that sense of exclusion. In true Mansfield style, it is at once pathetic (in the true sense) and slightly sadistic. When one is older one can appreciate the economy of the narration, the symbolism of the doll's house, the bloody horror of the leaking jam sandwiches, the subtle relationship of the two sisters and the snobbery of the adults, but it is the unbearable poignancy of that last line, "I seen the little lamp", that continues to haunt. I still have dreams about being shunned in the playground or ignored at a party or finding no place at a dinner table. I think many of us do. Mansfield cruelly nails this vulnerability and makes us suffer all over again. She was not a kind or gentle writer. This story could be sentimental in the hands of a lesser writer, but she knew better than that. She spares nobody.
Anne Enright Fat, by Raymond Carver (1938-88) "Fat" is a great example of how little a short story has to do in order to work – the entry wound is so small, you could say, and the result so deadly. Like many of Raymond Carver's stories, this one seems very simple. An unnamed waitress tells her friend, Rita, about serving a very fat customer. She likes the guy, despite his girth. She likes serving him. Their relationship, though ordinary, and brief, and formal, is quite tender – and, like a love story, it happens in the face of opposition from the rest of the world. The small love the waitress feels – this moment of empathy she has for the fat man – becomes briefly amazing later that evening, when she is in bed with her boyfriend, Rudy, and the waitress is left with an uneasy, hopeful intimation of change.
I ask often ask students to read "Fat" because it also seems to talk about what a story is. A story is something told – as the waitress tells her friend Rita about the fat man – it is something that really needs to be said. But though we feel its force and resonance, it is often hard to say what a story means. The most we can say, perhaps, is that a short story is about a moment in life; and that, after this moment, we realise something has changed.
Tessa Hadley The Jungle, by Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973) There are writers you love and admire – quite a lot of those – and then there are a few writers who are (unbeknown to them) your intimates, your writing family. For me, Elizabeth Bowen has been one of those intimates ever since she first claimed me when I was 14 or 15: I picked her books up in the library because I liked the woodcuts on the covers. I only half understood what I was reading, first time round – but I responded to the promise her writing gave: that lived experience could be as subtle, complex, richly substantial as her sentences. That promise is mostly what you read for, at that age.
Her novels are marvellous too, but the short story suits her concision, her shapely plotting, and the polished surface of her style, with its oddly made, deliberate sentences. The style channels the electricity of experience on to the page, doesn't allow it to be deflected by language's lazy habits, its proneness to fall back on the clichés of perception. In "The Jungle", about a passionate friendship between teenage girls, how wonderfully freshly she makes us feel the mystery of Elise's personality and her body: like a "compact, thick boy in her black tights", her "wide-open pale grey eyes" with "something alert behind them that wasn't her brain", and her direct look "like a guard". Slipped out from the bland, reasonable routines of school, in the waste ground they call the jungle, the girls reconnect with the power of death and sex.
Philip Pullman The Beauties, by Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) A schoolboy is accompanying his grandfather as they drive in their carriage along a dusty road across the steppe on a sultry August day. They stop for refreshment at the house of an Armenian friend of the grandfather. The boy, the grandfather and their Ukrainian driver are all struck by the beauty of the Armenian's daughter.
Some years later, now a student, the boy is on a train that stops for some minutes at a country station. He gets out to stretch his legs, and sees a girl on the platform talking to someone in one of the carriages. She is very beautiful. And that's all. Is that a story? It's about as spare and empty of plot as a story could be; two impressions that barely even amount to anecdote. Like Waiting for Godot, it's a story in which nothing happens, twice.
But it shows how little a short story needs a plot. I like plots, and I work at them a lot; perhaps that's one reason why I've never written a successful short story. The greatness of this one depends on more impalpable things. Chekhov's genius lies in the way he manages to convey with such apparent effortlessness a profound sense of the mystery of beauty, and of the sadness of those who observe and think. The narrator of this apparently inconsequential tale fixes on exactly the right details, from a myriad of possible ones, to strike at the heart. It's a masterpiece of minimalism.
Helen Simpson The Kitchen Child, by Angela Carter (1940-92) I chose Angela Carter's "The Kitchen Child" because it shows her stories can be sunnier, funnier and altogether more high-spirited than her more minatory, gothic tales might suggest. This one is as light and rich as the lobster soufflé around which it is constructed. The narrator's mother, a perfectionist Yorkshire cook in the kitchens of a great country house, is impregnated by an unknown admirer as she bends to place a soufflé in the oven (she doesn't turn for fear of spoiling the dish). Her baby boy's first cradle is a copper salmon kettle, his first bath a soup tureen; as he grows older, wise child that he is, he decides he must discover the identity of his father ...
Stylishly farcical, this story has the speed, tone and buoyancy of an opera by Rossini. The speech patterns of the various characters are sharply ventriloquised in such a way that their words leapfrog conventional dialogue into recitative. "The short story is not minimalist, it is rococo," Carter said, and this is certainly true of "The Kitchen Child", with its wit, sensuous detail and dazzling bravura set-pieces.
Ali Smith Conversation with My Father, by Grace Paley (1922–2007) Grace Paley's short stories are a kind of life-force in themselves. Often in her writing, the very form of the story will up and challenge you with its wit, its energy and its talkback; for Paley, voice is always about life. In "Conversation with My Father, she distils into a single story the huge and subtle power in dialogue, the joyful belligerence in argument and engagement that's found right through her work.
An old man and his daughter are having what is obviously a run-of-the-mill, long-running disagreement. This time it's about the kinds of story the daughter writes. The old man likes a story to take the shape he knows, the classic shape. This is not the way his daughter writes, and it annoys him. His annoyance, in turn, makes her mischievous. He challenges her to tell him a story right now, one shaped like stories should be shaped, with the right kinds of characters, the right kinds of plot. The daughter tries. What happens – funny, sad, infuriating – is that the force of story won't be corralled any more than life itself will.
Story here is a matter of life and death; the father is old, ill and dying; they both know it, and so does the reader. But this breathtaking, breathgiving short story, which never compromises on this truth or the admittance of inevitable tragedy, is profoundly, comically generous in its open-endedness, and leaves you both shaken and renewed by the heart, the fight and the life in it.
Colm Tóibín Music at Annahullion, by Eugene McCabe (1930- ) Eugene McCabe is one of Ireland's most accomplished short story writers. He has also written a novel, Death and Nightingales, which is one of the best books to come out of Ireland in the past 20 years, and a play, King of the Castle, which has a central part in the Irish repertoire. His territory, the borderlands between Monaghan and Fermanagh, is also a place of the soul, a place in which little is said and much is understood, in which emotions are fierce and memories are long, in which much is hidden and submerged. Out of this landscape he produced his story "Music at Annahullion".
The scene is bleak, broken by an energy in the writing, which comes from the very exact descriptions of things, places, characters, and the use of a second voice within the voice of the story, as though someone were speaking as much as writing. The dialogue is sour; the use of the half-spoken matches the sense of isolation each of the three characters – two brothers and a sister locked together in an old house – feels. And then the sister half-says that she would like a piano which is for sale locally. McCabe's genius is to make the piano stand for itself and then to have an extraordinary resonance as it comes to stand for all her hope, and for all our hopes. The last page of the story is inspiring in its emotional force and clarity, as the story is in its sympathy and its subtlety.
Rose Tremain Extra, by Yiyun Li (1972- ) This is a beautifully crafted and moving short story, one of many adroit and affecting pieces in Yiyun Li's award-winning collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Fourth Estate). It's a story of how a blameless person, Granny Lin, finds herself blamed and punished, in a country that cares far more about rules and hierarchies than it does about individuals. The voice of the storyteller – dry and spare – prevents the story from becoming sentimental. It is nevertheless able to make real to us Granny Lin's tenderness towards her elderly husband, Old Tang, and subsequently the overwhelming affection she feels for the six-year-old unwanted boy, Kang.
Short stories have to establish their intention very fast, and stay on track, avoiding the kind of digressions and sub-plots that can enrich a novel. "Extra" bursts into life from the first sentence and holds the reader effortlessly. It also repays rereading.
There is a lot in this short piece about the way Chinese society is arranged. But by the time I'd read it three or four times – to prepare for my own reading aloud on the podcast – it had almost acquired the status of a parable about individual kindness versus the indifference of a power elite. And this, of course, is a subject of universal and timeless importance.
Jeanette Winterson The Night Driver, by Italo Calvino (1923-85) As technology bounces us forward into futures we do not choose, it is seductive, poignant, retro, fanciful, nostalgic, to dip back into a past that is nearby but gone – like a house you used to walk past before they pulled it down.
I come from a time b4 mobile phones. So does this story. Imagine fighting with your lover on a landline. You hang up, like we all do, then when you feel a bit less hurt or self-righteous, you phone back but there is no reply. Grab your keys, jump into your car, race to see her or maybe him, because you worry someone else will be in the bed before it's cold. You worry you have blown it. You worry.
In the car, racing past anonymous lights on the motorway, you suddenly wonder if the no reply means X is racing towards you ...
Do you go back? Do you go on? Stop at a garage and call again? It couldn't happen could it, mobile in your pocket?
The tension in the story depends on the unknowing. Soon Calvino imagines a perpetual time, the time out of time of long car journeys where it becomes unnecessary to arrive. You have a lover. You are racing towards her/him. Your lover is racing towards you. You will never meet but meeting is no longer the purpose of the journey.
There is a kind of ecstatic doubt at the heart of the story; love matters, but does it matter that love is present? Love's absence, or at least its endless pursuit and longing, might prove more satisfactory.
The headlights coming towards you: Is that your lover?