10 Short stories you should read

From Alice Munro to James Joyce, author Tessa Hadley shares ten of the greatest short stories ever written

Enemies by Anton Chekhov

The Russian playwright’s short stories are as original and warmly humane as his plays. This is a favourite of mine; it manages to be funny as well as tragic. Two men meet under exceptional circumstances. A country doctor’s little son has just died, and that same evening while he’s still submerged in grief, he’s called out by a local landowner whose wife is ill. Only it turns out she isn’t ill, she’s run off with another man. Neither the doctor nor the landowner is heartless or stupid; yet in their crisis they turn upon each other implacably, full of hate. Each thinks the other is the last word in selfishness.

 

Araby by James Joyce

A boy longs to go to the bazaar, to bring something back for the girl he loves. But his uncle isn’t home from work yet, and the wait is interminable. When at last he’s allowed to go out it’s too late, the bazaar is closing down, most of the stalls shut up.

It’s one tiny incident in a life, and it’s also a luminous emblem for all disappointments. The sentences are a pure joy in themselves, conjuring the atmospherics of old Dublin: “I heard the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds.”  

 

At the Bay by Katherine Mansfield

This spiky, innovative writer learned from reading Chekhov’s stories when they were newly translated into English. She died young of tuberculosis, and her last stories are her best, her most expansive, recurring to the leisured, dreamy New Zealand days of her childhood. The place is as alive and stirring in her descriptions as the people are.

 

The White Stocking by D H Lawrence

This isn’t late Lawrence the visionary, it’s the earlier Lawrence who wrote with such delicacy about daily life in industrial Nottinghamshire where he was born. A young wife who was a warehouse girl in a lace factory is tempted after her marriage by a flirtation with her ex-employer. This little story about jealousy and attraction is conventional enough in its outer form but it’s note-perfect, saturated in the colour and detail of its particular world, tender and painful.  

 

Mysterious Kor by Elizabeth Bowen

Anglo-Irish writer Bowen spent the Second World War in London, and her stories of that period chronicle extraordinary times, exhilarating as well as terrible. Two lovers search for somewhere they can be alone together, on a summer night when the moonlight’s so bright it defeats the blackout. A well-meaning friend, a vicar’s daughter, sits up to wait for them, makes them cocoa. But cocoa’s not what they want.

 

Moon Lake by Eudora Welty

Nicely-brought up little girls and wilder orphans are brought together at a summer camp in Mississippi in the 1920s, each group fascinated by the other. There’s just one long-suffering boy, the lifeguard: suddenly one sleepy afternoon his services are required, when one of the orphans falls from the high diving board and can’t swim. Welty’s sensuous, languorous prose makes you feel the heat and the glory of the Mississippi summer.

 

Funes the Memorious by Jorge Luis Borges

Borges’s stories are in a different tradition to our English-language slices of life: they sometimes feel more like parables or puzzles, teasing the mind. What if your memory was so good that you weren’t able to forget anything at all? Poor Funes was struck by lightning once and ever since he’s been tortured by remembering everything, the shape of each cloud, the shape of that same cloud a moment ago, and the moment before that… He lies in bed in darkness, only longing to forget.

 

A Sandstone Farmhouse by John Updike

Updike could make stories out of anything—a recorder group, a golf caddie. And he wrote so many! But every so often he recurs to the solid small farmhouse of his childhood years in Pennsylvania. This is hardly a story, more an associative riff on a man’s relationship with his mother, wrapped around the emptiness of her house after she’d dead—and it’s exquisite. It opens up, as his writing always does—even when it begins with golf caddies—into reflections on mortality, time, change. Updike is never wistful though, his nostalgia is always infused with the strong energy of the present.

 

Open Secrets by Alice Munro

Just as Mansfield loved Chekhov and learned from him, so Munro loved Welty. And here’s another summer camp, but in Canada this time: when trouble strikes, there’s no lifeguard to help. One of the girls on a weekend outing—a flirting, teasing teenager—has disappeared.

When a woman brings her husband to declare his innocence to the town lawyer, the lawyer’s wife notices odd things in their behaviour. She has been having problems with her own husband too, since his stroke; male sexual violence broods over the story, and yet Munro’s judgement is never righteous, always subtle and open-ended.

 

The Ice-Wagon Coming Down the Street by Mavis Gallant

Gallant, like Mansfield and Munro among these writers, only ever wrote short stories, never novels. Her tales of post-war Canada and Europe are succinct, compressed, dry, never a soggy passage or a fake flight. Between them her fragments compose the whole politics and history of those decades.

A good-looking couple charm their way from one precarious posting to another, and can’t make anything quite stick; the husband is Canadian, from the tail end of what was once a prosperous family. He works in an office with a young woman who’s everything he’s not: obedient, hard-working, punctilious, tee-total. She gets drunk once though, and something happens between them—not much. Why does it leave its mark on him so strongly?

 

Tessa Hadley is author of Bad Dreams and will be speaking at the Balham Literary Festival on Sunday, June 10. Visit: balhamliteraryfestival.co.uk for details.