Nadine Gordimer says short stories should 'burn a hole into the page'. Here are 10 of the most incandescent examples of the form
by Tessa Hadley
THE GUARDIAN, Wednesdady 11 September 2013
Short stories: addictive pageburners. Photograph: Matthew Antonino/Alamy
Reading short stories is a strenuous business, and
that's half the joy of them. You can lose yourself in a novel – but because a
story is short, you can always feel the end coming, sooner rather than later.
This makes for a more self-conscious immersion. The reader is more aware of the
edges of the fiction, and of how it's made.
Writing short stories is deliciously irresponsible –
though irresponsible doesn't mean easy. A novel requires intricate engineering;
writing a story, you're not distracted by holding the long span of the novel in
place, making all its parts work together. A good story concentrates on what's
essential, on the white heat at the core of perception. Nadine Gordimer says
that short stories should "burn a hole in the page".
How can I not have included James Joyce's The Dead in
my list, below, or something else from Dubliners? Well, it was agony, leaving
him out. But, unlike all these others, Joyce wasn't a lifelong short-story
writer. Dubliners is sublime, but feels like a writer on his way to something
else. (It was agony leaving out John Updie too, another of my favourites – his
stories are much more satisfying than his novels, I think).
With Chekhov, the modern short story seems to spring
into being fully formed, in all its ambivalence and sophistication. In a
country town in Russia, miles from anywhere, a doctor has lost his faith in
modern medicine, and progress; the only intelligent person he can find to talk
to is a madman confined in the hospital. It makes no difference, the doctor
lectures his friend, whether you're inside ward 6 or out of it. He soon learns
that he's wrong. It's a savage story, and profoundly moral.
Odour of Chrysanthemums by DH Lawrence
Lawrence writes about miners and their wives with the
same tragic intensity as a great dramatist writing about kings and queens.
Elizabeth Bates waits in a Nottinghamshire mining village for her husband to
come home. Embittered, thinking how their marriage has failed, she's sure he's
out drinking again – but then learns that he's been killed in a mine accident.
As Elizabeth prepares her young husband's dead body for burial, Lawrence
searches out a new range of expressivity in his language, to do justice to what
she comes to feel and understand.
An ape lectures in exquisitely sophisticated sentences
to a distinguished audience in Vienna, telling them his tragic history: since
he was captured on the Gold Coast, he has been forced to set about learning
human culture. Kafka's deadpan fable is as vast and funny and terrifying as
Perhaps some of Mansfield's shorter pieces seem fey
and mannered now, belonging to their era. But the late, great New Zealand
stories, revisiting her childhood, are all fresh air and broad spaces of light.
Their incompletions and free associations still feel audacious, like something
Parrot by Elizabeth Bowen
Bowen has written stories as dark and deep as anyone –
because my list was sounding solemn, I've chosen one by her that's purely
funny. An escaped parrot causes mild havoc in suburbia. Each sentence is worth
having by itself. "'Was it improper?' asked Eleanor in a low voice,
winding wool quickly." Chasing the parrot, Eleanor – an inhibited lady
companion – finds herself on a roof with a risqué artist in a dressing-gown.
Immortal by Jorge Luis Borges
A Roman soldier searches for eternal life; we find his
story in a manuscript hidden inside an old book. Granted immortality, the
soldier learns that it's not worth having. "Everything among the mortals
has the value of the irretrievable and the perilous." Wisdom to live by.
Lake by Eudora Welty
The stories in Welty's collection Golden Apples make
up a portrait of a small town in Mississippi between the wars. In Moon Lake the
respectable little girls of Morgana coexist at summer camp with the orphans,
who seem to them wilder and more entrancing. Welty's lovely language is
involved and oblique, belonging to the high modernism of the southern states in
Country Lovers by Nadine Gordimer
This is one of a pair of stories set in apartheid-era
South Africa – there's a Town Lovers, too, equally fine and terrible. A white
farmer's son and one of the black girls from the kraal play together as
children; when the time comes to grow up into segregation they can't unlearn
the deep affinity they feel for each other. The blunt instruments of an unjust
law invade their intimacy and privacy. Gordimer draws on two story traditions
at once: an austere political parable is also a fragment of life, rendered with
a sensuous and exact realism.
Watch by John McGahern
McGahern in his novels and stories revisits the same
material over and over – a tyrannical father, and a son who can't please him
nor forgive him. The secret of McGahern's style is in his repetitions – of
words, things, places. But this is a beautiful love story too. "'Why are
we so happy?' I would ask."
Munro has changed our sense of what the short story
can do as radically as Chekhov and Mansfield did at the beginning of the 20th
century. She uses the form so capaciously – a whole community in 1950s rural
Canada is captured in the loose weave of this one – around a woman who believes
she's uncovered the secret of a violent death. She makes plans to do the right
thing, bring the secret into the light of day. There's never a false or fussy
note, as Munro penetrates in words into the hidden roots of how we choose to
live, and why we act.