Writers pick their favourite short stories
Great writers choose their favourite short stories by masters of the form, from Ernest Hemingway to Yiyun Li.
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.
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.
Extra, by Yiyun Li (1972)