Sunday, 25 March 2012

Memorable short stories

Yesterday a remark in another blog prompted thoughts of a short story I read many years ago. I knew that Isaac Asimov was the author and that the story had to do with reversing entropy and ended with the words 'Let there be light'. A search on Google quickly led to the story, which is entitled 'The Last Question'. The Google link led to Wikipedia, where I learned that I am not alone in remembering this story. (See

The experience led to further musings on memorable short stories. I wrote down the following list as they occurred to me over the space of two or three minutes. It's definitely a mixed bag, ranging from the sublime to the ordinary.

Shirley Jackson, 'The Lottery'

Saki, 'The Open Window'

Frank O'Connor, 'My Oedipus Complex', 'First Confession'

Henry James, 'The Beast in the Jungle', 'The Jolly Corner', 'The Figure in the Carpet'

Edith Wharton, 'Xingu', 'Autre temps'

Eudora Welty, 'Why I Live at the P.O.'

Kafka, 'The Penal Colony'

Maupassant, 'Boule de suif'

Balzac, 'L'Auberge rouge'

Eugene McCabe, 'Music at Annahullion'

A. S. Byatt, 'The Thing in the Forest', 'The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye'

Raymond Carver, 'Where I'm Calling From'

I also thought of Elizabeth Bowen's story about a country weekend but can't remember the title. I don't know why I immediately thought of these and not the hundreds of other short stories I have read. There doesn't seem to be any link among them other than the workings of my mind. I encountered the French stories the summer before I went to university.  I thought of the Maupassant story first. It followed the Balzac story in the collection of French stories I was reading as part of my preparations for university, and I was impressed at the time by the great change in writing styles between Balzac and Maupassant. That was what brought the Balzac story to mind. Except for the McCabe, Byatt, and Carver stories, I read all of these as a teenager or when I was in my twenties or thirties. They've stuck in my mind for forty-odd years now.

I fell into the habit of reading short stories at that period of my life because I commuted to school or work on a bus or the subway, and I could finish one or two short stories in the time it took to travel the distance. There were many days when I couldn't read because I couldn't get a seat or the ride was too crowded or too bumpy to hold a book while standing. Novels were less accommodating to the commuting process because several days might elapse when I wasn't able to read, and I would lose the thread of the story and forget minor characters or details of the plot. So I hit upon bringing a short story collection in my briefcase and reading a story or two when circumstances allowed.

The Jackson story probably owes its inclusion and its position at the head of the list to Jonathan Lethem's remarks about it in that collection of his essays I read a month or so ago. The Kafka is memorable for me because it's one of the few pieces of writing that have made me physically ill. Anne Enright once described a piece by John McGahern as the literary equivalent of a hand grenade rolling across the kitchen floor. That's what the Kafka was for me.  I felt the description of the workings of the punishment machine on my own flesh, as it were.

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