A Personal Anthology: 12 (More) Favourite Stories

I recently added my thoughts on twelve favourite short stories to The Personal Anthology. I thank Jonathan Gibbs, the editor of this valuable project, for the invitation to contribute. (Do browse the archives—you’ll find all kinds of things worth reading.) I made my choices based on my experience teaching short fiction. In doing so, I had to leave off many worthy candidates. So even though nobody asked for it, here’s a baker’s dozen more wonderful stories.

QaaHL

“Nervous” by Robert Walser, translated by Christopher Middleton

Walser’s little prose texts, scribbled on bits of paper, published in feuilletons across German-speaking Europe, are one of the glories of 20th century literature. Amazingly, they are finally getting their due in English. But thanks especially to the efforts of poet and translator Christopher Middleton, some of his work already appeared in English in the 1980s, including one of my favourites, “Nervous.” Walser’s writing is characterized by what I think of as a very Swiss mixture of sweetness and snark: its coziness soon goes off the rails. Here, in a text not coincidentally written in the middle of WWI, Walser is more anguished than gentle. But the reversals, hesitations, and self-cancellations of his prose are clearly evident.

I’ve often taught “Nervous” together with Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” (1983) another bravura exercise in narrative voice (in her case, in the imperative). Both texts undermine the coherence of the speaker, leading us to ask whether the very idea of identity is a fantasy of writing. Because both pieces are so short, they’re ideal for forcing students to linger over details. Students can even read them for the first time in class, which, in my experience, typically generates the best conversations.

First published in German in June 1916 in Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Published in English in Selected Stories Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1982. You can read an excerpt here and the German (with facing Dutch translation) here.

“The Demon Lover” by Elizabeth Bowen

It hurt to cut this from my original list, just as it hurt to cut it from my syllabus a few years ago. Students never loved it the way I do, and that disparity was getting me down. To be sure, it’s not straightforward. Bowen’s brilliant ghost story centers on Kathleen Drover, who has returned to London during the first Blitz to check on the house she and her children have left behind for shelter in the country. She finds a letter pushed under the door, a curt missive reminding her that the writer has not forgotten the troth she plighted, the promise she made. “Today is the day we said” it says, ominously. The letter takes her back to the Great War, and the man she fell in love with, the man she promised to marry, a cruel man, a man who returned to the front from leave and never returned. (The students have a hard time distinguishing between the two wars.) The letter sends Mrs. Drover into a panic, and she collects what she came to get as quickly as she can and runs away to hail a taxi. But you can’t outrun the past. This is a story of trauma, about physical and mental stains and strains. I can never shake the image of the weal on Kathleen’s hand when her fiancée presses it hard against the buttons of his uniform. One thing my students and I always agreed on, though: the editors of Bowen’s Collected Stories must have had a lot of fun when they made sure the story ended on p 666.

First published in The Demon Lover and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1945. Available in The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Ecco, 1989. Read the story here.

“The Bear Came over the Mountain” by Alice Munro

Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian, where we are All Munro All the Time—I remember reading “Boys and Girls” in middle school and having “the symbolism of the foxes” drilled into me—but I am lukewarm on our Nobelist. I mean, I recognize her greatness. But for me she’s so cold, and not just because that’s the emotional register of the largely Scottish and English WASPs that comprise a certain idea of “Old Canada,” fictional versions of which populate Munro’s stories. I find the stories themselves chilly, almost clinical in their attitudes to these figures. (No accident that so many of her editions have a reproduction of an Alex Colville painting on the cover.)

They do teach well, though. And this one in particular works for me. “The Bear Came over the Mountain” intertwines two couples: elegant Fiona, whose forgetfulness grows into dementia, and bien pensant Grant, who is not as nice as he thinks he is, on the one hand, and Aubrey, a former sweetheart of Fiona’s who she reconnects with in the facility Grant reluctantly moves her to, and Marian, Grant’s seemingly unsophisticated but in fact defiant and shrewd wife, on the other.

As the couples re-arrange, our suspicion grows that Fiona has orchestrated the events. The story asks: what is true, in the life of a couple and even in life itself? Epistemological uncertainty isn’t just something faced (with terror, stoicism, even grace) by the patients who lose their memories, but by readers as well.

First published in The New Yorker, December 27, 1999. Collected in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage McClelland & Stewart, 2001. You can read the story here.

“The Bad News” by Margaret Atwood

Atwood, by contrast, is another CanLit big shot whose work I do admire. (For whatever reason, her chilliness doesn’t bother me as much as Munro’s.) Although best known for her novels, Atwood’s written plenty of stories; the ones I’ve read are good. For a while I taught this story regularly, highlighting, in particular, its narrative structure and use of time. Like “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” “The Bad News” is about (the fear of) dementia. But I don’t think memory loss explains the story’s structure, which reminds me of a möbius strip. The narrator and her husband live in a dystopic near-future (if I were to read the story now, I’d probably just think it was set in the present) but part-way through the narrator remembers a trip they took to Glanum, the Roman ruins in the South of France. The memory sparks a fantasy that, at some point, becomes the present of the narrative itself. It ends with the couple, living in what to them is simply an outpost of Rome, nothing ancient at all, talking themselves out of worrying about the barbarian invasions (“They won’t be here for a long time. Not in our lifetime, perhaps. Glanum is in no danger, not yet”). We’re left wondering if the modern couple, similarly obsessed with but in denial about bad news, is perhaps a dream of the ancient one, rather than the other way ‘round. “We don’t like bad news, but we need it. We need to know about it in case it’s coming our way.”

First published in The Guardian, 2005. Collected in Moral Disorder and Other Stories, Nan A. Talese, 2006.

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“Indian Giver” by Max Apple

Probably the least famous writer on this list, which is a damn shame. Especially as he is probably the nicest (admittedly, the only one I’ve met, but man what a mensch). Apple is a worthy heir to Malamud (which, if you’ve read my original list, you’ll know is high praise). Seymour Rubin owns an automotive junkyard, but the only person who can work the baler that keeps the place going, a man named Alonso Johnson, has just converted to Islam and needs to pray on his lunch hour every Friday. Seymour, incensed at what he sputteringly calls “once a week anti-Semitism,” fires Alonso, which leads to his near ruin. (“Indian Giver” is a take on Malamud’s “The First Seven Years.”) Everyone begs Seynour to take Alonso back, especially Seymour’s son, Chuckie, who calls from the reservation in the South West where he is working with indigenous people. When a rival Jewish recycling firm offers to buy him out, Seymour has no choice but to go back to Alonso. Who, Apple’s story asks, is a Jew? And what does that mean? Are the identities we live by enabling or disabling? Funny, too!

First published in Story and collected in The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories, Johns Hopkins, 2007.

“The Night Rhonda Ferguson was Killed” by Edward P. Jones

Now that I think of it, I briefly met Edward P. Jones at a reading from his novel The Known World. And he too was lovely, so soft-spoken and introverted, clearly a man uninterested in platitudes or bullshit. I warmed to him immediately. Though I’ve yet to read that book, I love his early stories, especially this one, which I use in teaching literary realism. This is a beautiful and very sad story about an angry, vulnerable teenage girl, Cassandra G. Lewis, whose best friend, the Rhonda Ferguson of the title, is about to sign with a record label. Rhonda almost never appears in the story—instead we follow Cassandra and some of her other friends as they spend a flirty, chaste, emotional, ordinary Friday evening that is upended by tragedy. By the time we learn of Rhonda’s death, so much has happened we’ve forgotten all about it, and we’re shocked despite the title. I love how one of the girls, a quiet soul Cassandra hardly knew before the fateful night, becomes the story’s central focus. And its last line is heartbreaking: “She sang on into the night for herself alone, pushing back everything she did not yet understand.”

Collected in Lost in the City, William Morrow, 1992.

“Tapka” by David Bezmozgis

A bittersweet, funny, but ultimately rather ominous story about a family of Latvian Jews who emigrate to Canada in the early 1980s as part of the exodus of Soviet Jews. (In this sense clearly autobiographical.) Mark Berman is in first grade at George Best Elementary School in his new home of Toronto. Together with his slightly older sister, he is tasked with walking a neighbour’s dog every day at lunch. Tapka is spoiled; her owners, also Russian emigres, though of a lower social class than the Bermans, have no children. Tapka is their everything. While the adults struggle through English classes by day, the children learn through osmosis (the narrator likens his brain to a catchment basin, with rivulets of language steadily accumulating into a pool). Pride of place goes to schoolyard insults, like “shithead” and “gaylord” (how it pains me to remember that we used to say things like that). The children love Tapka. But they also hate her, for inscrutable reasons that have to do with their powerlessness and general sense of being lost in a new place. So they start calling her the names they’ve learned, maybe felt the lash of; Mark feels the thrill and shame at having violated something. One thing leads to another, and the kids let the dog off the leash, whereupon it dashes into traffic and is hit by a car. Everything ends okay, except nothing will ever be okay again.

I also use this story to teach my American students the correct pronunciation of Toronto and what a washroom is. I think of it as a duty.

First published in The New Yorker in 2003. Collected in Natasha and Other Stories, Harper Collins, 2004.

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“The Knock at the Manor Gate” by Franz Kafka and translated by Willa and Edwin Muir

My favourite Kafka to teach is “A Hunger Artist” (though I confess I don’t love to teach Kafka—he is too hard, too much about the resistance to interpretation), but my favourite Kafka altogether might be this little text, which is perfectly Kafkan, but, more importantly, for me, comes unbidden to me every time we chant the v’ahavta in synagogue. That’s the prayer in which we name the ways we shall love G-d. Tell them to your children, think of them when you wake and when you sleep. And, finally, “bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Kafka would have known this prayer (it comes just after the sh’ma, Judaism’s affirmation of monotheism); every week I wonder if he had it in mind in writing this enigmatic work.

First published posthumously in Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer in 1931. Collected in English in The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka, edited by Nahum Glatzer, Schocken, 1971. You can read the story here.

“The Use of Force” by William Carlos Williams

Although only four pages long, this story is so rich, it’s easy to spend an hour talking about it and still have plenty to say. Based on Williams’s own experience as a doctor in Rutherford, NJ, it tells the story of a doctor summoned by a poor, terrified couple who suspect their daughter has diphtheria. To confirm his diagnosis—which will lead only to quarantine, there being nothing else the man can do: the story is from the 1930s; there are no antibiotics—the doctor needs her to open her mouth. Which the girl refuses to do. The result is a battle not just of wits but of strength. The title doesn’t just describe the doctor’s actions; it also poses a question: what is the use of force? What purpose does it serve? Can we diagnose a condition without causing harm? And if we think about the similarities between diagnosis and interpretation, we might extrapolate to ask, can we read a text without doing violence to it?

First published in 1933 in Blast and collected in Life Along the Passaic River, New Directions, 1938 and The Doctor Stories, New Directions, 1984. You can read the story here.

“A Family Supper” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Rohan Maitzen tipped me on to this story, one of only a few by Ishiguro. Although it would be terrific for any lesson on unreliable narrators, I always teach “A Family Supper” on the second day of the semester to help students begin the semester-long process of learning to support claims with textual evidence. For the central question demanded by this story of a young man who returns after the death of his mother to his home in Japan from a new life in America is whether his father has poisoned their supper of fish soup. (The first thing we learn is that the mother died from eating improperly prepared fugu.) Students always have strong opinions, but they’re not always sure why they think what they think. Ishiguro has a fine way with dread and unease. In addition to everything else, this is good ghost story.

First published in Firebird 2 in 1982. Collected in Malcolm’s Bradbury’s anthology The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories, Penguin, 1989. You can read the story here.

“Drown” by Junot Díaz

The narrator’s former best friend Beto is back in town, but the narrator doesn’t want to see him. We learn that Beto once gave him a blow job, which the narrator both liked and hated. “Drown” is a story of repression, confused masculinity, and growing up in a society that has no expectations for you (note the imperative of the title). My students and I often linger on this early passage, where we can already see the rivalrous relationship between the boys. Along with the rest of the kids in the neighbourhood, the boys have climbed the fence at the local pool:

I sit near the sign that runs the pool during the day. No Horse-Play, No Running, No Defecating, No Urinating, No Expectorating. At the bottom someone has scrawled in No Whites, No Fat Cbiks and someone else has provided the missing c. I laugh. Beto hadn’t known what expectorating meant though he was the one leaving for college. I told him, spitting a greener by the side of the pool.

At night the pool runs by other rules: the difference between no expectorating and a greener by the poolside. Nighttime pool has vitality, but what is that worth compared to the power of daytime rules?

First published in The New Yorker, January 29, 1996 and collected in Drown, Riverhead, 1996. Read the story here.

“The Marquise of O” by Heinrich von Kleist, translated by David Luke and Nigel Reeves

A crazy, long story about a woman, the Marquise of the title, who becomes pregnant after being raped during the Napoleonic wars. The scholar Mary Jacobus has a nice essay about how everyone sees the Marquise as an empty O just waiting to be filled (literally or figuratively). The story’s told with Kleist’s characteristic indirection, which means students have a hard time with it—it doesn’t help that the central event is elided in a dash—but they often get into rousing discussions of contemporary slut-shaming that makes them see things haven’t changed as much as they like to think. For me the big question is: can we read the Marquise as having any control over her circumstances? Does she have any agency?

First published in German in Phöbus in 1808. Available in English in The Marquise of O and Other Stories, Penguin 1978.

“Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” by Herman Melville

What is there to say? A stone-cold masterpiece. “I would prefer not to” doesn’t mean no. It’s much more destabilizing (or insidious, depending on how much you side with the narrator). A wonderful story about men at work.

First published in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in November and December 1853. Collected in The Piazza Tales, 1856. Read the story here.

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Now you tell me: what would be on your list?

24 thoughts on “A Personal Anthology: 12 (More) Favourite Stories

  1. It’s really interesting to read about your thought process behind these stories – both your reasons for picking them and your experiences of teaching them. I’ve bookmarked the Bowen and Ishiguro to read at some point.

  2. Generous of you to supply a supplementary list! I’ve enjoyed both. The one that’s worked well for me with younger (pre-degree level) students is the classic Hemingway story, Cat in the Rain. So well known by older readers, but 16-18-year-olds have barely heard of him, let alone this story. The notion of his ‘iceberg’ technique intrigues them, and they like trying to figure out exactly what the relationship is between the man and the woman, and what the cat represents (is she pregnant, some speculate). I’ve used Kafka’s In the Penal Colony with degree-level classes, mostly to show them what’s possible in the short form beyond ‘telling the story’. K. Mansfield is always a sound choice, too. Good to see a couple of names unfamiliar to me in your lists, too: will check them out.

  3. I don’t read a lot of short stories on my own account, so my exposure tends to be strongly affected by what happens to be in whatever anthology I pick for teaching. One story I discovered this way and now really like (to read and to teach) is Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies.” It’s not as sly or evasive as that Ishiguro story (which I’m so glad you liked so much!) but it’s really smart, layered, and, I think, touching.

    • I usually teach “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar” (it’s first person plural narrator is unusual), and it works great, though it is not a favourite of mine. I like “At Mrs. Sen’s” a lot. Although I read “The Interpreter of Maladies” a long time ago, I don’t remember it. Sounds like I should revisit!

  4. Hi I often wonder about how many hours a day you spend reading…

    Could you recommend a history or essay about Galician jews?

    kind regards

    Carlos Ferrand 514-915-3730

    On Fri, Oct 11, 2019 at 12:19 AM Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau wrote:

    > banff1972 posted: “I recently added my thoughts on twelve favourite short > stories to The Personal Anthology. I thank Jonathan Gibbs, the editor of > this valuable project, for the invitation to contribute. (Do browse the > archives—you’ll find all kinds of things worth reading.” >

    • Hi Carlos,

      Not nearly enough! Work and life keep getting in the way… In the breaks between semesters, though, I often read for many hours each day. Plus I listen to audiobooks on my commute.

      As to your question: I’m not sure–I would like to read such a book too. But I have a feeling Omer Bartov’s Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine might be good. Bartov is excellent. Galicia extended beyond present-day Ukraine, of course, but could be an interesting starting point.

  5. Another intriguing list (at least I’ve read a few of these ones!)

    I taught a Bowen story in my very first year of teaching, and I thought it was “The Demon Lover” but nothing you said about it rings any bells so maybe not. Either way, I guess it’s a pretty damning indictment of my memory.

    On the other hand, I taught Bartleby that year too and remember it well, so maybe there’s still hope.

    George Best Elementary School? Do you know if this is a real school or is it meant as a joke? Or perhaps there is more than one George Best? (I’m thinking of the soccer superstar of the 1970s, who struggled with alcoholism and was generally not a good role model, so one would not expect him to have a school named after him).

    I think I’ve already told you most of my favourite stories to teach, but on the subject of quintessentially Canadian stories learned in school: “Snow”- Frederick Philip Grove and “The Painted Door”- Sinclair Ross. These stories literally haunted my dreams as an impressionable teenager.

    • Oops, my own memory is bad (I didn’t have my copy of the text with me when I was writing): it’s Charles H. Best Elementary (i.e. Best as in Banting & Best, insulin discoverers). Nice little bit of Canadiana. The George Best school would have been a bit… unusual.

      Now I am curious what that Bowen story was!

      “The Painted Door,” and Sinclair Ross in general, was part of my childhood education. I don’t know the Grove story–never read him in fact. Any good?

      • Phew, yes, Charles Best makes a lot more sense!

        I’ll look up my notes on Bowen when I’m back in my office after the long weekend and I’ll let you know (I’m very curious too!)

        Grove is good, but in such a stereotypically Canadian way. If I recall, he actually wrote two stories entitled “Snow” so I’m not sure how to identify the one I read (basically, a man gets lost in snowstorm and it goes from there…) I’ve also read “Settlers of the Marsh,” an obligatory CanLit novel, which I liked a lot (though it is also pretty bleak).

      • Update: the Bowen story WAS “The Demon Lover,” but came at the end of the syllabus and I ended up having to cut it, so I never actually taught it. Doesn’t let me off the hook entirely though, since I did read it and had some pretty thorough notes on it, mostly from the point of view of how it plays with the conventions of the Gothic, which, reading it again today, I have to say it does quite brilliantly. I guess the bottom line is I’m getting older and can’t even remember my first years of teaching any more.

      • I am not the Gothic expert you are, but yes I think it is really smart in playing with those tropes, and updating them to 20th century warfare. It’s just such a freaking creepy story.

        I am also “can’t remember all the things I’ve taught” years old!

  6. In honor of your question at the end of this wonderful blog post, here are 12 of my favorite, lesser-known short stories:

    “Line and Color” by Isaac Babel
    “Enoch Soames” by Max Beerbohm
    “The Colonel’s Daughter” by Robert Coover
    “Torch Song” by John Cheever
    “What It Was Like, Seeing Chris” by Deborah Eisenberg
    “Luc and His Father” by Mavis Gallant
    “Lomba” by Helon Habila
    “Poor Koko” by John Fowles
    “A Tomb for Boris Davidovich” by Danilo Kiš
    “The False Prohpet” by Ousmane Sembène
    “He Translated” by Mati Unt
    “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio” by Tennessee Williams

    • Thank you for your list! I love it because I hardly know any of these stories. And some of the authors are new to me: so wonderful! Habila in particular looks interesting. I’ve meant to read the Kis for a long time (I confess, I thought it was a novel–it’s one the shelf here somewhere, I’ll take a look.) I hear so many good things about Eisenberg: I need to take a look. And I don’t know that Coover story, but I always loved “The Brother.” Do you know that one?

    • I’ll always plump for a novel first, but I love how much easier it is to lavish real attention on a story. Yesterday I had a sudden thought: how could I have left “The Sand Man” off the list? What an amazing story!

  7. Very enjoyable post, Dorian. Thanks for providing – with your two lists and the link to others on The Personal Anthology – a virtual tsunami of reading recommendations.

    My first ever post on seraillon was actually just a list of some favorite short stories, one I should probably revisit, as I’ve certainly added a few since and might want to reconsider some of the ones already there. Here’s another baker’s dozen for the anthology:

    “Araby,” by James Joyce
    “The Aloe,” by Katherine Mansfield
    “The Burrow,” by Franz Kafka
    “The Topaz Cufflinks Mystery,” by James Thurber
    “The Old Chevalier,” by Isak Dinesen
    “Country Cooking in Central France,” by Harry Mathews
    “The Deprong Mori of the Tripsicum Plateau,” by David Wilson
    “Barnabo of the Mountains,” by Dino Buzzati
    “Two Ships,” by Frigyes Karinthy
    “Ciàula Discovers the Moon,” by Luigi Pirandello
    “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitaller,” by Gustave Flaubert
    “The Secret Sharer,” by Joseph Conrad
    “The Interlopers,” by H. H. Munro (Saki)

    • So good to hear from you, Scott! I hope you are well.
      What an intriguing list. I don’t even know who all of these writers are. (David Wilson? I’ll investigate.) And I’ve only read two of them. Lots for me to discover here. I’m intrigued to see Dinesen. I ought to read her.

      • All well, thanks. I’m looking forward to digging into this wealth of stories.

        Wilson is more a conceptual artist than writer, the brain behind LA’s Museum of Jurassic Technology. But this story contains one of the niftiest tricks I’ve encountered in fiction. Dinesen has long been a favorite.

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