I teach an introductory fiction course, and like many such courses the focus is on short fiction. Recently, at the start of this summer semester, after my usual enthusiastic welcome, one of my students asked me a question after class that part of me has always secretly hoped to be asked: “What’s your favourite short story?”
On the one hand, it’s a bit of an unusual question, naïve and ingenuous, not something any discerning reader would ever ask. After all, of the innumerable short stories out there, how can one possibly pick out just one favourite? And yet, you do hear of people who speak of their favourite novels (it’s often used as a choice of prompt in case you forget your password on certain websites), even favourite movies, in spite of their own similarly countless options.
But when the question actually came I was a bit flummoxed in my answer. A couple titles immediately popped into my head, and when I walked away I began to ponder the question a bit more: What are those stories that have made the greatest and most lasting impression on me, both as a reader and a writer of short fiction? What are the stories I turn to again and again for both instruction and inspiration?
In response to my student’s question, the story that immediately rose up from my subconscious was Mavis Gallant’s “Across the Bridge.” Gallant is one of my favourite writers and has had a huge influence on my own writing. I love the sheer confidence of her prose and the exactitude of each word. Some people describe her fiction as a bit cold, but that’s exactly what I love about her. I love, too, how the political and historical are also seamlessly woven into her work. In this story, set in Paris in the 1950s, a young woman is supposed to get married to one man but at the last minute decides she’s actually in love with another. I first read this story twenty years ago, and the last few words of the story—“And, yes, it made me happy”—left me breathless when I first read them. Without giving anything away, it’s a very ironic ending, and yet what better words could there be to end any story? Other Gallant stories that vie for top spot include “Potter,” “The Remission,” “Voices Lost in Snow,” and “The Chosen Husband,” just to name a few. Here's an excerpt from the opening:
We were walking over the bridge from the Place de la Concorde, my mother and I--arm in arm, like two sisters who never quarrel. She had the invitations to my wedding in a leather shopping bag: I was supposed to be getting married to Arnaud Pons. My father's first cousin, Caston Castelli, deputy for a district in the south, had agreed to frank the envelopes. He was expecting us at the Palais Bourbon, at the other end of the bridge. His small office looked out on nothing of interest--just a wall and some windows. A typist who did not seem to work for anyone in particular sat outside his door. He believed she was there to spy on him, and for that reason had told my mother to keep the invitations out of sight.
The other story that also immediately came to mind was Yukio Mishima’s “Death in Midsummer.” Like Gallant’s “Across the Bridge,” I also first read this story about twenty years ago and it left a big mark on me. Set in Japan in the 1960s, it’s about a woman who loses two of her three children, as well as her sister-in-law, while vacationing at a seaside resort. Told from the mother’s perspective, the story that unfolds is a deeply internal one and closely examines the numerous subtle conflicts that arise out of this tragedy: the strain that’s now placed on her marriage, her in-laws’ subsequent perception of her, her own relationship with the surviving boy. It’s one of those stories in which very little happens, and yet everything happens—something I tend to do in my own fiction. Here's the opening paragraph:
A. Beach, near the southern tip of Izu Peninsula, is still unspoiled for sea bathing. The sea bottom is pitted and uneven, it is true, and the surf is a little rough; but the water is clean, the slope out to sea is gentle, and conditions are on the whole good for swimming. Largely because it is so out of the way. A. Beach has none of the noise and dirt of resorts nearer Tokyo. It is a two-hour drive from Ito.
Along a similar vein is Raymond Carver’s “So Much Water So Close to Home.” Back in the ’90s I was a big fan of Carver. He made a big impact on me, and I think this story is one of his finest. When Claire’s husband returns from a fishing trip, she learns that he and his friends had discovered the murdered body of a young woman washed up onto the shore of a river. The men decide that instead of turning right around to find a phone booth to contact police, they tie the floating naked body to a tree and continue to spend the rest of their weekend camping, fishing, and drinking. Like Mishima’s story, the rest of the piece looks at the fallout from this event. Claire can’t help but see her husband differently now, as a man indifferent to violence inflicted upon women, as a man possibly capable of violence himself. She withdraws from her husband and starts to identify with the victim. Told in the first-person present tense, it’s a very compelling and internal story, haunting without a ghost ever materializing. And of course, there is Carver’s voice, which is not only very beguiling but has also influenced my own writing style. Take a look:
My husband eats with good appetite but he seems tired, edgy. He chew slowly, arms on the table, and stares at something across the room. He looks at me and looks away again. He wipes his mouth on the napkin. He shrugs and goes on eating. Something has come between us though he would like me to believe otherwise.
"What are you staring at me for?" he asks. "What is it?" he says and puts his fork down.
"Was I staring?" I say and shake my head stupidly, stupidly.
The telephone rings. "Don't answer it," he says.
"It might be your mother," I say. "Dean--it might be something about Dean."
"Watch and see," he says.
I pick up the receiver and listen for a minute. He stops eating. I bite my lip and hang up.
Like a lot of people, I’m a big fan of Lorrie Moore, and her story “Agnes of Iowa” is one of my favourites. One of the things that draw me to Moore’s fiction is her ability to be both funny and sad at the same time, and in this story a South African poet is invited to give a reading at the university where Agnes is a professor. Agnes, whose marriage is starting to wane, is initially alarmed that the English department has invited an apartheid-era white Afrikaner to give a reading; yet when he arrives she finds him both attractive and sympathetic. Stylistically, there’s a lot going on in this story that I really like: the occasional and humorous intrusions of the protagonist’s thoughts into the narrative, almost like non sequiturs and which are represented by the use of the italics; her humorous yet percipient choice of similes and metaphors; and her ability to gently poke fun at her protagonist, making her all the more human, recognizable, and real. I have found myself mimicking her voice in some of my own fiction on more than one occasion. Other Lorrie Moore favourites include: “Dance in America” and “Places to Look for Your Mind.” Here's the beginning of "Agnes of Iowa":
Her mother had given her the name Agnes, believing that a good-looking woman was even more striking when her name was a homely one. Her mother was named Cyrena, and was beautiful to match, but had always imagined her life would have been more interesting, that she herself would have had a more dramatic, arresting affect on the world and not ended up in Cassell, Iowa, if she had been named Enid or Hagar or Maude. And so she named her first daughter Agnes, and when Agnes turned out not to be attractive at all, but puffy and prone to a rash between her eyebrows, her hair a flat and bilious hue, her mother backpedaled and named her second daughter Linea Elise (who turned out to be a lovely, sleepy child with excellent bones, a sweet, full mouth, and a rubbery mole above her lip that later in life could be removed without difficulty, everyone was sure).
Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” is another favourite of mine, and what makes this piece particularly powerful is Nabokov’s ability to tell a story that is at once both highly affecting and yet completely self-conscious of itself as artifice without being heavy-handed about it—and that too is something I sometimes like to play with in my own work.
For the fourth time in as many years they were confronted with the problem of what birthday present to bring a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind. He had no desires. Man-made objects were to him either hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive, or gross comforts for which no use could be found in his abstract world. After eliminating a number of articles that might offend him or frighten him (anything in the gadget line for instance was taboo), his parents chose a dainty and innocent trifle: a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars.
John Cheever’s “Reunion” is the first story I teach every semester and, I’ve started to realize, it’s also become a favourite of mine. It’s a very short and simple story (I’ve got it practically memorized!), and it’s also a very perfect story, too. I begin with that story because it’s got all those typical “elements of fiction” that I teach—exposition, rising action, climax, resolution, irony, foreshadowing, etc. And of course it’s beautifully written:
The last time I saw my father was in Grand Central Station. I was going from my grandmother's in the Adirondacks to a cottage on the Cape that my mother had rented, and I wrote my father that I would be in New York between trains for an hour and a half, and asked if we could have lunch together. His secretary wrote to say that he would meet me at the information booth at noon, and at twelve o'clock sharp I saw him coming through the crowd. He was a stranger to me--my mother divorced him three years ago and I hadn't been with him since--but as soon as I saw him I felt that he was my father, my flesh and blood, my future and my doom. I knew that when I was grown I would be something like him; I would have to plan my campaigns within his limitations. He was a big, good-looking man, and I was terribly happy to see him again. He struck me on the back and shook my hand. "Hi, Charlie," he said. "Hi, boy. I'd like to take you up to my club, but it's in the Sixties, and if you have to catch an early train I guess we'd better get something to eat around here." He put h is arm around me, and I smelled my father the way my mother sniffs a rose. It was a rich compound of whiskey, after-shave lotion, shoe polish, woolens, and the rankness of a mature male. I hope that someone would see us together. I wished that we could be photographed. I wanted some record of our having been together.
Alice Munro is of course another favourite, and one of the things that I most admire about her is her ability to jump around back and forth in time, which naturally lends her stories a sophisticated structure and a broad scope with which she views the world. There are many Alice Munro favourites, and here are just a few that come to mind: "Turkey Season," "How I Met My Husband," "The Progress of Love," "Miles City, Montana," "Fits," "Queenie," "The Albanian Virgin," "The Jack Randa Hotel," "Open Secrets," and "Material." But if I had to pick one, and it's only because I recently reread it, my choice would be "Jesse and Meribeth." It's a story about friendship and betrayal, about sexuality, about the stories and lies we tell others to make ourselves more interesting. That's on one level. But on another level, this story is really about story-telling itself and about using other's people lives as fodder for fiction and the possible consequences that might arise. Like Nabokov's "Signs and Symbols," this is a very subtle and clever and ironic story, self-conscious of itself as a piece of fiction. It begins like this:
In high school, I had a tender, loyal, boring friendship with a girl named MaryBeth Crocker. I gave myself up to it, as I did to the warm, shallow, rather murky waters of the Maitland River in summer, when I lay on my back, and just fluttered my hands and feet, and was carried downstream.
Of course, this list only just scratches the surface when it comes to favourites and influences, but I'd love to hear what are your own favourites. What are the short stories that you remember most and have had a big impact on you?