The first short story I loved was “A Day’s Wait.” Dependent on a sick child’s confusion regarding Celsius and Fahrenheit, Ernest Hemingway’s vignette — three scenes, two in the same sickroom — suggested that what Wallace Stevens called the malady of the quotidian had possibilities. That spring of eighth grade I devoured the collected stories, worrying my mother who applauded the precocity but was aware of Hemingway through college courses and knew what I’d find in stories like “Up in Michigan” (first acquaintance with sex) and “The Battler” (first acquaitance with overt racism). The other marker was the short, cruel, violent stories of the Englishman known as Saki, in which the talking cats and homicidal elks are less evil than the aunts and governesses.
These thirty stories represent a distillation, not a terminus. I’ve read them each at least five times. A few I’m still becoming acquainted with. Accustomed to his constant presence in the New Yorker, William Trevor has demonstrated at least a dozen times how loudly still, small voices can sing. My pick “Timothy’s Birthday,” found five years ago in his essential omnibus, is a typically quiet account of how a gay son old enough to know better still derives pleasure from annoying his aging parents, whom he has dismissed as fuddyduds his whole life. Like the scoundrel of a in Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (see below), he’s not wrong but his sanctimony and lack of generosity of spirit expose him as the story’s villain. His brainstorm is to send his lover to their house in his place: it’s his birthday and what a neat trick to disappoint them. The lover is a neat trick too: a thief inspiring the parents’ best behavior and thus putting the lie to Timothy’s gripes. The politics of family and sex eddy at unexpected places; Trevor’s mind meld with Timothy’s resentments is uncanny. Eighties fiction star Deborah Eisenberg provided similar moments of cognition in “A Lesson in Traveling Light,” about a couple seeking the refuge of the road and discovering what Emerson called the indifference of places.
The list below is by no means complete. I expect to read a couple unfamiliar good ones soon.
Gustave Flaubert – A Simple Tale
Gertrude Stein – Melanctha
Raymond Carver – Fever
Edna O’Brien – The Love Object
Paul Bowles – Pages From Cold Point
Henry James – The Jolly Corner
Thomas Mann – Tonio Kroger
Edmund White – The Oracle
Anton Chekhov – The Kiss
Colm Toibin – A Long Winter
Alice Munro – Floating Bridge
Flannery O’Connor – Everything That Rises Must Converge
William Trevor – Timothy’s Birthday
Saki – The Lumber Room
J.G. Ballard – Mr F. is Mr F.
Katherine Ann Porter – Pale Horse, Pale Rider
Edith Wharton – The Other Two
F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Rich Boy
Saul Bellow – What Kind of Day Did You Have?
Jorge Luis Borges – Death and the Compass
John Cheever – The Country Husband
Deborah Eisenberg – A Lesson in Traveling Light
Richard Yates – Liars in Love
Elizabeth Bishop – In the Village
Ernest Hemingway – The Killers
Leo Tolstoy – Master and Man
Lydia Davis – Mr. Knockley
D.H. Lawrence – The Prussian Officer
James Joyce – The Boarding House
Vladimir Nabokov – The Vane Sisters