Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

The Imperfect 10

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 3, 2012

To draw out a list of ten perfect short stories is a futile and a slightly rash endeavour. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, there are thousands of short stories and I have not read them all nor will I ever read them and that reduces the authenticity of the list. Secondly, of all the literary forms of storytelling, short stories are the most protean, flexible and innovative and choosing specific criteria to fit them into a rigid framework of evaluation, goes against good sense of judgment. The only meaningful criteria of weighing the worth of a short story against its peers is the intensity of joy it gives while reading and the number of times one gravitated to rereading it. Even here one ends up (unjustifiably) leaving out many than including them. So here is my imperfect list of 10 best short stories that gave me enormous joy when I encountered them first and continue to provide undiminished happiness even while rereading them  

Enemies – Anton Chekov. My all-time favourite for the indescribable beauty this story carries with it. Two people with deep personal losses end up clashing with one another in a situation for which both of them are not responsible. The hallmark of the story is its subtlety and Chekov sustains it with an unparalleled mastery. I distinctly remember my experience when I first read it. By the time I reached the last sentence of the story my admiration for Chekov’s grasp of human predicament and situation simply grew like the way morning sunlight suffuses every corner of a house and gradually drives away darkness.

To Room 19 – Dorris Lessing: A disturbing story of the plight of a woman who descends into despondency, madness and then suicide. Lessing’s prose is clinical, dispassionate and harrowing. There is an effortless gradualness with which the descent into final destruction is described which is the demonstration of rare artistic talent. I have lost the courage to read this story when I am alone by myself

Rain – Somerset Maugham: A gruesome drama of the frailty of human will leading to disastrous consequences against the backdrop of a rain drenched island is incomparable. I would have read this story a dozen times in the last ten years for the sheer artistry with which Maugham allows the story to evolve. The strange thing is that the picture of the island and the ambience of rain in my imagination continue to remain the same. It has one of the most unforgettable final sentences delivered by a prostitute to whose charms the sanctimonious and moralizing priest succumbs and subsequently driven by guilt commits suicide by slitting his throat with a razor blade

You men! You filthy, dirty pigs! You’re all the same, all of you. Pigs! Pigs!

Jubilation, disgust, triumph, wry mirth and a sense of dismissal are all mixed in this one knock-out of a sentence  

A Piece of Steak – Jack London: After I read this story, I had decided not to grow old the way “Tom King” – the protagonist of this story does. In particular, it is a touching depiction of the plight of an ageing boxer. However, using this as a springboard, London leads the reader into a universal realisation of the relentlessness with which old age, youth and wisdom interoperate. London describes the dynamics of a boxing match so very brilliantly that my revulsion to boxing as a sport loosened a bit. Detail, it is said brings authenticity to narration. There is a paragraph in this story where London describes the face of Tom King the boxer and I think it is an extraordinary feat in detailing:

But it was Tom King’s face that advertised him unmistakably for what he was. It was the face of a typical prize-fighter; of one who had put in long years of service in the squared ring and, by that means developed and emphasized all the marks of the fighting beast. It was distinctly a lowering countenance, and, that no feature of it might escape notice, it was clean-shaven. The lips were shapeless and constituted a mouth harsh to excess, that was like a gash in his face. The jaw was aggressive, brutal, heavy. The eyes, slow of movement and heavy-lidded, were almost expressionless under the shaggy, indrawn brows. Sheer animal that he was, the eyes were the most animal-like feature about him. They were sleepy, lion-like–the eyes of a fighting animal. The forehead slanted quickly back to the hair, which, clipped close, showed every bump of a villainous- looking head. A nose twice broken and moulded variously by countless blows, and a cauliflower ear, permanently swollen and distorted to twice its size, completed his adornment, while the beard, fresh-shaven as it was, sprouted in the skin and gave the face a blue-black stain

Retrieved Reformation – O.Henry: There are many stories of O.Henry that could easily challenge this choice of mine. However, the distinctiveness of this story is that it has a cinematic edge to its climax of an intensity which no other O.Henry story has. The story is about a bank burglar who after falling in love jettisons his profession but it is for the same love he has to display his bank busting skills while being tracked be the long hand of the law. The real twist lies in the behaviour of the representative of the law at the final moment of reckoning. Only O.Henry can take the reader on such a spin.

Monkey’s Paw – W.W.Jacobs. In the past I found it difficult to believe that people could be frightened on account of reading horror stories. Sometimes this opinion bordered on mild condescension. All that changed after I read W.W. Jacobs’s “Monkey’s Paw”. This subtly horror story and the way the climax plays out in the night in an isolated hut is truly chilling

Rip Van Winkle – Washington Irving: Oh! I love the portrayal of the easy-going, genial and kindly character of Rip Winkle juxtaposed with the shrewish personality of Dame Winkle. It is a strange and delectable story with a proper mix of myth and reality. Superbly entertaining and is a masterpiece of American short story

A Cup of Tea – Katherine Mansfield: This clever story depicting the subtle transformation of an insecure woman due to jealousy engendered by a casual and the off the cuff remark of her husband is an absolute treat to read. Mansfield’s prose has a grace and moves like a gentle butterfly with iridescent wings

Interference – Julian Barnes: The final days of a cantankerous and brilliant English music composer – Leonard – who for reasons of perceived hostility of England to foster artists, relocates to a remote French Village with his wife four decades ago. The story is a reminiscence of a life gone by and the small demands of the dying (in the present) set in an environment and circumstances where they are difficult to meet. Towards the end Leonard wants to listen to his own composition “The Four Seasons” — which BBC plays on his 70th birthday as he is breathing his last and interference of electrical signals do not allow him to listen to it. And even the records of his own music that he ordered from the music company located in Britain arrive into the hands of his despondent partner after his death. Moving and brilliant

We’ll Have Fun – John O Hara: To summarize the transition of an age in the span of a few odd pages is not an easy thing to do and O’Hara did it in his inimitable style when he narrates the plight of a happy go lucky out of job alcoholic who is trying to eke out a living by tending to horses at a time when automobiles where making their presence felt and horses were going out of fashion and becoming a rich man’s hobby in America


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