Philip Hensher

Short stories to enjoy in lockdown

Philip Hensher chooses some of his favourite authors, including Chekhov, V.S. Pritchett, Alice Munro and Italo Calvino

Alice Munro, photographed by Nancy Crampton. Her story ‘Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage’ is a sunny account of wrongdoing all round [Bridgeman Images]

In these circumstances there’s a temptation to reach for the longest novel imaginable. If you’re not going to read Proust now, as the days stretch ahead and the horizons shrink to an hour’s walk a day, when is it going to happen? But it seems much more likely that reading is going to contract, and the most you’ll realistically manage is a short story a day. Fortunately, some of the greatest literature of the last couple of centuries has come in the shape of the short story. Here are nine long-standing favourites of mine that manage to repay repeated re-reading — the definition of a classic.

Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is one of those classics that most people think they know but which infallibly surprises. The impossible thing happens in the first sentence; after that the story is a miracle of a sensible, rational working out of the situation. How Gregor manages the world, and how those around him decide to deal with the monstrous insect he has become, are essays in practical understanding. Obliterated from the popular memory, too, are the last pages, at once heartless and optimistic, in which the family, freed from its burden, starts to think about the future.

Eudora Welty was proficient in teasing out a situation from all sides and seeing the full meaning of something just glimpsed. ‘Lily Daw and the Three Ladies’ is a glorious small-town episode in which three well-meaning ladies try to send Lily off to a home for the feeble-minded to preserve her from the amorous attentions of a passing xylophone player. Everything ends in a nuptial welter of confused but very happy feelings.

Many of the greatest short story writers are rooted in a specific place. Another is the Sicilian, Leonardo Sciascia.

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