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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Short stories

When was the last time you picked up a book only to set it down again with a gasp once you saw the number in excess of 600 on the last page? I recently had this experience with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which clocks in at a daunting 672 pages. Where do people find the time to get through such hefty tomes? On a lazy holiday you might well polish it off within three or four days but, vacations aside, many people (myself included) would require a good few weeks in which to spread the 20-plus hours’ reading time. And I suspect I’m not alone in finding the latter approach to novel-reading much less satisfying than the former.

The solution? Allow me to introduce an undervalued old friend: the short story. Short stories have been around in various shapes and forms for just about as long as anyone can remember. The development of the modern short story, however, owes much to a 19th century Russian — Anton Chekhov.

More than any writer before him, Chekhov dealt with both the mundaneness and mysteriousness of life. He eschewed facile conclusions, avoided judging his characters and focused on internal emotion rather than external event. In 1987, when 25 eminent authors were asked to name the most crucial influences on their work, Chekhov received double the nominations of any other writer.

In the first half of the 20th century, American publications such as The Atlantic Monthly and Saturday Evening Post paid healthy sums for stories, attracting such luminaries as Faulkner and Fitzgerald. Post-war America boasted many of the short format’s most enthusiastic and skilled practitioners, including Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor and John Updike.

The 1960s and ‘70s saw writers such as Borges, Barthelme and Gass attempt to shake up what they saw as conservatism in the short story’s form. However, Raymond Carver, arguably the most influential figure in the ‘80s, harked back to Chekhov with his widely admired minimalist style.

Although one country — America — will most likely continue its dominant role, the short story looks set to have an exciting cosmopolitan future. In the summer of 2010, The New Yorker published a list of the 20 ‘best’ fiction writers under the age of 40, all of whom have written short stories, and currently living in North America. The list included writers from Nigeria (Adichie), Peru (AlarcÓn), Latvia (Bezmozgis), China (Li), Ethiopia (Mengestu), Yugoslavia (Obreht) and Russia (Shteyngart).

In contrast to a 600-page novel, a short story that doesn’t quite live up to an overly fervent recommendation will rob you of a mere hour (or thereabouts) of your time. With this in mind, I look forward to hearing what you thought about one or more of the following five marvellous tales. No excuses accepted.

Araby — James Joyce (from Dubliners)
The young narrator is besotted with his friend’s older sister, intending to purchase for her a gift from a bazaar. Joyce popularised the term ‘epiphany’ in a secular context and each of the stories in his collection Dubliners feature characters who arrive at a moment of revelation. In Araby, this moment comes in the lyrical last sentence.

You’re Ugly, Too — Lorrie Moore (from Like Life)
ZoË Hendricks is an eccentric history lecturer fighting against pressure from family and lovers to conform. At one point in the story she concludes that “all men, deep down, wanted Heidi”. Moore deals with feminist concerns with no little wit and without ever slipping into didacticism. This cleverness allows her to pull off the grotesque symbolic imagery of the second half of the story.

Signs and Symbols — Vladimir Nabokov (from Nabokov’s Dozen) This moving story about a mentally disturbed young man and his elderly parents sees the author of Lolita rein in his more mischievous impulses. Nabokov famously posited ‘beauty plus pity’ as a definition of art; here, the two combine to memorable effect.

Good Country People — Flannery O’Connor (from A Good Man is Hard to Find)
When the haughty and atheistic protagonist of this story encounters a simple travelling Bible salesman, the possibility of romance seems remote. If the preceding sentence suggests a rather sentimental offering, nothing could be further from the truth. In many short stories, the title will appear just once, if at all. In Good Country People, the title appears half a dozen times, as O’Connor builds to an astonishing climax.

A Silver Dish — Saul Bellow (from Him With His Foot in His Mouth)
The longest story here, A Silver Dish is still easily consumed in a single sitting and never outstays its welcome. Bellow was one of the greatest prose writers of the last century and his warm humour is wonderfully displayed in this tale about father and son.