Today’s list contains an unpredetermined number of short stories, short-short/flash fiction, and novellas. They are not ranked here. (N) indicates a novella.
The Facts around the Helsinki Rocaccios (N). Yann Martel’s novella recounts a friendship “to death do us part,” and invokes a heroic creativity around this concept.
The Ambitious Guest. In this simple classic, Nathanial Hawthorne evokes all those existential questions that, for many other authors, require tomes. The Snows of Kilimanjaro, be it noted, was Hemingway’s attempt at same.
Terminal. In this very short story, Nadine Gordimer delves love’s confrontation with the impossible.
Tell Me a Riddle (N). Tillie Olsen explores a marriage, a time and its politics, the interweaving of political struggle with ordinary human compassion, a dying woman’s search for meanings, and the real stuff of love. Read this.
I Stand Here Ironing. In these five pages, Olsen brings us into the heart of a mother raising a child against all odds–and learning what human freedom means.
The Long Way Out. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s eloquent “frame” story, we are immersed in a doctor’s account of a young mother’s inability to accept her husband’s death on the day he was to bring her home.
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Ursula K. Le Guin’s tale of the citizens of a near-perfect society built on the sufferings of a single child invites comparison with Dostoevski’s Grand Inquisitor scene. Le Guin’s The Day before the Revolution and her The Shobies are no slouches, either.
The Metamorphosis (N). “One morning Gregor Samsa woke from a night of troubled dreams to discover he had been turned into a giant insect.” Thus begins the most famous and unforgettable of Franz Kafka’s uniquely voiced tales.
Toga Party. Yeah. Usually I don’t go for John Updike’s works, but this one is a classic. Like several others here, it invokes the matter of confronting death–in this case, in the world of suburbia. The story is very well done.
Tlon, Uqbar, [and I forget the other two names] (N). Jorge Borges’s narrator tracks the mysterious manuscripts and artifacts of Tlon [or is it Uqbar?] through the maze of their mental metamorphoses, in this elegant, illuminating exploration (presuming it exists). We may note that this story generated, among innumerable other works, Paula Friedman’s short story Urr. . . , in which a physics-defying spaceship finds (“finds”) the planet Urrrr. . ., “whatever it may be,” whose inhabitants have–and use–an arithmetic entirely (and so, dangerously) different from our own.
The Prayer. This very short story envelopes us in the three voices–everyday, fantasy, and prayer–of a socially isolated, imaginative teenager struggling to emerge from a world of Cold War post-Holocaust banalities. Author is Paula Friedman.
The following four long novellas are definitely classic “bests.”
Notes from Underground (N). Self-doubts,universal questions, frustrations, and sorrows threaten to drown this hero in wonderfully complex, sometimes self-referential, brilliant prose. Fyodor Dostoevsky.
White Nights (N). Doestoevsky tells of the lost love that obsesses and leads the narrator through the long, white Russian nights.
[Title forgotten. (N).] Par Lagerkvist. This is the tale of an overarching love–a simple account of a man and woman who meet, fall in love, overcome obstacles, have and love a baby more than one might have thought possible, and learn what love and loss can mean. A sort of “opposite” is Lagerkvist’s (title novella in) The Eternal Smile, with its millenia of multitudes of dead human souls recalling (through the concepts of) their lives during their quite separated historic and prehistoric epochs.
Heart of Darkness. You know–“Mistah Kurtz, he dead.” Joseph Conrad.
Very good. We now have 10+ “bests” by, mostly, well-known authors, and one or two of my own. And a few extras. Enjoy them all; every one of these short (and longer) fictions is worth reading, and most are unforgettable. But what are your candidates for Best Short Story, Best Flash (short-short) Fiction, Best Novella? And if you like short-short science-fiction, check out the science fiction microstory contest on LinkedIn. Its anthology will come out this winter.