I was recently at a literacy summit in Oxford, and called in, as one does, to Blackwells bookshop. In the foreign fiction section I found to my astonishment that three previously unavailable works by the great German writer Alfred Doblin (of Berlin Alexanderplatz fame) had been newly translated. The only trouble was, each was an absolute doorstop of a book, none less than 500 pages. After a short struggle, I turned away, because I couldn't imagine finding the time to read them.
It's not that I do not enjoy a long read; nor do I know how long my superhuman restraint will last with regard to those books. For there is no greater pleasure than living with a great book for a long time. But experience has taught me that, in amongst other reading, a great novel, or series of novels, such as my current long read – Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy – might take me a year at least to complete.
That is the joy of a great short story. You are quickly done. And, in the hands of a great artist of the short form, you are never undone. Because a great short story can, in summarising an experience, live just as long in the memory, and make as much of an impression on the heart and mind, as a longer text.
Indeed skill and sheer craft in a short story may be even more necessary than in longer forms. As Isaac Babel – pre-eminent genius of compression – once advised: 'No iron can pierce the human heart as chillingly as a full stop placed at the right time. . . A phrase is born into the world both good and bad. . . The secret lies in a slight, an almost invisible twist. The lever should rest in your hand, getting warm, and you can only turn it once, not twice.'
The five stories chosen here – four short, plus one novella – are tales that have never left me since I first encountered them. The pleasure of reading and re-reading them over the years, and the childlike amazement their supreme artistry inspires in me each time, can never fade. It is my hope you'll find the same, and that this will lead you to explore the work of these five masters in greater detail. Much pleasure awaits.