Mark Twain said that “ a classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read,” (The Disappearance of Literature, 1900) and it is bearing this in mind that I have come up with the following short list. Everybody wants to be able to discuss Joyce, Kafka, Melville and the like, but a quick dose of Ulysses or Moby Dick has sent many running for the hills.
A quicker and easier way to acquaint oneself with the great minds of literary history is through their best short works. The following are a few of the greatest works of the undisputedly canonical figures in literature, and lack nothing in readability, having all the depth and linguistic virtuosity of their lengthier cousins, but little in the way of obtuseness or experimental use of language. They are all accessible, yet endlessly provocative. What’s more, they’re all available free online.
Bartleby, by Herman Melville
Melville’s masterpiece, Moby Dick, is, it cannot be argued, long and digressive. “Bartleby” is a short and readable tale. It is told with extreme clarity and without notable adornment, yet it is profoundly enigmatic, and its central character is one to haunt your dreams and make you question what it means to participate in society, and what it means to refuse, to “prefer not to”.
Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
In his works of the 1910s and 20s, Kafka
invented a whole new way of looking at the world and ourselves, and it isn’t pretty. This is a stunning tale, that will have you hooked from the famous first sentence, and linger in the mind long after you’ve turned the last page. A must-read, perhaps the most important short story of the 20th century.
The Kiss, by Anton Chekhov
If he had never written a short story, his name would still be remembered for his drama (Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, etc.), and if he had never written a play, he would still be famed for his short stories. He was quite a guy. This is a beautifully bittersweet and understated tale about a timid and gentle young officer, whose imagination runs away with him after a chance encounter.
Markheim, by Robert Louis Stevenson
This great short story comprises a single scene from a man’s life, not just any old scene, though, but a dramatic enactment of the struggle within a man between good and evil, when Markheim is tempted by a dark stranger, and must decide, even if he can no longer love what is good, can he still hate what is evil? For just a few minutes, you will know what it is like to stand at such a moral crossroads, with your soul in the balance, in this immensely vivid and memorable tale.
The Kreutzer Sonata, by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy’s most famous works
, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, are weighty doorstop tomes, but luckily he was also a master of the short form. This longish short story is among his most famous, and in its views of gender relations and sexuality it is guaranteed to provoke a reaction of some sort. A good choice for a book club, perhaps, for its manageable length and the certainty that it will lead to animated, perhaps even heated, discussion.
The Dead, by James Joyce
Joyce’s reputation for obscurity is well-earned, but it’s based totally on his later work. In the Dubliners short-story collection that began his literary career, he’s just a very good writer in a conventional sense. “The Dead
” is the collection’s longest story, an exquisitely-observed account of a small epiphany in the life of an unremarkable man, set in a New Year’s get-together in middle-class Dublin, with every line of dialogue and every detail perfectly weighted.