Numbers in the Dark – Tales & Dialogues 1968-1984 by Italo Calvino

As with the opening collection dating fromthe first half of his career, these collected stories never amount to much ontheir own, nor in this collection. There are a few notable exceptions, but theonly story that works well is “The Memoirs of Casanova”: a really exciting andoriginal take on love and knowing people. There are a few stories taken fromCalvino’s Cosmicomics series which work well, but don’t really belong here,though it’s nice to find them floating off kind of on their own. The fewdialogues in the collection amount to an interesting new approach for Calvino,but one he doesn’t take up with any determination; he must have seen the formas wanting somehow, and it is.

Mr A


The 50 Best Short Stories of All Time?


“Signs and Symbols” (Vladimir Nabokov)

A Good Man Is Hard to Find

The Snows of Kilimanjaro (Ernest Hemingway)

The Fly (Katherine Mansfield)

In the Penal Colony

A Hunger Artist

“The Lame Shall Enter First” (Flannery O’connor)

The Lottery

“The Use of Force” (William Carlos Williams)

“The Rocking Horse Winner” by D.H. Lawrence

The Yellow Wallpaper

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (Joyce Carol Oates)

I Robot Isaac Asimov

Olive Kitteridge

The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien)




“Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri

Will You Please Be Quiet Please?

The Celebrated Jumping Frog

Rikki Tikki Tavi by Rudyard Kipling

The Body

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The Tell-Tale Heart (Edgar Allan Poe)

Sound of Thunder (Ray Bradbury)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

“The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell

“Three Questions” (Leo Tolstoy)

“The Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

The Fall of the House of Usher

Harrison Bergeron

The Nose

The Diamond as Big as the Ritz & Other Stories

“The Looking Glass” (Anton Chekhov)

“The South” (Jorge Luis Borges)

“The Swimmer” by John Cheever

To Build a Fire by Jack London

The Nightingale and the Rose (Oscar Wilde)

“Meneseteung” (Alice Munro)

“The Happy Man” (Jonathan Lethem)

The Second Bakery Attack” (Haruki Murakami)

Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx

“The Story” (Amy Bloom)

“The Necklace” (Guy De Maupassant)

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce

The Monkey’s Paw

Pastoralia – George Saunders

“Man From the South” (Roald Dahl)


Top Reads of 2018

Top Reads of 2018If I had to pick a top ten reads for this year, I’d struggle. So I’ve decided on 15. What novel did I enjoy the most? What book had the greatest impression on me? Well, Dickens doesn’t make the list. On reading “Our Mutual Friend”, which Italo Calvino reckons (in “why Read the Classics”), I’m finding it a bit of a chore: it’s a bit Dickens-overdone. The order is a little troubling and presents a challenge, so I didn’t bother.


  1. Villette by Charlotte Bronte


  1. The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet


  1. The Charterhouse of Parma by Henri Stendhal


  1. Forty Stories by Donald Barthelme


  1. Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov


  1. Mr Palomar by Italo Calvino


  1. Pricksongs and Descants by Robert Coover


  1. Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi


  1. A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov


  1. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani


  1. Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino


  1. Contempt by Alberto Moravia


  1. Blow Up – Stories by Julio Cortázar


  1. War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy


  1. The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield



Numbers in the Dark – Fables & Stories 1943-1958  by Italo Calvino

Numbers in the Dark CalvinoOther than the title story, “Numbers in the Dark”, not much stood out in this collection, which represents the early period of Calvino’s output. Bookended by almost great “The Path to the Spider’s Nest” of 1947 and the fully great “Mr Palomar” of 1983, Calvino’s literary career has, if anything been unusual. Passing through “Cosmicomics”, “Invisible Cities” and “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller” one may well become a little dizzy. But this is as it should be. And, I suppose, as it is for all great writers. The title story of this collection, “Numbers in the Dark”, is a genuinely beautiful example of a piece of fiction that works. On being read again, and again, it works again and again.


Mr A

The Doves Nest & Unfinished Stories by Katherine Mansfield

The Doves Nest & Unfinished Stories by Katherine MansfieldMansfield was about something different in this collection, one that she never completed. The incomplete stories may offer some clues as to where she was going, but they don’t give the reader much in the way of satisfaction. But then, what satisfaction can a reader be expecting? There’s a kind of newness about some of the incomplete stories, not the unconvincing experimental approach of some of her stories from ‘Bliss’, which was completed some years before ‘The Garden Party and Other Stories’, but a kind of promise, though one that isn’t quite fulfilled. One or two of the stories, such as ‘The Dolls House’ work in the fashion of ‘The Garden Party’. ‘The Fly’ is perhaps the most interesting story of the collection: what is the reader’s satisfaction upon reading it? A rather grim one. But one you certainly wouldn’t renounce.

What is a story such as ‘The Fly’ for? It’s like asking what a great work of art is for: well, look at it and see!

Mr A

The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield

The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine MansfieldThese are stories that work as pieces of literature – they do more than simply bemuse, pass the time, occupy an idle hour – they change us. The reader will leave many of these stories ‘At the Bay’, ‘Daughters of the Late Colonel’ or ‘An Ideal Family’ altered in some way: these are stories that ‘touch’ us, not through their sentimentality, but because they ring true in their presentation of an aspect of life, and more than touch us, they seem to cut at us, wound us a little, rough us up perhaps: we’re given a not so gentle shake. We are not merely getting life in many of its facets reflected back at us: life is represented, it is shaped, it is dusted off, it is framed, and maybe it is wrung out too, and as it is served up to us, it is dropped in our lap. What is the art of the short story? What is literature for? Upon reading ‘The Garden Party’ or ‘The Stranger’ one feels one knows. These are not merely beautifully piquant examples of defamiliarisation; we’re not merely seeing an aspect of life anew: we’re seeing it for the first time, and we are troubled by it.

I have read these stories many times; each time I read them I am troubled anew, but gladden anew too: Mansfield is a master of the form, right up there with James and Chekov. Modern short story writers don’t seek to do better what Mansfield, James and Chekov have done; they are about a very different business, and go about that business in new and exciting ways.

Mr A

Parson’s Pleasure by Roald Dahl

Parson_s Pleasure by
Roald DahlIs this a “great short story”?

I would say no.

Does it engage the reader? Yes

Is it well written? Yes

Beautifully written? Yes, if “beautiful” means clearly, succinctly and fluently; if it means any more than this, then who knows. But let’s say it is beautifully written, in every possible meaning of the word “beautiful”.

But does it do anything to the reader over and above occupy them for twenty minutes, even if that’s an enjoyably spent twenty minutes? Even, if in that twenty minutes, the reader is marveling at how it can possibly end up, and then gets a real thump by the end: well, fancy that? Because it’s one of those stories – with an end, a reveal, a bang. You know it form the very first sentence – it’s so perfectly discernable in every twist and turn,  just as it is in the way it starts to subtly twist and turn from the off.

And you do get quite a bang for your buck with this one, and the reverberations may well be there for quite some time after the story has come to an end. But over and above that slight shiver of fancy-that, there’s nothing else. No “take-away”.

This is a piece of literature that tells us nothing about ourselves, a piece of literature from which we learn nothing; there is no insight for the reader, no themes revealingly touched upon, turned over or turned inside out. we’ll not see the world one jot differently by the end of this story, no more than after reading the ingredients of a bag of crisps. We will be ourselves just the same, the world will be as it was, and we’ll be none the wiser about any aspect of anything.

So, as a piece of literature, I would say that this story, despite being brilliant in one way, fails. It fails in every important way. 

Quite far into the set up of the story, one about a conman looking for antiques from unsuspecting country folk, the narrator breaks out of the protagonist’s point of view, to give us this:

“The oldest of the three was a stumpy man with a wide frog mouth and small shifty eyes, and although Mr Boggis didn’t know it his name was Rummins and he was the owner of the farm.
The tall youth beside him who appeared to have something wrong with one eye, was Bert; the son of Rummins.
The shortish flat-faced man with a narrow corrugated brow and immensely broad shoulders was Claud. Claud had dropped in on Rummins in the hope of getting a piece of pork or ham out of him from the pig that had been killed the day before. Claud knew about the killing – the noise of it had carried far across the fields – and he also knew that a man should have a government permit to do that sort of thing, and that Rummins didn’t have one.”

…so when we get this: “Again the silence, and Mr Boggis glanced quickly from Rummins to Bert, then to Claud then back again to Rummins, and he noticed that each of them had the same peculiar expression on his face, something between a jeer and a challenge, with a contemptuous curl to the mouth and a sneer around the nose.” the reader is already clued up, over and above the protagonist: why? Or why? We so want to read on. We have that faint feeling of dread in our stomachs: I know and I don’t know. This is suspense, artfully turned, deftly played and expertly refined: Dahl is a master of the story, of narrative, of suspense. 

Sure – there’s a delicate balancing act being maintained, so when we’re told “’You know what I think?’ Rummins said, fixing him with his small wicked eyes. `I think you’re after buying the stuff yourself. Why else would you be going to all this trouble?’” we are tipped quite far, maybe even too far, one way rather than the other. But no – we are still held in suspense.

Then it happens, that is ‘something’: “He must have time to think, he told himself. More important still, he must have time to compose himself thoroughly before he said another word. Take it gently, Boggis. And whatever you do, keep calm.” And the reader will be thinking – oh here we are, just what I’ve been expecting. Or is it? oh the suspense!

So as the plot thickens – and there is only plot in this story (Oh how will things turn out?) – Dahl opts for the subtlest but surest signs and markers: “He looked around and saw the three men standing absolutely still, watching him suspiciously, three pairs of eyes, all different but equally mistrusting, small pig-eyes for Rummins, large slow eyes for Claud, and two odd eyes for Bert, one of them very queer and boiled and misty pale, with a little black dot In the centre, like a fish eye on a plate.”

Dahl never lets up: “Walk slowly, Boggis. Keep calm, Boggis. There’s no hurry now.”

The ending doesn’t disappoint. But it’s just that and only that: an ending. This story doesn’t reach beyond it.

Great literature doesn’t come to an end. This story does – the satisfaction is acute, but ultimately shallow. No sustenance.

Mr A