MJ Hyland, novelist and lecturer, recommends…

(CLASSIC: from The Overcoat and Other Short Stories, Dover Thrift Editions)

Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’, tells the story of a penniless petty clerk, Akaky Akakievich, who saves to buy a new winter coat. When the coat is stolen in the streets of St Petersburg, revenge is taken, and a ghostly and staggering atmosphere is conjured. I first read this story when I was sixteen and knew that I would be a writer and that I’d set out to do at least some of what Gogol had done. The fictional world of The Overcoat is not only a piercing social satire but an exacting and unforgettable frame for one of the greatest psychological studies of human grief.

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(MODERN: from Creatures of the Earth: New and Selected Stories, Faber)

John McGahern’s short story Creatures of the Earth is perfectly formed and its unsettling plot-line stings. Two young men take a cat from an old woman’s garden and drown it in the sea. But the story isn’t ‘about’ the hulligans or the cat, but the old woman and her grief for her dead husband. McGahern was Ireland’s Chekhov, a heart-breaking writer, never grandiose, never showy – not ever – no straining for effect, no conspicuous attempts to prove his intelligence, and his power comes in this story, as in almost all of his stories, by telling a fictional truth with a dignified, consummate and quiet control.

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