‘To Reiterate’ by Lydia Davis

This tiny text folds in on itself like the paper fortune-tellers I make with my children.

You know the ones? You get a square of paper and fold in the corners until it becomes a smaller square. You open it out, turn the square over, fold the corners in again, and again, and you slide your fingers inside the pockets underneath to open it out. It looks like a mouth when you manipulate it.

On each face and under each flap you would typically write numbers or colours or messages. But in the Lydia Davis version of the textual game we’re constructing here, our origami fortune-teller would have only these four words on the hidden and exposed faces: read, write, travel, translate. It’s these four words that Davis interrogates, repeatedly, in ‘To Reiterate’.

Now, let’s invite Michel Butor, George Steiner, and Michel Leiris — writers who Davis invokes in the text, and who have their own ideas about reading, writing, travelling and translating. Whether we play this game with them or simply unfold the paper is up to the reader.

First published in Pequod, 1986; included in The Collected Stories, Hamish Hamilton, 2010

‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ by Katherine Anne Porter

What is this whiteness and silence but the absence of pain?

‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ was originally the final part of a triptych of longer tales alongside ‘Old Mortality’ and ‘Noon Wine’, and I’d encourage anyone to read all three. Porter, with the lightest of touches, infuses the works with a too-real (almost surreal) sense of time passing—past, present, future; morning, noon, night; the turning of the earth, and the ever-present spectre of the Great War—the war to end all wars.

Although Porter tells us the bells are ringing to announce the end of the war, ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ is far from celebratory. We infer much of the story through the fevered dream fragments of a young woman suffering with Spanish influenza. It is a story constructed of symbols, metaphors, and the repeated refrain of an old spiritual once heard sung in the oil fields of Texas. It’s about the peace of death and the violence of living, and an undefined hope for the future. Since this year marks the centenary of the end of the First World War, and because this story is one of the most finely wrought pieces of writing to come out of those last hundred years, it feels like the perfect story for this anthology.

First published in 1937; also in Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Selected Short Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2011)

‘The Glass Essay’ by Anne Carson

I have a soft grey notebook, filled with things I can’t say out loud, things I daren’t write anywhere else. When I think about attempting to write something on the scale of Carson’s Glass Essay, I laugh at my impudence. Some things need to live (or die) a little more before they’re ready.

From Glass, Irony and God, New Directions, 1995. It is also available online here.

‘The Body’ by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson

Xavier was a belligerent and red-blooded man. He loved tangos. He went to see Last Tango in Parisand got awfully turned on. He didn’t get the movie: he thought it was a sex film. He didn’t realize it was the story of a desperate man.

To say this story is a sex story is to misunderstand the story. It is erotic, yes, and it is bloody, but most of all it is, of course, the story of a desperate man.

I could’ve chosen any of the 86 stories within this collection that the translator herself describes as “disorientating” and “jarring”. But this particular work, for me, is a such brightly burning example Lispector’s writing style. It jabs and it wounds, and it continues to sting long after you finish reading. The clarity of her images and the pacing of her phrasing is peerless, like this moment, when Xavier goes out with a woman on each arm:

At six in the evening the three went to church. They resembled a bolero. Ravel’s bolero.

The Via Crucis of the Body was written in the last decade of Lispector’s life, when she was gravitating towards what she called “antiliterature”. I think ‘The Body’ is a perfect example of her unravelling of language, its depletion, its rawness. It is built on a skeleton of bare, disjointed sentences. Its flesh yields slender, precious threads of pathos and passion. It is oracular and spontaneous:

Sometimes the two women slept together. The day was long. And, though they weren’t homosexuals, they’d turn each other on and make love. Sad love. One day they told Xavier about it. Xavier quivered.

But before you rush off to read it, let me tell you one of my favourite quotations from a writer on the process of writing. It is quintessential Lispector:

I am not an intellectual. I write with my body. And what I write is a moist joy.

First published as ‘O corpo’ in A via crucis do corpo (The Via Crucis of the Body), 1974; included in The Complete Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2015

‘A Story of Your Own’ by Raymond Queneau, translated by Marc Lowenthal

Once upon a time there were three little peas knocking about on the highways. When evening came, they quickly fell asleep, tired and weary.
if you want to know the rest, go to 5
if not, go to 21

When I was younger we saved tokens from Weetabix boxes to send off in exchange for Choose Your Own Adventure books. They were a real treat. I don’t remember the actual stories, although I do remember thinking it was like reading a different book each time, albeit an overtly familiar one that lead to increasingly predictable conclusions. But what I mostly think about (aside from the excessive Weetabix consumption and a kind of anti-nostalgia for the mid-80s) is the excitement of getting a new book in the post. A brand-new book, with new book smell, pristine pages, and an unbroken spine.

Most of the other books we read were from the library or from church jumble sales and charity shops. The library was a source of limitless treasure. The haphazard breadth of jumble sale and charity shop books ensured I read a wide of range of everything in no particular order, from atlases at the non-fiction end of the shelf, to Georgette Heyer Regency romances at the other. I remember on one particular occasion taking my younger brother to buy a book. We must’ve been about 12 and 10. I was responsible for looking after the two 50 pence pieces (one each) we were given as pocket money. I probably looked at the Mills & Boons but chose an Oxford or Wordsworth Classic. My brother bought a stiff hardback with a shiny dust cover by someone we had never heard of. He didn’t plan to read it. He wanted to stick the pages together then hollow it out to create a secret compartment, like the villain in From Russian With Love who smuggles a handgun inside a copy of War and Peace. (My brother was a massive James Bond fan.) The ladies behind the counter of the RSPCA shop seemed a little flustered when we went to pay. But they sold us the books and we took them home to our parents, who thought Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller was probably not the most appropriate book for a ten-year-old.

Apparently written in 1967, but first published, as ‘Conte à votre façon’, in Contes et Propos, Gallimard, 1981, published in English translation as Stories and Remarks, University of Nebraska Press, 2000

‘The Mark on the Wall’ by Virginia Woolf

This is the short story I have read more times than any other. Since Katherine Angel has also included it in her own Personal Anthology, and her introduction to its beauty, its simplicity, and its playful examination of perception is as perfect an introduction as you will find, I’ll tell you a different story instead.

‘The Mark on the Wall’ kept me strong at a time I felt my weakest. I was living in rented accommodation with my three pre-school-aged children. One night, not long after we moved in, I noticed a mark on the ceiling directly above my bed. It was small and black and freckled, and when I woke each morning it had grown visibly bigger, shifting form like a dark cloud or a nebula, and eventually spreading itself across my bedroom ceiling. I reported it to the landlord who sent someone to look at it. The man stood on my bed and, using a roller on a long pole, covered it up with several deep sweeps. He told me it was special paint that would kill the mould and seal it in so it wouldn’t come back. About a month later, I noticed a small mark on the ceiling above my bed.

I don’t need to tell you about the number of times the landlord sent the man with special paint to cover it up. I don’t need to tell you about the respiratory problems we developed while we lived there. I don’t need to tell you about the housing crisis in the UK or the lack of affordable, safe homes. But every night as I looked at that ceiling I thought, “I have a mark! A mark of my own!” I hoped, someday, to write about it, and that it would mean something.

First published in 1917. Collected in A Haunted House and Other Stories, The Hogarth Press, 1943. Now in Collected Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000

‘Little Recipes from Modern Magic’ by Guillaume Apollinaire, translated by Ron Padgett

I have no idea of the real value of the recipes you’re about to read. But they seemed to me sufficiently odd to arouse one’s curiosity.”

Within this curious document is a “salve for avoiding car trouble”, an incantation for “poetry meters”, an “antihygienic powder for having lots of children”, a “recipe for glory” and an “eau de vie for speaking well”. I don’t think I could add anything else to encourage you to read it.

Apollinaire lived a short, fierce life, dedicated to the arts and to his work within the arts. A French poet of Polish-Belarusian descent, he was also novelist, journalist, art critic, playwright. He coined the terms ‘cubism’, ‘orphism’ and ‘surrealism’. He died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 just three days before the end of the First World War.

First published in Le Poète Assassiné, Bibliothèque des Curieux, 1916. English translation first published in The Poet Assassinated and Other Stories, North Point Press, 1984/Carcanet, 1985, with a UK paperback edition from Grafton Books, 1985.