‘At the Bay’ by Katherine Mansfield

I first read Katherine Mansfield as a child. I still have my dad’s copy of In a German Pension sitting on my desk, but my favourite, rather unwieldy story has become ‘At the Bay’, It forms a kind of trilogy with ‘Prelude’ and ‘The Doll’s House’. Time moves strangely here, expanding wherever Mansfield chooses to breathe into it. There’s a sense of a world enchanted, filled with creatures of portent and potential. Visually the whole thing is preoccupied with what we can’t see and what hasn’t yet appeared and the narrator is at no pains to explain — the unknowing is part of the magic. I also love this story for its children. Little Lottie’s inability to pronounce the word ‘emerald’ became the title for my story ‘Nemeral’.

First published in the London Mercury, 1922. Widely collected and anthologised. Read Online

‘House Taken Over’ by Julio Cortázar, translated by Paul Blackburn

There’s a kind of tenderness and intensity that I crave in short stories and ‘House Taken Over’ has it in spades. It’s a little dark and quite surreal: a house is slowly occupied by an unnamed force while its inhabitants strive to keep a hold of their kitchen. The last two sentences are an unexpected love note to humankind and another clear message is that in times of crisis one could do worse than getting on with one’s knitting.

This translation was first published in Blow-up and Other Stories, New York: Pantheon Books, 1963. Read Online)

‘The Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka, translated by Susan Bernofsky

This is perhaps stretching the bounds of what counts as a short story, but I have such a clear memory of reading ‘The Metamorphosis’ as a teen. How, I asked myself, did this hundred-year-old salesman know so much about how it felt to be a fourteen-year-old girl? I reread it at least once a year, and have a quiet obsession with Gregor’s sister Grete, who is at the heart of a new book I’ve just started to write. My favourite translation is one of the newest, by Susan Bernofsky, recent winner of the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.

‘Die Verwandlung’ was first published in Die Weißen Blätter, 1915.

‘Figures in the Distance’ by Jamaica Kincaid

This story navigates a child’s early encounters with death. Aspects of her life find sharp and bright relief as she entertains a humorous and deeply creative kind of curiosity about the end, and everyday occurrences take on a sinister mystique: ‘One person had known very well a neighbor who had gone swimming after eating a big lunch at a picnic and drowned. Someone had a cousin who in the middle of something one day just fell down dead. Someone knew a boy who had died after eating some poisonous berries. “Fancy that,” we said to each other.’

First published in The New Yorker, 1983. Subsequently included as part of the novel Annie John (Vintage)

‘Extra’ by Yiyun Li

As a nervous student of creative writing, I stumbled upon a conversation in Aysmptote between Claire Wigfall and Yiyun Li, both of whose stories I came to love. In that conversation, Yiyun Li discusses her literary relationship with William Trevor and the ways in which her stories form dialogues with his. This kind of writerly kinship seemed so liberating and hopeful to me. Almost all the stories I’ve written attempt a dialogue with another literary object. Among these is ‘Extra’, a particularly quiet and affecting example of Li’s work.

First published in The New Yorker, 2003. Read online

‘Last Night’, by James Salter

A spooky, sexy, not-quite ghost story, this one exemplifies many of the literary features traditionally associated with short fiction, particularly in terms of what it is that makes a good ending. For me, the tingliest moments of it come through the almost-whispered details: ‘They sat together in the living room as if they had come from a big party but were not quite ready for bed. Walter was thinking of what lay ahead, the light that would come on in the refrigerator when the door was opened.’ It’s a story I’d like someone to read to me in a darkened room.

First published in The New Yorker, 2002 and collected in Last Night: Stories (Picador) Read online.

‘Helen’ by Can Xue, translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping

This translation was first published in Conjunctions: 40, 2003

Can Xue’s fiction has much in common with Kafka’s: there’s a flat, dreamlike quality, and a sense of vast imaginative possibility, even within systems of impenetrable illogic. One of her stories begins: ‘My mother has melted into a basin of soap bubbles.’ ‘Helin’ is about a girl made to live in a glass cabinet. Expect permeable realities, impermeable truths, exuberance and humour, all washed down with illiberal quantities of exclamation marks. Not for everyone, but if Freud had read this instead of Shakespeare and Sophocles, pop culture would be adrift with mother-bubble complexes and glass cabinet syndromes, such is the archetypal heft of Can Xue’s ideas.

‘True short story’ by Ali Smith

I discovered Ali Smith in my early twenties and wasted a good deal of time attempting to write stories in her ‘style’, an act of mimicry I now understand to be impossible (at least, for me). Style, form and genre are notions Smith treats with elastic generosity. This story is part-anecdote, part-joke, part-myth, part-memoir, part-essay and part-speculation on what a short story is at all. With Ali Smith, there’s always voice in an intimate, embodied sense — the feeling that a good and trusted person is sitting with you, reading the story very quickly and quite close to your ear.

First published in Prospect Magazine, 2005 and collected in The First Person and Other Stories, Hamish Hamilton, 2008. Read online.

‘A Hope’ by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson

Part of what I enjoy about Kafka and Can Xue is that I don’t get a sense from within their work that it desires to be read in a certain way. It’s wide open. To a certain extent, it doesn’t care. Clarice Lispector’s stories have something of this as well. ‘A Hope’ is a pithy little pun of a tale, playing on the fact that, in Portuguese, ‘uma esperança’ means both ‘a hope’ and ‘a cricket’, as in the spindly green creature. Lispector’s playfulness and Katrina Dodson’s artful translation bring to life all kinds of ideas, without ever losing sight of what it is to be a person among these theoretical shapes. If this were a desert island anthology, I think I’d be glad of that.

This translation was first published in The Complete Stories, London: Penguin Classics, 2015.

‘Some Kind of Safety’ by Jessie Greengrass

This story has something of Lispector in it — a playfulness and a willingness to move between question, conjecture, statement and back again. There’s much of contemporary life in here — cat videos, cheese slices, sad lamps — but these recognisable phenomena arise in an uncanny, not-quite-as-we-know-them way. I think this story has something to say about attention and the magic of looking at things till they’re strange. For that reason, I find myself going back to it, time and again.

First published in An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw it, London: John Murray, 2015.

‘DD/MM/YY’ by May-Lan Tan

From the patently mind-blowing, world-consuming collection Things to Make and Break, ‘DD/MM/YY’ is a story of doubles and disguises. There are twins, replays and could-have-beens, like a hot, high and heavy kind of Plato’s cave. Amid the sex and the drugs, there’s humour and a lot of real human feeling. The writing is luminous and the simplest turn can break your heart: ‘When I was little, I could always feel the promise of it, like a tooth. A germ that would develop into something no-one in the world has ever seen before. It’s not there anymore.’

First published in Things to Make and Break, London: CB Editions, 2014

‘The Bird Thing’ by Julianne Pachico

This is story is not overtly surreal, magical or supernatural, at least not in the manner of Kafka or Can Xue, but it shares something with these writers — a sense of real-life being lived as science fiction. ‘The Bird Thing’ is full of suggestion and possibility, built through texture, light and colour: ‘The bird thing has just left. You can tell even before you open the door. The pot has boiled over; the stovetop is covered with a strange white crust, the egg cracked open and cooked away into a frothy grey mist.’ I ought to add that Pachico is my friend, but when you read this story you’ll know it’s earned its place.

(First published in The White Review, 2015. Read online.)

End note

Another great short fiction writer, Philip Langeskov, once said that to read a short story collection from start to finish is ‘to do yourself a mischief’. With that in mind, I recommend one a day. Think of it as medication. Take it before or after food, perhaps huddled under a blanket, perhaps hiding under your desk. If someone happens to disturb you, hold up the book. Offer a corner of the blanket. Like cigarettes, poems and unwanted advice, short stories belong to a different economy.