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
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)
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.
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)
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
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.
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.