Introduction

For quite a time, if asked, I would say that I disliked short fiction, qualifying my answer with an acknowledgement of the special qualities of certain short stories that embraced the everyday through obliqueness and elision. This wasn’t an entirely honest response, but easier than the admission that it isn’t the form of the short story that makes me apprehensive, but that I don’t really like stories. That isn’t quite true either, but short fiction often makes transparent the scaffolding of fiction that I’ve come to distrust, especially the self-deception of character and the tensions of plot. Nor do I care much for those meticulous, well-crafted sentences that are merely aesthetically pleasing and intelligent. I am drawn most to a writer’s voice, to shape and movements that expose the beauty of another mind, to writing that is hazardous to identity and composure.

‘The Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka, trans. Malcolm Pasley

Malcolm Pasley, unlike the nevertheless brilliant Willa and Edwin Muir, based his translations on the manuscripts before they had appeared in Max Brod’s idiosyncratic German editions, so I’ve always taken Pasley as my baseline Kafka translator. Often described as a short novel, I include The Metamorphosis as it can and should be digested in a single gulp. In these times of severe attention deficit I place my favourite short fiction first on this list. If you have neither time nor inclination to read further, please accept my urging to read, if you haven’t yet got to it, this unspeakably sad story. Read as horror story or allegory – and entire books have been written exploring the symbolism of this story – it will, for the right reader, live up to its promise and leave you altered in a subtle yet radical manner.

‘Die Verwandlung’ was first published in Die Weißen Blätter, 1915. Included in The Transformation (Metamorphosis) and Other Stories, Penguin, 1995 and widely available.

‘Moderato Cantabile’ by Marguerite Duras, trans. Richard Seaver

Another example of a short novel that demands to be taken in a single draught, my definition of short fiction. Read as a story of an almost-affair between two people brought together, as so often in Duras’s stories, by death and eroticism, it will leave you feeling bereft, that something was unsaid that should have been voiced. Read again, without the tension of wondering whether the affair is to be consummated, certain motifs become evident. Without psychological exposition, little plot and the barest of resolution, different readings become possible, almost blank pages that rest on the collaboration of reader and writer.

Published by John Calder, 1966, also available from Oneworld Classics, 2008

‘Bookselves’ by Joanna Walsh

This story rests on an irresistible premise that all your unread books might step from your shelves in the shape of a polyphonous reader to share with you some conversation and a glass of wine. This flesh and blood creation opens up the question of who we would be if we actually read all these carefully hoarded books. It is Reader as pure potential and permanent aspiration.

Included in Worlds From the Word’s End, And Other Stories, 2017

‘The Professor and the Siren’ by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, trans. Archibald Colquhoun

Saturated with the same melancholy and desire as The Leopard, this is the story of a professor’s encounter with a mermaid. Marina Warner, in her introduction to a later edition from NYRB Classics, speculates that Lampedusa’s story is based on Ettore Majorana, a Sicilan physicist that disappeared at sea in 1938. It is a Homeric story written with a concision and voice that is impossible to forget once heard.

Included in Two Stories and a Memory, Collins Harvill, 1962; also available, translated by Stephen Twilley, as The Professor and the Siren, NYRB Classics, 2014

‘The Marquise of O… ’ by Heinrich von Kleist, trans. David Constantine

Kleist is surely due to be (re)discovered. His stories, this one especially, frequently explore the callous violence that men perpetrate against women. Scholars argue about whether the Marquise in Kleist’s story is raped while unconscious; Kleist deals with the matter ambiguously with an infamous dash, which Susan Winnett called “most delicately accomplished rape in our literature”. With its scenes of elided rape and possible incest, it is a troubling story that deserves careful reading and will continue to provoke heated debate amongst its readers.

Included in Selected Writings, J. M. Dent, 1997, and widely collected. 

‘The Glass Essay’ by Anne Carson

I have an ambivalent relationship with Anne Carson’s writing, finding much of it uneven (there is quite a lot of it), but the best, which is this hybrid work, is assured and disturbing. Carson uses free verse to explore the inner weather of a woman recovering from the ending of a serious relationship. She visits her mother accompanied by the books and spirit of her favourite author, Emily Brontë. Reflections on Brontë are interwoven with elucidation of the narrator’s mental state and evocations of the “moor in the north”. The melancholy of the monologue is relieved by Carson’s trademark wit.

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