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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
Admittedly, including Tanizaki’s nostalgic essay stretches beyond breaking point any definition of a short story, but the line between memoir and fiction is no longer viable. We don’t need these distinctions in literature, which is ultimately just different ways of exposing the ‘I’. Tanizaki argues that the East is yielding to the West’s obsession with illumination, that we should learn to understand and appreciate shadows rather than seeking their destruction. He equates shadow with mystery and the feminine, and the quest to eradicate shadows with masculine domination. What Tanizaki’s essay shares with the best of fictional narrative is to offer access of a kind to the reality of time.
First published in Japanese in 1933. First English publication, 1977. In Praise of Shadows, Sora Books, 2017
The title refers to an image by photographer Clarence H. White, in which a solitary woman walks through a misty landscape carrying a glass globe. There is a kind of constraint, evocative of the repression which haunts all Bennett’s interlinked stories. It is an exquisite story, tense and banal in equal measure. This book holds a record for me, for the amount of times I abandoned it part-read, only to be haunted by its voice, to return to it and abandon it time and time again. It still has the force to irritate me, yet has become a book I return to almost monthly. The notion of self as alienating and enigmatic rather than familiar is ever-present. It calls into question recognition and perception.
Included in Pond, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015
I must declare my disinterest in Krasznahorkai’s unbearably gravid prose, the questions he addresses are of little interest to me. That said, in both The Melancholy of Resistance and War and War, he has written opening chapters that I’ve been unable to forget. Every morning on my way to work, I must cross a railway footbridge. I never do so without recalling the unbearably tense atmosphere that Krasznahorkai described as a ‘single moment of fright’, those moments that arrive and depart for no explicable reason, but leave a scar that never fades.
From War and War, Tuskar Rock Press, 2016. It is available online here
No aspect of Zambreno’s prose is more uniquely singular than its narrative voice. Her voice fills every page. Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?/The world would split open.” The truth that Zambreno seeks to represent is not authorial but personal. There is something of Dorothy Richardson in Zambreno’s writing, that sensation that this is the closest it is possible to get to another’s mind.
Sometimes described as a novel, Here Is Where We Meet is a collection of stories, with no distinction between the autobiographical and the fiction. Towards the end of the book, Berger writes, ‘The number of lives that enter our own are incalculable.” In the collection, Berger takes stock of the incalculable; the first story is Lisboa, in which he has a lengthy, digressive conversation with his long-dead mother who reappears on a park bench. Berger is such a tender writer with, like Zambreno, an instantly recognisable and unique voice.
From Here Is Where We Meet, Bloomsbury, 2014
It is curious what remains after we close the pages of a book. Julian Barnes is one of those writers I once liked and grew away from as I discovered writers that spoke more directly to me. Though I am sure I couldn’t bear to reread Hygiene, it has stayed with me, an odd and discomfiting story about an old retired major that comes to London once a year for a regimental dinner and to visit a retired prostitute. I no longer have the book, but looked it up the other day while in a bookshop and was shocked by the paucity of the story. I think the story stays with me because it evokes my father’s depression and insecurity, though he would never have hidden behind the fruity military language.
From The Lemon Table, Cape, 2004