‘The Modern Soul’ by Katherine Mansfield

In addition to hymning The New, the Modernist ‘little magazines’ of the early 20th Century were proselytisers for a wafty and pretentious mishmash of the ancient, the other and the generically ‘spiritual’. In 1911, their rarefied sensibilities were the subject of a story by one of their most enthusiastic contributors, Katherine Mansfield. At one point the titular character “absorbed my outward and visible form with an inward and spiritual glance and then repeated the magnificent gesture for my benefit.” Later, having discussed Heine, Sappho and her own “tragedy” she announced she was going to faint and then “indicated the exact spot and dropped quite beautifully”. The story appeared in an issue of The New Age; shortly after, a head-dressed Mansfield was photographed stretched out on a sofa covered by a Bedouin-style drape, having clearly had a very hard day. Can any story before or since have been so wittily self-aware, so caustically self-deprecating?

First published in The New Age, 1911. Collected in In a German Pension, Stephen Swift, 1911. Read it online here

‘La Plage’ by Alain Robbe-Grillet, translated by Barbara Wright

In the face of some stiff competition, I enjoyed the most profound skiving of my working life whilst working at the library of the University of Birmingham. It was there, browsing an archive of The London Magazine, that I uncovered a story by Alain Robbe-Grillet, a practitioner of the ‘theory of pure surface.’ I found La Plage mesmeric, its circular anti-poetry utterly compelling. It had a profound effect on my own writing too: for months I aped Robbe-Grillet’s austere prose, eschewing all colour and movement and obvious depth in favour of the matter-of-fact, an approach that very nearly left my career as cold as the North Sea.

First published in French in Instantanés, 1962. First published in English in The London Magazine. Collected in Parallel Text: French Short Stories 1, Penguin, 1966. Read it online here

‘Uncle Sam Carrington’ by Leonora Carrington

All right, I thought to myself, the journey has begun. The night will surely bring a solution. If I keep count of the trees until I reach the place I’m going to, I shan’t get lost. I’ll remember the number of trees on the return journey.
But I’d forgotten that I could only count to ten, and even then I made mistakes. In a very short time I’d counted to ten several times, and I’d gone completely astray. Trees surrounded me on all sides. ‘I’m in a forest,’ I said, and I was right.
The full moon shone brightly between the trees, so I was able to see, a few yards in front of me, the origins of a distressing noise. It was two cabbages having a terrible fight. They were tearing each other’s leaves off with such ferocity that soon there was nothing but torn leaves everywhere and no cabbages.

Collected in The Debutante and Other Stories, Silver Press, 2017. Read it online here

‘39’ by Jim Crace

I introduced myself to Jim Crace when you could still find his email address online, as I’d written a book set in the suburb where he lived. By way of thanks for the generosity of his response, I bought him a lump of Mahon, because who doesn’t like cheese? Earlier, he had written a series of short stories about food. Number 39 is about a man who goes fishing and dies of botulism; like the other sixty-three it is droll and full of memorable images and, despite its elegance, insidiously unnerving too.

First published in The Devil’s Larder, Viking, 2001

‘Greed’ by Diane Williams

I don’t know if I’ll be a fan of Diane Williams’ stories in ten years’ time or whether, by then, I’ll consider them arch. For now though, and since I first encountered them, I find that their painstakingly spontaneous contortions – not to mention their plentiful exclamation marks! – mean they read like no other short fiction.

First published in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, CB Editions, 2016. Read it online here

‘A Stone Woman’ by AS Byatt

I once thought I ought to read some AS Byatt. You know, to improve myself. Shortly after I gave a copy of Possession back to the British Red Cross, defiled now by a series of ever-bigger question marks in the margins, I found The Little Black Book of Stories, and this quietly extraordinary work. It doesn’t seem to know what it is (fable? meditation? yarn?) but will stay with you for years…

First published in The New Yorker, October 13, 2003. Collected in The Little Black Book of Stories, Chatto, 2003

‘FRAME-TALE’ by John Barth

Here Barth challenges the reader to accept that ultimately fiction is something made, a construction of language. A “story” is just that, an ordered contrivance that is not a direct reflection of “reality” but an alteration of it, its transformation by art. By calling attention to his narrators narrating, to the “storyness” of stories… Barth implicitly asks readers to reconsider their expectations of a work of fiction, to acknowledge that the writer might use the form in a different way, might in fact abandon the form in its traditional guise altogether. Does fiction as literary art consist only of the skill with which the writer carries out the familiar narrative strategies, or can the writer achieve other kinds of aesthetic effects, arising from alternative arrangements of form and language?

(From The Quarterly Conversation)

First published in Lost in the Funhouse, Doubleday, 1968. Read it online here

‘And After’ by Joanna Walsh

Literally every sentence of ‘And After’ – one after the other – ends in an unexpected place, subverting the expectations of the reader as it unfurls. As such, you might think that the story risks overstaying its welcome; that it doesn’t come close is a testament to both Walsh’s technical excellence and her feel for the shape and balance of each construction, and how they fit together.

First published in Vertigo, And Other Stories, 2016

‘Autumn Afternoon’ by Robert Walser, translated by Tom Whalen, with Nicole Köngeter and Annette Wiesner

Robert Walser described his stories as ‘shortish or longish chapters of a novel. The novel I am constantly writing is always the same one, and it might be described as a variously sliced up or torn-apart book of myself.’ Autofiction, then. In ‘Autumn Afternoon’, the narrator goes for a walk through a hyperreally voluptuous countryside. Read in hindsight – it was written in 1914; Walser was diagnosed with schizophrenia and suffered from hallucinations; his dead body was found in a field – it is almost unbearable.

First published in English in Girlfriends, Ghosts and Other Stories, NYRB, 2016. Read online here

‘What the Sky Sees’ by Jon McGregor

In an attempt to solve the taxing problem of how to write whilst working for a living, I imagined I’d be able to combine the two if I taught. Shortly after the publication of my third book then, and thirty years after I left school with next-to-no qualifications, I parlayed my publishing history into a degree and began an MA in Creative Writing. Exposure to life within Higher Education gave me a few pointers about my new career goal and I quickly decided I’d rather punch myself in the face than teach the arts at university; on the plus side I was finally made to read some Jon McGregor, whose work I think is superb.

First published by Granta 78: Bad Company, 2012. Collected in This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You, Bloomsbury, 2012. Read it online here in a version that includes a later iteration, ‘In Winter the Sky’.