‘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