Twelve stories. Only twelve? At first I wondered whether it would be possible to limit myself to twelve, but as it turns out stories are such recursive things that almost every time I started writing about one in particular, it led me to another, and instead of suppressing that urge I embraced it. Each story, after all, contains an anthology of its own, consisting of all the stories that influenced it and all the stories it has gone on to influence in turn. If all those links were to be explored twelve stories wouldn’t be too few at all. In fact it would be too many.

But still, it’s hard to pick twelve. With all the material available to us, as long as we keep on reading then any list of favourites has the potential to change. To reflect that, I’ve decided to divide this list in two: six stories I’ve been reading for a long time, and six I have discovered in the last two years. I hope you enjoy them.

‘Chablis’ by Donald Barthelme

In the summer of 1993, when I was 18, I stayed in a timeshare apartment in Lanzarote with some friends. The apartment had cable TV, which none of us had back in England, so for hours each day we sat around watching MTV Europe, curtains closed against the permanent sun as our hangovers ebbed.

We heard a handful of songs a host of times: ‘Numb’ by U2, ‘Plush’ by Stone Temple Pilots and Soul Asylum’s ’Runaway Train’ were all in heavy rotation, but it wasn’t the music that made a lasting impression. In 1991 MTV made a series of public information broadcasts called Books: Feed Your Head, designed to get teenagers reading. Two years later, these short films had either only just made it onto MTV Europe or were still playing. Either way, they changed my life. Sherilyn Fenn reading a passage from Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus was fine, as was Aidan Quinn hamming up Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but the one that really sunk its hooks into me was Timothy Hutton, standing at a barbecue in a hot, windy yard perched above a freeway, performing what I later found out was the opening paragraph of a story called ‘Chablis’ by someone called Donald Barthelme.

The extract struck me as being perfect: characterful, unexpected, and honed with the precision of a really fine piece of comedy (watching it again I don’t enjoy Hutton’s delivery as much; I remember it being more deadpan). As soon as I got home I tracked down 40 Stories, found ‘Chablis’ right at the front of it, and started a love affair with Barthelme’s work that continues to this day (although ‘Chablis’, it’s worth noting, is something of a realist outlier for him). To be honest, falling in love with Donald Barthleme probably set my writing back a few years, because there is nothing so disastrous as a bad version of his writing, and any attempt to emulate his writing is bad, or at least inferior.  You can see George Saunders struggling with this influence – far better than most, but still struggling – in his first collection, Civilwarland in Bad Decline.

That same summer of 1993, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son was published in the UK, a book that quickly became my other pole star and which also led me down many treacherous and frustrating paths as a writer. Almost any of the stories in Jesus’ Son could fill both of the old and new halves of this list, because they have lived with me for 25 years but I also re-read the collection so often, and each time find so much in it, that the stories can feel like new discoveries, too.

In his 1981 Paris Review ‘Art of Fiction’ interview, Barthelme was asked about his influences. “They come in assorted pairs”, he said: “Perelman and Hemingway. Kierkegaard and Sabatini. Kafka and Kleist. Kleist was clearly one of Kafka’s fathers”. Robert Musil, when he first read Kafka, described him as “a peculiar case of the Walser type”. Which brings us to…

From 40 Stories, Penguin 1989, first published in the New Yorker December 1983. Hear Etgar Keret read and discuss the story here, and see the MTV short film here

’Kleist in Thun’ by Robert Walser, translated by Christopher Middleton

There are few stories that make me feel as unstable as ‘Kleist in Thun’. Describing a visit by the great German writer Heinrich von Kleist to the Swiss town of Thun, the text lurches between descriptions of natural beauty and nightmarish fears. At one moment Kleist’s surroundings are “like one vast embrace”, the next, “terribly cold and void”. Sentences suddenly drop into darkness, as if the ground has opened under our feet. “Around Thun”, one begins, “the fields are thick with flowers, fragrance everywhere, hum of bees, work, sounds fall, one idles about; in the heat of the sun” – and here we lose our footing – “you could go mad”.

In the first part of the story Kleist wanders the district. He goes boating on Lake Thun, visits the market, and sits on a churchyard wall as the evening grows damp and sultry. Some of Walser’s greatest writing is found here, such as when the distant Alps “come to life and dip with fabulous gestures their foreheads into the water. His swans down there circle his quiet island, and the crests of trees in dark, chanting, fragrant joy float over – over what? Nothing, nothing.”

In the story’s final section Kleist grows frustrated with his writing. “He wants the highest mastery, good, good. What’s that? Not sure? Tear it up. Something new, wilder, more beautiful”. But what he writes “makes him grimace: his creations miscarry”. He “wants to abandon himself to the entire catastrophe of being a poet” – a line that sounds to me like one of Frank O’Hara’s brilliant exclamations – but all that his frenzy leads to are his manuscripts lying scattered on the floor, “like children horribly forsaken by father and mother”.

On the last page, as Kleist and his sister leave Thun in a stagecoach and return to Germany, Walser steps into the foreground, snapping us into the story’s present day. The tempestuous emotions of the story recede, replaced instead with desultory chat about trade fairs and the Bernese Oberland. The shift is surprising and even feels gratuitous, but it can be understood if we consider the ways in which Walser’s life echoed Kleist’s, only in a minor key: Kleist became a national poet, Walser a literary curiosity; Kleist killed himself after shooting his terminally ill lover, Henriette Vogel, while Walser’s suicide attempt ended in failure – “I couldn’t even make a proper noose”, he later noted. In Thun, Kleist wrestled with genius and madness, while Walser, according to the story’s brilliant and unexpected closing lines, “worked as a clerk in a brewery there”. Yet Walser’s story, a unique blend of humour and horror, is also a defiant act: in the minds of those who fall under its influence, it unites these two unalike men forever.

From The Walk, Serpent’s Tail 1992, first published in I think 1913 although some sources claim 1907 – an uncertainty that’s entirely fitting

‘Gusev’ by Anton Chekhov, translated by Rosamund Bartlett

This story, written in 1890, describes a period of days in a stifling sickbay aboard a ship in the Pacific, returning to Russia from the Far East. Gusev, a batman, is baffled by the complaints of his educated companion, Pavel Ivanych, and dreams feverishly of his home village, longing to hurtle into its cold snowdrifts and to see his niece and nephew again. Gusev and Pavel Ivanych, and the soldiers and sailors sharing their cabin, are dying of tuberculosis. They are members of a crop of characters that contracted the disease in the stories Chekhov wrote in this period: a year earlier TB had killed his brother, the artist Nikolai Chekhov, at the age of 31, and in response Chekov had written ‘A Boring Story’ (sometimes translated as ‘A Dreary Story’), a lengthy and depressing account of the illness and death of a scientist. And since 1884 Chekhov had known that he too had TB, and that it would probably be the cause of his death (which it was, in a Black Forest hotel room in 1904, when he was just 44, an event Raymond Carver describes in his 1987 story ‘Errand’).

‘Gusev’ is desolate but also very beautiful, which makes it a notable counterpoint to the unremittingly bleak ‘A Boring Story’. Gusev’s death arrives starkly: “He sleeps for two days, and on the third, at noon, two sailors come down to the sick bay and carry him out”. In plain language Chekhov describes the preparation of the body for burial at sea, with Gusev’s body sewn up in his sailcloth shroud looking “like a carrot or a radish”. Just before the board is lifted and his corpse slides into the water, the soldiers and sailors on deck “look out towards the waves. It is strange to think that a person has been sewn up in a sailcloth and is about to go headlong into the waves. Could that really happen to anyone?”

This question works in tandem with a passage found a couple of pages earlier, when Gusev asks one of his surviving companions to take him up on deck for some air. They stand beside the rail at the bow,

looking silently up above and then down below. Up above is deep sky, clear stars, and silence, exactly like at home in the village, but down below there is darkness and disorder. For no fathomable reason the huge waves are making a lot of noise. Whichever wave you look at, each one tries to go higher than all the others, chasing after and pounding the one before it; a third, just as ferocious and wild, will fall upon it noisily, with its white mane shimmering.

The passage seems to describe the hopelessness of life, its “darkness and disorder”, and reading it makes me think of something similar in Maupassant, when the miserable, abandoned patrons of a temporarily closed bordello in the story ‘Madame Tellier’s Establishment’, stand on a Normandy beach halfway around the world and watch as the “foam on the crest of the waves made bright patches of white in the darkness which disappeared as quickly as they came, and the monotonous sound of the sea breaking on the rocks echoed through the night all along the cliffs” (translated by Roger Colet).

For all the preceding sombreness, the conclusion of ‘Gusev’ is one of the most remarkable and beautiful things in all Chekhov’s work: his focus becomes more expansive as he follows the corpse into the sea, past a shoal of pilot fish and into the path of a shark. Above the water, he continues this movement away from the tight confines of the sickbay, and eventually away from any kind of human concern: the sun is rising and lighting up clouds that resemble “a triumphal arch, another like a lion, and a third like scissors”. The sky takes on rich colours, and the ocean “frowns at first as it looks at this magnificent, mesmerising sky, but it too then takes on those tender, radiant, passionate colours which are difficult to describe in human terms”. It is beautiful, but it is vertiginous, too. It’s a piece of writing I sometimes find consoling and sometimes horrifying. It is a story I find I must return to, but I never do so lightly.

From About Love and Other Stories, Oxford World’s Classics 2004. Read a version from a 1944 collection of Chekhov stories – translator unknown, but it’s not Constance Garnett – here

‘No Place for You, My Love’ by Eudora Welty

A man and a woman meet at a lunch party on a summer’s day in New Orleans. Both are married, but appear to be interested in each other. The man suggests a drive, and Welty’s story follows them south, out of the city and into…what, exactly? A rural, semi-aquatic zone where the roads are made of shell and busy with crayfish, but also, it feels like, some kind of place where the usual way of things is suspended. They race on, this man and woman, and we race on behind them: who are they? What are they looking for? Welty doesn’t ever let the narrative settle long enough for us to find out. When the woman asks a direct question – what’s your wife like? – the man simply lifts his hand to her face to block it, and Welty lifts hers to us in a similar way. The viewpoint of the story is a close third that alternates between both characters, but we never penetrate their thoughts to any real depth; the technique is used to accentuate the distance between them, not dissolve it.

Describing a story by Elizabeth Bowen (a writer who appears later in this anthology), Welty wrote about the “turmoil” of the characters’ “passionate drives, private energies that in their own directions touch yet never can merge or become one together”. The description serves her own story well. These people meet and depart as strangers: “They were strangers to each other” is the first line of the story, and sixteen pages later it could also serve as the last. As we follow them, disorientating sentences appear – “Like a misplaced sunrise, the light of the river flowed up” – and are gone, as car and language pull us on, on, on. Because the story denies us the familiar handholds of character, because of its abrupt beginning and the hallucinatory quality of its description, I can never remember it well. Each time I return its mystery has been replenished, and I read it again almost as if for the first time.

From The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1980. Read the story in the 20 September 1952 issue of the New Yorker ($)

‘The Terminal Beach’ by JG Ballard

‘The Terminal Beach’ marks a watershed in Ballard’s writing. It’s the first story he wrote in which the events it describes are separated out and then studied from various angles in what he described as a “very abstract, almost cubist way”. This style, in which fiction becomes a kind of report on itself, proved fruitful for him throughout the late-1960s, reaching its apogee in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970). In the story, Traven, who is also the protagonist of that later work, finds himself on the deserted Pacific atoll of Eniwetok, an H-bomb test site. It is a landscape of manmade blocks – a “minimal concrete city” – designed to help measure the force of the explosion, an airstrip, submarine pens, and dozens of B-29 bombers lying across one another “like dead reptile birds”.

Traven’s wife and son are dead, and he has come to Eniwetok to conduct some kind of irrational hunt for them. ‘“This island is a state of mind’”, he is told at one point, which gets to the heart of things: “if primitive man felt the need to assimilate events in the external world to events in his own psyche”, Traven thinks, “20th century man had reversed this process; by this Cartesian yardstick, the island at least existed, in a sense true of few other places”. So Eniwetok is an extension or projection of Traven, and in this way for me it becomes paired with the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, the setting of Ernest Hemingway’s story about a fishing trip, ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ (1925), in which Nick Adams’s physical journey through the landscape also becomes a psychic one, the enactment of his struggle to come to terms with his experiences in the First World War.

This idea of the space of the story being the physical expression of a mental state is integral to a significant number of short stories, or perhaps it’s more true to say that I read a significant number of short stories in this way. Grace Paley said that every story consists of “two events or two characters…bumping against each other”, and in his ‘Theses on the Short Story’, Ricardo Piglia writes, “a short story always tells two stories… the point where they intersect are the foundations of the story’s construction”. And what is the subconscious if not a constant second story, set to a lesser or greater extent askew from consensus reality? I like Ballard’s stories for the directness with which they use this doubleness as their material. One almost always feels, reading him, that the setting and the events are projections of a protagonist’s inner life – which is perhaps why those protagonists are themselves relatively blank: all their inside is thrown outside.

Traven begins spending more and more time within the network of concrete blocks scattered across the island. The more lost he gets, the calmer he feels. “Somewhere in the centre of the maze”, Ballard writes, “he sat with his back against one of the concrete flanks, his eyes raised to the sun. Around him the lines of cubes formed the horizon of his world. At times they would appear to advance towards him, looming over him like cliffs, the intervals between them narrowing so that they were little more than an arm’s length apart, a labyrinth of corridors running between them”. That “advance towards him” links ‘The Terminal Beach’ with Kipling’s ‘The Gardener’ (also 1925, like the Hemingway), in which Helen Turrell travels to Hagenzeele to visit the grave of her nephew. Climbing the steps to the cemetery, she meets “the entire crowded level of the thing in one held breath. She did not know that Hagenzeele Third counted twenty-one thousand dead already. All she saw was a merciless sea of black crosses, bearing little strips of stamped tin at all angles across their faces. She could distinguish no order or arrangement in their mass; nothing but a waist-high wilderness as of weeds stricken dead, rushing at her”.

The moment is one of horror. Helen, like Traven, is searching for a dead loved one. She, like him, is perhaps mad with grief: she has a vision of Jesus, while Traven sees his wife and child across a lake, “beckoning to him” (a step too far, probably, to think here of the first sighting of Miss Jessel beside the lake in The Turn of the Screw, but you can’t deny the mind its associations, least of all when reading Ballard). Like Nick Adams, who puts off fishing the swamp, the locations in which these characters are situated reflect and express their internal condition. Traven’s bombed and deserted island, on which tall palms reach “into the dim air like the symbols of a cryptic alphabet”, is a landscape encoded with trauma and grief.

From The Terminal Beach, Gollancz 1964

‘Enrique Martín’ by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews

“A poet can endure anything”, Bolaño’s story begins, but one of the two poets at its centre, Enrique Martín, fails first at poetry, and then at life. Along the way, as Bolaño’s alter ego Arturo Belano relates in this mysterious, melancholy story, we get UFOs, paranoia, squabbles over appearances in small literary magazines, and a Frank O’Hara namecheck. Martín, despised by Belano, is a pathetic figure, a man who “wanted to be a poet, and…threw himself into this endeavour with all his energy and willpower” (which nods back to Walser’s line about Kleist: “he wants to abandon himself to the entire catastrophe of being a poet” – a line that reminds me of O’Hara, and so round and round it goes).

Another association. Something about Belano and Martín’s relationship makes me think of ‘William Wilson’, my favourite Edgar Allan Poe story. Wilson is antagonised by his doppelgänger, and for Belano also, Martín represents an unwelcome reflection, a reminder of the possibility and misery of failure: Belano’s success could easily have resembled Martín’s lack of it.

Bolaño loved Poe, writing in his ‘Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories’ that “The honest truth is that with Edgar Allan Poe, we would all have more than enough good material to read”, a statement I rank alongside his ridiculous and beautiful claim that “I could live under a table reading Borges”.

From Last Evenings on Earth, Harvill Secker 2007