Opening and Closing

Somewhere in his lengthy memoir, Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about the experience of reading German poetry. He describes how some poems ‘open up’ to him immediately while others remain ‘closed’, even those works by Great Poets he is expected to appreciate. I think short stories are like that too. Some unfold on first reading while others seem distant, unreachable. This often depends on when you read the story. I remember being given William Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’ in my first year at university and having absolutely no idea what to do with it. I thought it had been set just to baffle me and remind me of how much I didn’t know – which was, admittedly, a lot. The best reading experiences I’ve had are when a work delicately reflects or comments on an aspect of my own life at that time, causing me to think differently about the world, or myself in the world. I find I carry these ‘opened’ stories around with me after that, and I go back to them, again and again.

Here are some of those stories:

‘Funes the Memorious’ by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby

I read this on my teenage bed, whiling away the hours between a school day and another school day, and being amazed at the upside-down universe Borges creates in just a few short paragraphs. It completely changed the way I thought about ‘literature’ (i.e. realist, difficult, old). Suddenly, I realised that ‘literature’ could be a way of defying ordinary life. Borges showed me that it was possible to experiment, to write anything I wanted, to any word-limit. Whenever I need to memorise anything, I think of Funes, struggling with the terrible gift of being able to remember everything that ever happened.

First published in La Nación, June 1942. First published in English in Avon Modern Writing 2, 1954. Collected in Labyrinths, New Directions, 1964/Penguin, 1970 and in Fictions and Collected Fictions, Viking, 1998/Penguin, 2000, where it is translated by Andrew Hurley as ‘Funes, His Memory’

‘Mr Loveday’s Little Outing’ by Evelyn Waugh

Oh dear. The Waugh phase. I read everything by him – Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies,etc. Waugh is really very good for fifteen-year-old girls. I understood his world of dark glamour and sardonic humour (sarcasm was my thing), and I loved the way he quietly laughs at everyone and invites you to join him. This story shocked me with its horribly brutal, funny ending. I read it again recently, and although I didn’t find it quite as amazing as I did then, I still love the innocent description of the girl on the bike and Mr Loveday’s naïve yet secretive smile.

First published 1935. Collected in Mr Loveday’s Little Outing and Other Early Stories, Penguin Classics, 2011 and The Penguin Book of English Short Stories, Penguin, 1967

‘Sword’ by Yukio Mishima, translated by John Bester

Mishima was my hero for a while. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Confessions of a Mask. It was only when I moved to Japan for a couple of years that I discovered his short fiction. ‘Sword’ centres on a group of young men taking part in a training camp for Kendo (Japanese fencing). After my own unsuccessful attempts at Kendo, I admired the world Mishima portrays even more: one of self-discipline, togetherness, striving for spiritual and physical perfection through martial arts. Yet these ideals lead to a tragic conclusion, not unlike the narrative Mishima ended up following in his own life.

First published in Japanese as ‘Ken’ in 1963. First published in English in Acts of Worship, Kodansha, 1989, also available from Flamingo, 1991

‘Radio Baby’ by Deborah Kay Davies

This is one of best collections of short stories I’ve come across. (Despite the fact that the publisher tried to market it as a novel). At its heart is the dark sibling rivalry between the eponymous characters. There’s one story in the collection called ‘The Point’ where something horrifying happens with a thorn… I don’t want to reveal too much about ‘Radio Baby’ either, only that it concerns a woman bringing her third newborn home from the hospital a few days earlier than expected. Davies’ writing seems simple and concise, but at the same time it vibrates with violence and power.

From Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful, Parthian, 2008

‘Butterflies’ by Ian McEwan

I obviously have a thing for macabre stories. Here’s another one. It’s from McEwan’s first published collection. The protagonist is one of those disturbed young men that often feature in his early work (see The Cement Garden): a character you’re constantly watching to see if he is as disturbed as you think he might be. I love the way the story is constructed, with information being revealed and withheld at the right moments, creating an unstable, eerie atmosphere. ‘Eeriness’ is exactly the kind of feeling that a story is able to evoke where a novel or a poem struggles.

From First Love, Last Rites, Jonathan Cape, 1975

‘Forever Overhead’ by David Foster Wallace

Most of David Foster Wallace’s work was ‘closed’ to me for a long time. I found his style overbearing, heady with detail, footnotes and stylistic play. Reading this story was a turning point for me. It’s in the second person (a rare example of when the use of the second person actually works), and I’ve seldom felt closer to a character than in this story. It minutely describes the moments of a boy ascending the diving board and preparing to jump into the pool.

From Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Little, Brown/Abacus, 1999

‘Y Condemniedig’ by Kate Roberts

This makes me cry every time. Kate Roberts is one of the most famous Welsh-language writers, particularly known for her short stories. Her work is often based in the North Wales community where she grew up and this story is no exception. It follows a quarry worker who can no longer work because of a debilitating illness. While he convalesces at home, he ‘discovers’ the life that Laura (his wife) has led while he was at work: he observes her baking bread, cleaning the house, doing the laundry. This new appreciation of the domestic life leads him to fall in love with his wife all over again, making the ending all the more heart-breaking.

First published 1931. Collected in Goreuon Storiau Kate Roberts, Gwasg Gee, 1997. Available in English translation by Joseph P. Clancy as ‘The Condemned’ in The World of Kate Roberts: Selected Stories 1925-1981, Temple University Press, 1991

‘A Temporary Matter’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

This is another story about husbands and wives and how they succeed and fail to communicate with each other. I read this at a period in my life when I’d begun to think all relationships between men and women were doomed (this tends to happen when you’re about 25). Like Roberts, Lahiri explores the slowly disintegrating marriage between a South-Indian couple in the USA through the use of ordinary, domestic detail. She shifts subtly between the two perspectives, employing a light-touch on a heavy subject. It’s a beautiful portrait of a couple in crisis that quietly suggests that there are some things that no marriage can overcome.

First published in The New Yorker, April 20, 1998. Collected in The Interpreter of Maladies, Houghton Mifflin/Flamingo, 1999

‘The Beggar Maid’ by Alice Munro

This is my favourite short story. I’ve re-read it several times. It ‘opened up’ to me because it seemed that it was written for me. Or, perhaps, it speaks to most women in their early twenties, I don’t know. I’ll have to ask. In a sense, it’s a story about uncertainty, about navigating important choices while not knowing whether they are the right ones. Munro carefully describes the smallest event and allows its effects to ripple through the story. In this case, the event is someone touching the protagonist’s bare leg in the library. This leads to absolutely everything else, until the final, small yet momentous event – an expression – completes the piece.

First published in The New Yorker, June 27 1977. Collected in Who Do You Think You Are? Macmillan, 1978 – later reissued as The Beggar Maid – and also collected in Selected Stories, Vintage, 2010

‘He-y, Come on ou-t!’ by Shinichi Hoshi, translated by Stanleigh Jones

A very strange story that I can’t describe. You just have to read it. Years after I’d come across it in an anthology in some local library, I kept thinking about it, even though I hadn’t noted down the author or the title. I went looking for it again. It took me a while, but here it is.

From The Columbian Anthology of Japanese Literature, CUP, 2005. Also available online here

‘The Cavalry’ by Christopher Meredith

Christopher Meredith is famous for his novels, Shifts, Griffri, but this is his first collection of short stories. ‘The Calavary’ is set in post-war South Wales and follows a family visiting an old man on Christmas. Meredith weaves the past with the present: memories of each character come and go, their speech deeply rooted in the Valleys. It’s a contemplation of mortality, really, articulated in a moving, beautifully-crafted way.

From Brief Lives, Seren, 2018

‘Cecilia Awakened’ by Tessa Hadley

I’m a great admirer of Tessa Hadley’s work, and I was grateful that I didn’t have to choose between her short stories! I could simply pick her latest work. The story immediately took me back to being twelve again. She captures exactly those feelings of excruciating embarrassment and painful awkwardness that every teenager has. Everything is wrong: your body, your clothes, your surroundings, other people and, worst of all, your parents. This is Cecilia’s awakening, and it happens overnight. But there are many different kinds of ‘awakening’ in life: some of those ‘awakenings’ happen after reading a great short story at exactly the right time, when the story unfolds and makes the world seem a little clearer, a little more bearable.

In The New Yorker, September 17, 2018