‘Signs and Symbols’ by Vladimir Nabokov

I’m fascinated by the notion of the “story behind the story” in fiction – the great and terrible truth being revealed piece by piece as the surface narrative unfolds. ‘Signs and Symbols’ feels like a near-perfect example of this. The surface narrative concerns an aged couple who attempt to visit their mentally ill son, but cannot, because he has tried to kill himself (again). They are Jews who have lived through the first half of the Twentieth Century; and it is this terrible story that we as readers are directed through, again and again – the true signified of all the signs. My favourite interpretation is that the son is not truly mad. In the context of the persecution to which the family has been exposed, the “referential mania” that plagues him is not a pathology but in fact a logical reaction to the world in which they live. In the context of genocide, it is reasonable to corelate the “invisible giants” persecuting the son and the same monstrous forces that have thrown the family across Europe and around the world. 

First published – as ‘Symbols and Signs’ –  in The New Yorker, May 15, 1948, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Nabokov’s Dozen, Doubleday, 1958 and Collected Short Stories, Knopf, 1995. Also in the Penguin 70 Cloud Castle Lake, 2005

‘Girl with Curious Hair’ by David Foster Wallace

Our narrator, Sick Puppy – a sociopathic Young Republican with a penchant for sadistic burning –attends a jazz concert with a group of nihilistic punks with names like Grope, Tit and Gimlet. Terrible events ensue. Thanks to Foster Wallace’s virtuoso distortion of the English language, the narration resembles a writing exercise by an unhinged child in an ESL class. It is hilarious. It is also deeply unsettling: you get the feeling that anything (the most awful things) could happen; and beneath the layers of chaos and hilarity, there is a kind of stark moral terror. Sick Puppy is somebody with only shards of a personality – and beneath those shards, a roaring, violent nothingness. Good stuff.

Collected in Girl with Curious Hair, W.W. Norton & Co, 1989

‘The Walk’ by Robert Walser, translated by Christopher Middleton et al

I have to report that one fine morning, I do not know any more for sure what time it was, as the desire to take a walk came over me, I put my hat on my head, left my writing room, or room of phantoms, and ran down the stairs to hurry out into the street.

So begins Walser’s long short story ‘The Walk’. There is so much to love about this piece of autofiction: Walser narrates a day’s worth of physical and psychic travel through the city and its environs. We encounter his ambitions, his pleasures, his frustrations; the things that draw him and repel him. It is a discursive, playful, sometimes Rabelaisian ramble. It seems to be written for the joy of consciousness itself. There is also something delicious about the way Walser addresses his readers, vacillating between formality and intimacy, sometimes as spectators, sometimes participants in a private discourse. Nothing is fixed. The story starts where he starts it and ends where he decides it must end. Reading it is like entering a fugue – wonderful.

First published in German as ‘Das Spaziergang’, Huber, 1917. First published in English in The Walk and Other Stories, Calder, 1955. Now available in various editions, including Selected Stories, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982. Also available from Serpent’s Tail, 1992 and 2013

‘Lucky’ by Julianne Pachico

Stephanie Lansky is a privileged child in a dangerous country. Her parents, whom she has overheard dismissing rumours of guerrillas and civil war, leave to visit rich, powerful friends in the countryside. They never return. The domestic staff disappear. The telephones stop working. The power stops. By the time a man dressed in rags appears at the door and invites Stephanie to leave with him, we understand that everything is about to be taken away from her. ‘Lucky’ is part of Pachico’s interlinked short story collection The Lucky Ones, set in Colombia between 2003 and 2013. Context is slowly drip-fed into these stories – including ‘Lucky’ – and you come to understand the Colombian conflict through diverse, distorted perspectives. The stories don’t pretend to present a cohesive picture of Colombia’s civil conflict, but the implicit arguments concerning power and privilege that underly it are consistent and powerful. Reading ‘Lucky’, the complexity of my feelings about Stephanie – she is spoiled, sympathetic, infuriatingly helpless, half-innocent – speaks to the depth of Pachico’s understanding of the world she is describing.

First published in The Lucky Ones, Faber & Faber, 2017, and available to read on the Faber website here

‘My Best Soldier’ by Ha Jin

This story, like all the others in the collection Ocean of Words, is set on a Chinese army base by the Russian border during the Cultural Revolution. In ‘My Best Soldier’, an army officer must deal with a soldier whose libidinous impulses run contrary to official doctrine. The story first attracted me as a window into a previously unimaginable world. The clarity of the vision – the ability to tell a story so other and yet so familiar – belies the skill of its creation: what seems simple is in fact understated, wry, and tightly controlled. And despite the shocking events that occur, every character can be understood sympathetically as people subject to forces beyond their ken or control.

First published in English in AGNI 33, 1991. Collected in Ocean of Words, Zoland, 1996

‘The Boulder’ by Henrietta Rose-Innes

Henrietta Rose-Innes’s novels often centre on the irruption into sanitary, constructed, (sub)urban human space of chaotic, untamed, unsanitary nature. ‘The Boulder’ operates in the same territory. The protagonist is a young man in the tentative openings of a relationship that seems doomed by gulfs of class and privilege. Sleeping in his new girlfriend’s family home, a luxurious but soulless beach house, he awakes one morning to discover a gigantic boulder has crashed into the garden. It appears as if plucked out of a dream. It could be seen to represent his hopes and his fears, both made manifest at once; but more than anything, it simply represents itself: colossal, indifferent, enduring nature.

Collected in Animalia Paradoxa, Boiler House Press, 2019

‘The Repairer of Reputations’ by Robert W Chambers

This is part of a collection of linked short stories that spawned the ‘King in Yellow’ lore that has been an inspiration for fantasy and horror writers for more than a hundred years. There is something very innovative about the collection’s form, and this particular story is weirdly prescient. It is speculative science fiction, set in a fascist vision of America in the 1920s (as imagined in 1895!). It’s hard to know where the story’s politics lie – the narrator describes approvingly the (genocidal) steps taken to consolidate the new American Empire, yet he is explicitly represented as a miniature Napoleon and lunatic. At the centre of the new, neoclassical New York, built over what once were multicultural neighbourhoods, stands the temple-like Lethal Chamber, into which the lowest members of society are encouraged to enter and end their miserable lives. The narrator schemes to marshal an army of people enlisted by means of blackmail (ie, corrupted by their secrets) to restore his place on the American imperial throne. His scheme is directed by the mysterious King in Yellow, an evil demigod who manifests as a consequence of the consumption of evil literature. This concept has stuck with me. 

First published in The King in Yellow, F Tennyson Neely, 1895. Available to read online in various places, including Project Gutenberg

‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

The plot of ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ is like the engine driving a sitcom – a foolish man is caught between a slightly unpleasant husband and wife whose marriage is falling apart. The only way he can help them is if he demonstrates that his life – his choices, his qualities – are worse than theirs; this is ultimately achieved through slapstick. None of the characters come out of this particularly well. The protagonist Ray is the comic counterpart to the profoundly flawed protagonists of the tragic Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day: a bore at heart, Ray is inadequate in the face of the world, yet his trivial pleasures are real. And as a reader, you genuinely feel his extremely minor victories, and gain a sense of happiness as something fleeting, personal, farcical, and likely contemptable to the wider world.

Collected in Nocturnes, Faber & Faber, 2009

‘The Electric Ant’ by Philip K Dick

This is Philip K Dick’s most frightening short story. The terror in Dick’s stories comes from their solipsism, their narrative disjunctions, the cognitive dissonance that the reader must sometimes maintain in order to follow the plot as told. In ‘The Electric Ant’, the protagonist discovers first that he is an android(!), and second that there is a tape reel running between two bobbins in his chest. The tape, which is punched with holes, is read by a gadget; when a hole in the tape it passes through the reader, an object appears in the protagonist’s perception. The tape, it transpires, is the source – or more accurately limiting factor – of everything in his world. The story follows his experiments with the tape, until the point where he cuts it entirely. 

First published in Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1969. Collected in The Collected Short Stories of Philip K Dick, Vol 5: We Can Remember it for You Wholesale, Orion, 1987

‘The Room in the Tower’ by E.F. Benson

Benson’s ghost stories are not stereotypically gothic; they typically take place against a genteel and comfortable background. The first half of ‘The Room in the Tower’, at least, is no different: the narrator recounts a recurring dream in which he is spending time in a nice drawing room with pleasant company, but is then instructed by a voice that he must go to “the room in the tower”; this instruction fills him with unaccountable dread. Benson thus transposes a gothic conceit of inescapable doom, foretold in dreams, to a comfortable domestic space. The absence of detail is tremendously effective (in the first half, at least); the Room in the Tower, remaining mysterious – an utterance – has an affective power or aura like death itself: an unknown, to be dreaded, capable of appearing within and corrupting the most pleasant moments. Perhaps the best ghost stories are set in daylight hours, in comfortable settings and with good company.

First published in 1912. Collected in The Room in the Tower and Other Stories, Knopf, 1929. Also in Ghost Stories, Vintage, 2016

‘The Horse Stealers’ by Anton Chekhov, translated by Constance Garnett

The protagonist in this story is a weak, vainglorious and complaisant man who is nonetheless entrusted with an important package. Sheltering from a blizzard in a low inn, surrounded by brigands whom he feels the unaccountable urge to impress, it is obvious from the beginning that he is going to meet his downfall. But as a reader, my capacity to care was not reduced by the inevitability – in fact it was increased by it. The notion that character is fate is demonstrated beautifully; there’s this sense of clear-eyed empathy for human weakness – but also the sheer romance of folly, its allure and siren song, and the call of the void beneath it.

First published in 1890. Collected in The Horse-Stealers and Other Stories, Macmillan, 1921, latterly Ecco Press, 1986

‘The Story of the Eye’ ‘by Lord Auch’, i.e. Georges Bataille

When writers recommend stories, they often do so from an instructional perspective, as examples of what you should do (but probably won’t). I present ‘The Story of the Eye’ as an example of what you could do, but probably shouldn’t. It is an erotic fantasy with kink/fetish elements (centred on eyes) written with an ostensibly therapeutic purpose. What elevates it from simple pornography is its association with Roland Barthes, who wrote an essay discussing its symbolism. I agree with Barthes to the extent that I enjoy the way in which the plot of ‘The Story of the Eye’ is subservient to the arrangement and rearrangement of a limited palette of motifs. I also appreciate the truth that it represents: while the results are ostensibly shocking or morally abhorrent, the ultimate end point of Bataille’s working out of his fixations is to reveal the limits of his imagination – that is, the centres of gravity to which his imagination must always wend, when allowed (or abandoned to) “imaginative freedom”.

First published in French as L’Histoire de L’Oeil, Pia et Bonnel, 1928. First published in English by Olympia Press, 1955, translated by Audiart, then Urizen Books, 1978, translated by Joachim Neugroschal