‘The Check-Up’ by Hervé Guibert, translated by Elizabeth Fallaize

Guibert is the author of the beautiful and brutal A L’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie (To The Friend Who Did Not Save My Life), an account both of Michel Foucault’s death from AIDS and of Guibert’s unfolding illness (he died of AIDS aged 36). He has a completely inimitable style, and this story has all the singularity and ferocity of his writing, over just three short pages. It’s an account, mostly in unmarked dialogue, of a child’s refusal to undress under the gaze of a doctor, and his insistence that the doctor must conduct his investigation blindfolded. I’m not sure what date the story was written, but I find it hard not to see hovering behind it his friend Foucault’s preoccupation with the clinic, with the disciplinary gaze, with relations of power, and with the surfaces and depths of the body.

In The Oxford Book of French Short Stories, OUP, 2002

‘An Actor Prepares’ by Donald Antrim

Reginald Barry, a professor of speech and drama at a liberal arts college, is rehearsing a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. He is pompous and self-serving, though also self-aware, and the story displays the seductive machinations he enacts in directing the play under the guise of its historical authenticity. This is a very funny, carnivalesque exploration of performance, of sincerity, and of rationalization.

In The Emerald Light in the Air, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Granta, 2014

‘Grace’ by Sophie Mackintosh

I’ve recently read Mackintosh’s novel The Water Cure (forthcoming in May), and this shares some of the novel’s themes – ill-understood dangers, the burdens placed on women’s bodies, momentous and terrifying metaphysical decisions – as well as its measured, clear, tones and almost balletic precision of pacing. Mackintosh’s writing makes me feel as if the air around her words is cleaner and clearer than before. I love the sense of disorientation her writing produces, and her fearlessness in resisting over-explanation.

In The White Review, April 2016. Read it online here

‘Fragments of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria’ by Sigmund Freud

‘Dora’ is the crucible for Freud’s thinking about fantasy, reality, and truth, as well as for his developing understandings of dream analysis and transference. It’s been hugely controversial, for Freud’s imputation to a teenage girl of a desire for the sexual advances of a much older man. It has figured in the last decades as a lightning rod for feminist critiques of Freud and psychoanalysis.

But it’s also a remarkable story, one in which the reliability of narration is the central, raging theme – narration by the protagonists in the story (Dora herself), and narration by the narrator and author. All Freud’s early case studies can be read as often dramatic documents in which Freud the scientist and Freud the writer are trying to find a narrative voice, a persona, and a style. His long career of revision, amendment, and revisiting cast him as his own obsessive editor and annotator. In these case studies, his authorial stance, and the voices of his subjects – sometimes speaking with agonizing clarity, and sometimes struggling to be heard, muffled by Freud’s own wishes – jostle for space and authority. The stories he told, with their own conflicting desires, sometimes contradictory aims, unexamined assumptions, erratically brilliant self-analyses, glaring lacunae, their unsteady implications constantly threatening to outpace Freud’s own attempts to keep them in his mastery, are some of the most exciting narratives ever written.

First published in 1905, otherwise known as ‘Dora’. Available from Oxford World Classics, translated by Anthea Bell, 2013.

‘Water Child’ by Edwidge Danticat

This is a beautiful, elegant story of a Haitian immigrant to the US, working as a nurse, wedded to solitude, mulling over a pregnancy termination, wondering how to relate to the “near-father of her nearly-born child”, and grappling with silence: her own and that of the laryngectomised patients she cares for.

(In The New Yorker, 11 September 2000. Available to subscribers here)

‘The Sweater’ by Meryn Cadell

Some of the best short stories, ones that do so much within the constraints of form, are songs – the kind of songs that are voice-driven, narrative, tightly structured, compressed. This is one of my favourite pieces of songly storytelling. It’s a witty, charming, and tender teasing of teenage girls’ crushes without being mocking of the yearning at their heart.

On Angel Food for Thought, 1992. See the video here

‘The Sisterhood of Night’ by Stephen Millhauser

A community is destabilized by the apparent existence of a secret society of girls devoted to silence. This story is subtly creepy, with a quiet pulse of revolt and rage. It’s about veracity and testimony, and the writing moves between different forms of witnessing: personal, legal, journalistic reportage. I love its sinister indeterminacy, and I am a fan of anything that suggests the radical and destabilizing threat that teenage girls meeting in secret can pose to society.

First published in Harper’s Magazine, July 1994, and collected in The Knife Thrower, Phoenix House, 1999