‘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

‘Don’t Look Now’ by Daphne du Maurier

‘Don’t Look Now’ is wildly brilliant, and genuinely terrifying. A tale of grief, fantasy, and terror, it’s the kind of story I love – where something can turn, can pitch into an altogether different reality and register. The writing has an unsteady heartbeat to it, but a tightly controlled surface; my heart starts racing just thinking about it.

First published in 1971, by Victor Gollancz

‘So Much Water So Close To Home’ by Raymond Carver

I first read this story in my teens as a result of seeing the brilliant Short Cuts by Robert Altman. The story interests me in part because it’s about a gulf of understanding, about a deep disparity of knowledge and feeling that can arise between men and women around questions of violence, degradation, and bodily dignity – something I am thinking a lot about these days. The narrator’s husband goes on a weekend fishing trip with friends; they discover a dead girl’s body floating in the river, but choose not to curtail their trip or inconvenience themselves by finding a phonebox to call the police. Carver makes economical use of the queasy mingling of the fish they acquire and the female corpse they ignore. The narrator’s subsequent horror at the men’s indifference, and her anxiety about her husband’s implication in the story, draw an increasingly violent wedge between husband and wife. There are some killer lines: “He put his arms around me and rubbed his hands up and down my back, the same hands he’d left with two days before.” It’s an uncomfortable and astute rendering of the sickly knowledge of male violence with which women live.

In Where I’m Calling From: The Collected Stories, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988

‘Dream Story’ by Arthur Schnitzler

Nightmarish, hallucinatory, unsettling – I love this exploration of the subterranean underbelly of cities and of the psyche, of the crossing of sexual and religious thresholds, set in early twentieth-century Vienna. Freud was, unsurprisingly, a great admirer of Schnitzler. Kubrick was too, and his 1999 Eyes Wide Shut is a terrific and uncanny adaptation of the story, transferred to a New York that is both well-heeled and seedy.

Published in 1926 as Traumnovelle, and in Penguin Books, 1999, translated by J.M.Q Davis

‘The Mark on the Wall’ by Virginia Woolf

The first short story Woolf published, in 1917 – and it is pure Woolf. It has many of the preoccupations of her lifetime’s writing, among them the instability of perception. This story has some lines that capture so much of her sensibility, such as the whimsical: “Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour – landing at the other end with a single hairpin in one’s hair!”

The line “I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts” is exactly the kind of thing she would write in letters to her friends, or in a kind of self-knowing tantrum in her diary. Woolf would often present her philosophical musings with a tone of lightness and self-mocking flightiness, but they were philosophical through and through. Hermione Lee argues in her biography that, similarly, Woolf’s political views were often expressed through statements that appeared to negate politics, or separate herself from it. Woolf’s need for privacy and her bent towards singularity made her mistrust, whether in herself or others, overt and determined political positions that demanded consensus, but her writing is always political and philosophical, even when it is at its most playful.

And then there are the moments of breathtaking beauty and simplicity. Writing about trees towards the end of the story, she says: “the cows swish their tails beneath them on hot afternoons; they paint rivers so green that when a moorhen dives one expects to see its feathers all green when it comes up again. I like to think of the fish balanced against the stream like flags blown out.” And “a naked mast upon an earth that goes tumbling, tumbling, all night long.” What I love in this story is what I love in Woolf in general: her ability to roam and wander, while also to be unerringly, shatteringly precise.

In A Haunted House and Other Stories, The Hogarth Press, 1943. 

‘Mon Légionnaire’ by Raymond Asso and Marguerite Monnot

I knew the Gainsbourg version of this heart-breaking story first, when it came out in 1987, as a pop hit, with Gainsbourg hammily whispering the lyrics. I later realised it was a Piaf song. I now associate the song strongly with Claire Denis’s wonderful film about the French Foreign Legion in Djibouti, Beau Travail (1999). Loosely based on Melville’s Billy Budd, and featuring fragments of Britten’s opera in the soundtrack, the film centres on the triangulation of male rivalry and desire around a beautiful young soldier.

In the video, men dance in a bar under Gainsbourg’s ambiguous gaze. This chimes uncannily with Beau Travail, in its reckoning with unacknowledged male desire for men, and with French relationships to Africa and the eroticised African body. In Beau Travail’s famous final scene, Galoup, played by Denis Lavant, disgraced for letting the legion’s honour down in his intent to destroy a soldier he envies, dances alone, maniacally, desperately, to The Rhythm of the Night.

Made famous by Marie Dubas, then Edith Piaf, and then covered by Serge Gainsbourg