This has not been easy. To combat my chronic indecisiveness, I chose the first twelve stories that came to mind: no improvements, no attempts to impress. If it has a thread, it loosely traces my adult life since the age of sixteen.
I am reluctant to provide a summary of ‘Vacancy for the Post of Jesus Christ’. I will, however, give you the first few sentences:
When the small quick lorry was being lowered from the skies, it was discovered that it had golden wood, and many seedless guavas for the hungry. As the lorry descended the many layers of cool air, the rich got ready to buy it, and the poor to resent it. The wise among the crowd below opened their mouths in wonder, and closed them only to eat. They ate looking up while the sceptical looked down. And so the lorry had chosen to come down to this town that shamed the city with its cleanliness. The wheels were already revolving and, when they shone, most of them claimed they were the mirrors of God. The lorry was quick but the descent was slow. So many wanted to touch it.
I’m ashamed that I only came to the Nigerian author Amos Tutuola a decade ago. My friend Eleanor Crook, a sculptor and ferocious reader, was surprised that I had never read or even heard of his 1946 novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard. It was acquired by T.S. Eliot and published by Faber in 1952. The following year Gallimard published the French translation by Oulipo co-founder Raymond Queneau. When I read it in English, I felt tremendously satisfied. I also found myself feeling frustrated that his work wasn’t better known beyond Nigeria’s borders. And just as Picasso took so much inspiration from artists across the African continent, I wondered how many European writers had failed to acknowledge Tutuola’s influence.
‘Don’t Pay Bad for Bad’ is – like nearly all of his short stories – a very tight number, covering a lot of time in a little space. The first three paragraphs span the harmonious childhood friendship of two girls, Dola and Babi, through to their marriage to two brothers. As their lives progress, so their relationship is tested. What happens in the second half of the story is so unexpected it makes me gasp every time I read it. I confess to feeling an evil pleasure at this point and a desire for the most gruesome ending. I won’t tell you what happens, but I will say that Tutuola’s stories push me right out of my comfort zone. I’m not even sure I like them. Yet, whenever I read one, days later I am still questioning my attitudes to life and death, to right and wrong, to peace and violence. Equally, I am aware that his characters stay with me, chatting away inside my head, for days on end. The delayed effect comes, I think, from Tutuola’s spare and acute prose and his understated approach to narrative.
From The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories, Faber & Faber, 2014. Originally published by Faber in 1990
I was sitting in a bedsit in east London in 2001 when I was introduced to the work of M. John Harrison. The bedsit belonged to Julian Richards, who also took me to my first Forced Entertainment show. So, yes, reader: of course I married him.
Now, I could have chosen a dozen M. John Harrison stories for this anthology, but that would make me look like a stalker and might embarrass him. I have picked ‘I Did It’ because the last sentence of the opening paragraph is one of my favourite sentences in print. I’d like to own it and frame it beneath glass so no else can ever touch it. It is: “Axe in the face.” Even taken out of context like this, it thrills me. “Axe in the face.” Like crunching on cubes of ice when you are close to the equator. “Axe in the face.” Harrison’s ear for dialogue is so bang on it’s uncanny. His observations of white, middle-class Londoners – both men and women – are so sharp, they hurt. I’m still laughing as I read, yet again, the conversation between Alex and Nicola.
from Things that Never Happen, Night Shade Books, 2003. Originally published in A Book of Two Halves, editor Nicholas Royle, Gollancz, 1996
Take in as much air as you can.
This story should last about as long as you can hold your breath, and then just a little bit longer. So listen as fast as you can.
This brilliant project was developed by Australian artist Barbara Campbell. Each sunset for 1001 nights, from 21 June 2005 to 17 March 2008, she performed a new story, streamed live into the ether. The stories were written by writers across the world. Each sunrise, Campbell would send a single prompt to a single writer, who would have a few hours to create a story that could not exceed 1001 words. The prompts were lifted from daily newspaper stories about events in the Middle East. If you read the very first story, performed in Paris shortly before 10pm, you will discover the tragedy at the root of this extraordinary project.
I learned a lot while writing for this, and was astonished by the results that were produced from simple prompts and a ticking clock. I was also lucky to encounter a number of writers I have come to admire deeply, including, among many others, Tony White.
Available online here. Originally read live as the 1001st story for Campbell’s durational performance, 1001 nights cast. All of the stories are available online here. If you open the Index of story writers, you can see which stories they wrote and you simply need to key in the number of each story at the end of the URL, for example https://1001.net.au/story/1001/
This is an understated story. It is also such a brilliant insight into war, I experience a little shock each time I read it. The narrator is recalling his adolescence in the summer of 1940 in an Italian city. Italo Calvino would have been seventeen years old that year. “It was a time in our lives when we weren’t interested in anything.” The boy goes to the beach with his friend, Jerry Ostero, and a girl “with blondish hair and a long neck”, who “was Fascist in her opinions”. After the beach, they part. When they meet again, it is early evening. The war has begun. There is no sudden drama and no exaggeration of violence. The writing continues in steady rhythm, observations are made as matters of fact. French planes fly over, sirens are heard, and the rural poor, now displaced inside their own country, arrive in town. But the nature of people continues, the same as ever. Everything changes but everything stays the same. I love this story because it echoes my experience and understanding of war. It is Calvino at his best.
From Into the War, Penguin Classics, 2011. First published in Italy as L’entrata in guerra, Einaudi, Turin, 1954