‘To Reiterate’ by Lydia Davis

This tiny text folds in on itself like the paper fortune-tellers I make with my children.

You know the ones? You get a square of paper and fold in the corners until it becomes a smaller square. You open it out, turn the square over, fold the corners in again, and again, and you slide your fingers inside the pockets underneath to open it out. It looks like a mouth when you manipulate it.

On each face and under each flap you would typically write numbers or colours or messages. But in the Lydia Davis version of the textual game we’re constructing here, our origami fortune-teller would have only these four words on the hidden and exposed faces: read, write, travel, translate. It’s these four words that Davis interrogates, repeatedly, in ‘To Reiterate’.

Now, let’s invite Michel Butor, George Steiner, and Michel Leiris — writers who Davis invokes in the text, and who have their own ideas about reading, writing, travelling and translating. Whether we play this game with them or simply unfold the paper is up to the reader.

First published in Pequod, 1986; included in The Collected Stories, Hamish Hamilton, 2010

‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ by Katherine Anne Porter

What is this whiteness and silence but the absence of pain?

‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ was originally the final part of a triptych of longer tales alongside ‘Old Mortality’ and ‘Noon Wine’, and I’d encourage anyone to read all three. Porter, with the lightest of touches, infuses the works with a too-real (almost surreal) sense of time passing—past, present, future; morning, noon, night; the turning of the earth, and the ever-present spectre of the Great War—the war to end all wars.

Although Porter tells us the bells are ringing to announce the end of the war, ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ is far from celebratory. We infer much of the story through the fevered dream fragments of a young woman suffering with Spanish influenza. It is a story constructed of symbols, metaphors, and the repeated refrain of an old spiritual once heard sung in the oil fields of Texas. It’s about the peace of death and the violence of living, and an undefined hope for the future. Since this year marks the centenary of the end of the First World War, and because this story is one of the most finely wrought pieces of writing to come out of those last hundred years, it feels like the perfect story for this anthology.

First published in 1937; also in Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Selected Short Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2011)

‘The Glass Essay’ by Anne Carson

I have a soft grey notebook, filled with things I can’t say out loud, things I daren’t write anywhere else. When I think about attempting to write something on the scale of Carson’s Glass Essay, I laugh at my impudence. Some things need to live (or die) a little more before they’re ready.

From Glass, Irony and God, New Directions, 1995. It is also available online here.

‘The Body’ by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson

Xavier was a belligerent and red-blooded man. He loved tangos. He went to see Last Tango in Parisand got awfully turned on. He didn’t get the movie: he thought it was a sex film. He didn’t realize it was the story of a desperate man.

To say this story is a sex story is to misunderstand the story. It is erotic, yes, and it is bloody, but most of all it is, of course, the story of a desperate man.

I could’ve chosen any of the 86 stories within this collection that the translator herself describes as “disorientating” and “jarring”. But this particular work, for me, is a such brightly burning example Lispector’s writing style. It jabs and it wounds, and it continues to sting long after you finish reading. The clarity of her images and the pacing of her phrasing is peerless, like this moment, when Xavier goes out with a woman on each arm:

At six in the evening the three went to church. They resembled a bolero. Ravel’s bolero.

The Via Crucis of the Body was written in the last decade of Lispector’s life, when she was gravitating towards what she called “antiliterature”. I think ‘The Body’ is a perfect example of her unravelling of language, its depletion, its rawness. It is built on a skeleton of bare, disjointed sentences. Its flesh yields slender, precious threads of pathos and passion. It is oracular and spontaneous:

Sometimes the two women slept together. The day was long. And, though they weren’t homosexuals, they’d turn each other on and make love. Sad love. One day they told Xavier about it. Xavier quivered.

But before you rush off to read it, let me tell you one of my favourite quotations from a writer on the process of writing. It is quintessential Lispector:

I am not an intellectual. I write with my body. And what I write is a moist joy.

First published as ‘O corpo’ in A via crucis do corpo (The Via Crucis of the Body), 1974; included in The Complete Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2015

‘A Story of Your Own’ by Raymond Queneau, translated by Marc Lowenthal

Once upon a time there were three little peas knocking about on the highways. When evening came, they quickly fell asleep, tired and weary.
if you want to know the rest, go to 5
if not, go to 21

When I was younger we saved tokens from Weetabix boxes to send off in exchange for Choose Your Own Adventure books. They were a real treat. I don’t remember the actual stories, although I do remember thinking it was like reading a different book each time, albeit an overtly familiar one that lead to increasingly predictable conclusions. But what I mostly think about (aside from the excessive Weetabix consumption and a kind of anti-nostalgia for the mid-80s) is the excitement of getting a new book in the post. A brand-new book, with new book smell, pristine pages, and an unbroken spine.

Most of the other books we read were from the library or from church jumble sales and charity shops. The library was a source of limitless treasure. The haphazard breadth of jumble sale and charity shop books ensured I read a wide of range of everything in no particular order, from atlases at the non-fiction end of the shelf, to Georgette Heyer Regency romances at the other. I remember on one particular occasion taking my younger brother to buy a book. We must’ve been about 12 and 10. I was responsible for looking after the two 50 pence pieces (one each) we were given as pocket money. I probably looked at the Mills & Boons but chose an Oxford or Wordsworth Classic. My brother bought a stiff hardback with a shiny dust cover by someone we had never heard of. He didn’t plan to read it. He wanted to stick the pages together then hollow it out to create a secret compartment, like the villain in From Russian With Love who smuggles a handgun inside a copy of War and Peace. (My brother was a massive James Bond fan.) The ladies behind the counter of the RSPCA shop seemed a little flustered when we went to pay. But they sold us the books and we took them home to our parents, who thought Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller was probably not the most appropriate book for a ten-year-old.

Apparently written in 1967, but first published, as ‘Conte à votre façon’, in Contes et Propos, Gallimard, 1981, published in English translation as Stories and Remarks, University of Nebraska Press, 2000

‘The Mark on the Wall’ by Virginia Woolf

This is the short story I have read more times than any other. Since Katherine Angel has also included it in her own Personal Anthology, and her introduction to its beauty, its simplicity, and its playful examination of perception is as perfect an introduction as you will find, I’ll tell you a different story instead.

‘The Mark on the Wall’ kept me strong at a time I felt my weakest. I was living in rented accommodation with my three pre-school-aged children. One night, not long after we moved in, I noticed a mark on the ceiling directly above my bed. It was small and black and freckled, and when I woke each morning it had grown visibly bigger, shifting form like a dark cloud or a nebula, and eventually spreading itself across my bedroom ceiling. I reported it to the landlord who sent someone to look at it. The man stood on my bed and, using a roller on a long pole, covered it up with several deep sweeps. He told me it was special paint that would kill the mould and seal it in so it wouldn’t come back. About a month later, I noticed a small mark on the ceiling above my bed.

I don’t need to tell you about the number of times the landlord sent the man with special paint to cover it up. I don’t need to tell you about the respiratory problems we developed while we lived there. I don’t need to tell you about the housing crisis in the UK or the lack of affordable, safe homes. But every night as I looked at that ceiling I thought, “I have a mark! A mark of my own!” I hoped, someday, to write about it, and that it would mean something.

First published in 1917. Collected in A Haunted House and Other Stories, The Hogarth Press, 1943. Now in Collected Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000

‘Little Recipes from Modern Magic’ by Guillaume Apollinaire, translated by Ron Padgett

I have no idea of the real value of the recipes you’re about to read. But they seemed to me sufficiently odd to arouse one’s curiosity.”

Within this curious document is a “salve for avoiding car trouble”, an incantation for “poetry meters”, an “antihygienic powder for having lots of children”, a “recipe for glory” and an “eau de vie for speaking well”. I don’t think I could add anything else to encourage you to read it.

Apollinaire lived a short, fierce life, dedicated to the arts and to his work within the arts. A French poet of Polish-Belarusian descent, he was also novelist, journalist, art critic, playwright. He coined the terms ‘cubism’, ‘orphism’ and ‘surrealism’. He died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 just three days before the end of the First World War.

First published in Le Poète Assassiné, Bibliothèque des Curieux, 1916. English translation first published in The Poet Assassinated and Other Stories, North Point Press, 1984/Carcanet, 1985, with a UK paperback edition from Grafton Books, 1985.

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Much has been written about The Yellow Wallpaper since its first publication in 1892. It was unprecedented, and made it possible—and indeed is still making it possible—for women to talk and write about the treatment, shame and stigma of what was then called hysteria. I don’t know what my reaction would’ve been had I read it as a very young woman, but when I first read it as a mother of young children, I recognised immediately the peculiarly listless anxiety and increasing detachment of the post-partum woman. It’s a brilliant, terrifying, devastating read.

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, (which seems to be linked in my mind to the later, and equally terrifying, The Victorian Chaise Longue by Marghanita Laski) taught me that writing can be a fluid state. I took from it the idea that within my own writing, feelings and objects could be interchangeable, replaceable and transferable, and that my perception of a room, for example, or the contents of that room, could be instantly transposed elsewhere; to a different time, a different place, a different state of mind. Nothing is what it appears and everything could mean something else. Most things I’ve written since have included this fluidity in some way or another.

First published in The New England Magazine in 1892. You can read the version published by Small & Maynard in 1899 in the CUNY archives here.

‘Cities & the Dead 1’ by Italo Calvino

At Melania, every time you enter the square, you find yourself caught in a dialogue.

Yes, I have chosen Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and yes, I have chosen a city called Melania. It’s almost too perfect. The story of Melania essentially predicts social media: the town square representing the platforms we gather on, and the characters—or “roles” as Calvino calls them—are all of us, hiding behind our profile pictures and avatars and invented personas. It is a fierce and accurate premonition of how we communicate in the latter half of the second decade of this century. The outrageously wonderful irony is that social media is the city’s namesake’s husband’s favoured method of making political and personal proclamations as 45th President of the United States of America. And I’m terribly sorry for this: for putting Italo Calvino and Donald J. Trump in the same sentence.

Melania’s population renews itself: the participants in the dialogues die one by one and meanwhile those who will take their places are born, some in one role, some in another. When one changes role or abandons the square forever, or makes his first entrance into it, there is a series of changes until all the roles have been reassigned; but meanwhile the angry old man goes on replying to the witty maidservant, the usurer never ceases following the disinherited youth, the nurse consoles the stepdaughter, even if none of them keeps the same eyes and voice he had in the previous scene.

Invisible Cities should be read in its entirety, but I’m including ‘Cities & the Dead 1’ here to make a point. In this story, Calvino appears to be prescient to the point of satirising entire societies and even global trends more than 30 years after his death. Calvino’s true genius, of course, is the timelessness of the mirror he holds up to us.

First published in 1972, translated into English in 1974 by William Weaver

Tropisms by Nathalie Sarraute, translated by Maria Jolas

I think the 24 brief texts—or perhaps I should call them impulses?—that make up Sarraute’s book Tropisms are short enough and brilliant enough to include them all in this anthology as a single piece of work. It was the first of her 14 books, and tropisms became a key element in all her subsequent works. She believed there was no boundary between poetry and prose, and little distinction between fiction and the lived experience, which, I think, makes reading these tiny texts feel like memories of future dreams, or perhaps déjà-vus of things we did in previous lives.

In her own words:

These movements, of which we are hardly cognizant, slip through us on the frontiers of consciousness in the form of undefinable, extremely rapid sensations. They hide behind our gestures, beneath the words we speak, the feelings we manifest, are aware of experiencing and able to define. They seemed, and still seem to me to constitute the secret source of our existence, in what might be called its nascent state.

First published 1939. Also available in from New Directions, 2015.

‘The Little Match Girl’ by Hans Christian Andersen

This is a great story. It makes me cry. It’s very much of its time, but it is also a story for our time. There are children in the world today whose lives aren’t very much different to the little match girl’s life 170 years ago. We all need to get better at looking after each other.

First published in 1845. This translation by Jean Hersholt is my favourite

‘Cloudwall’ by Germán Sierra

‘Cloudwall’ is the first story written in English by Spanish writer and neuroscientist, Germán Sierra. It’s a story of anthropology and of humanity (of our tentative, romantic, erotic, intellectual selves) set in an imminent future where the boundaries between mind and body and technology are completely blurred. It took my breath away when I first read it, and it’s one of the few stories I return to.

The fact that this is not a translation and was written directly in English—Sierra’s second language—is, I think, a really interesting concept. He saw it as a challenge, an experiment, “like writing within an Oulipianesque linguistic constraint.” Sierra has said that his only continuous relationship with English is as a reader, because, unlike Nabokov or Beckett, who wrote in languages learned by moving to another country and immersing themselves in that language and culture, Sierra predominantly uses his native Spanish in his every day work and life. It is a stunning work, not in spite of—but precisely because of—this language shift. Occasionally some of the phrasing, a cadence or syntax, has the quality of having been generated artificially by an extremely intelligent, perhaps sentient, computer—which, I think, is exactly what the story itself would demand.

Germán Sierra has five novels and a book of stories published in Spanish, and his first novel written in English, THE ARTIFACT, was published last month by the innovative small press Inside the Castle.

Published by Numéro Cinq, 2016, online here

And finally…

Since it’s the season of goodwill, I’m going to break the rules and trust Jonathan is feeling charitable and doesn’t edit this out. You’ll have noticed all my choices are writers who are no longer in the corporeal world (with the exception of Germán Sierra who is, I’m pleased to say, very much among us, and whose head, in the interests of neuroscience, will in all probability be cryogenically frozen and reanimated at some unspecified time in the future, so will therefore outlive us all). With this in mind, I’ll briefly mention a few living writers whose short works I will always seek out: Eley Williams, Pia Ghosh-Roy, Joanna Walsh, Grant Maierhofer, Kathryn Scanlan, David Hayden, Susanna Crossman, and Clare Fisher.