‘The Vertical Ladder’ by William Sansom

Thirty-five years spent chasing sheer dread: in 1981 my English teacher read to the class a story about a boy pressed into climbing the ladder on the side of a gasometer. He climbs, his friends kick away the first bit of the ladder, he climbs, they wander off, and he climbs… towards a truly oppressive ending. You could have heard a pin drop. I looked in vain for years, not knowing the title or author, until a Sansom anthology was recommended to me. The contents included “The Vertical Ladder”. Could this be it? It was, and immediately the horror was renewed. There’s no real plot: Sansom captures a feeling and then simply stays there. Why not?

(1944; now in The Stories of William Sansom, Faber. Online here

‘Meat, My Husband’ by Lydia Davis

Once again, it’s not so much plot as a steady accretion of apparently insignificant details: the narrator is a competent but indifferent cook, married to a man with rather set views on food. Collapse is inevitable and it duly arrives. But it is delivered in the classic Lydia Davis manner: you might almost miss it entirely until a second reading, and then there it is, sharp, subversive and very funny. Davis specialises in quiet savagery and never wastes a word.

(Almost No Memory, 1997; now in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Penguin) 

‘King of Jazz’ by Donald Barthelme

King of short stories. As a recovering trombonist, I can hardly fail to be moved by the opening sentence: “Well I’m the king of jazz now, thought Hokie Mokie to himself as he oiled the slide on his trombone.” Sold! What follows is a riotous send-up of the endless “cutting contests” by which old-time jazzers, men to a man, fought their way to the top. Is there more to this story than the virtuosic language-games which Barthelme played almost better than anybody else? The answer lies in a strange paragraph which marks the turn of the tale. Here Barthelme, admittedly while describing Hokie’s solo on a tune called “Cream”, changes tack and embarks on a rapturous long list of improbably beautiful real and imagined sounds: “like an oyster fungus growing on an aspen trunk” for example. Which elicits the comment “That was the dadblangedest thing I ever saw!”

(1977; now in Sixty Stories, Penguin. Online here

‘Journey through the Night’ by Jakov Lind

This story is what I offer as proof that when I was a lad, it was only in fiction that people voluntarily made arrangements to be eaten by cannibals. The story features two men in a locked train compartment. One man is a cannibal with a suitcase full of butcher’s equipment. The other has been mistaken by the cannibal for a willing victim. I read this when I was about seven, by the way. Cheers, Dad. Re-reading it a century later, I see that behind the grotesquerie which I enjoyed (and still enjoy) are much more serious questions of collusion and coercion. There’s also the loaded fact that it’s set on a train. Throughout, Lind’s very black humour taunts the reader’s motives for continuing. Haneke territory.

(1962; now in Soul of Wood, NYRB Classics. Translated by Ralph Manheim.) 

‘Wants’ by Grace Paley

Here is an object lesson in how to take a seeming triviality (these don’t really exist of course) and, in barely three pages, create from it a long life— several lives, in fact— laid bare and interrogated to the full. Paley does this every single time. The really important thing with Paley is the voice. From the highly specific milieu of working-class Jewish New York, this voice jumps off the page as if you’re reading a direct transcript of conversation. The choices here, though, are a writer’s choices. So much has been left out, with just enough left in to imply everything else.

(1971; now in The Collected Stories of Grace Paley, Little, Brown. Online here

‘The Job Application’ by Robert Walser

Robert Walser is a bit like Marmite, if you can imagine a variety of Marmite that nobody could possibly hate. I could have chosen any story; they are all exactly the same. If an adult can be innocent, then this is surely true of Walser. Technically, is he any good as a writer, or are we really just seeing the world as described by a man with certain cognitive areas exaggerated at the expense of others? Imagine caring about the answer to such a hideous question. Read Walser and see the world, really see it. This story takes the form of a job application letter which only Walser could have sent. Maybe he really did send it. I hope so. Don’t look him up on Google images, it’s depressing.

(early 1900s? Now in The Walk and Other Stories, Serpent’s Tail. Translated by Christopher Middleton. Pdf here

‘A Matter of Taste’ by Alex La Guma

Not unlike Grace Paley, Alex La Guma takes a tiny moment and with great economy conjures an entire time, in this instance the years of apartheid in South Africa. Impoverished people at the margins of society are shown as emotionally intelligent and imaginative, capable of a rich fantasy which can alleviate the pain at least for a while. When I say people, I mean men, and men officially divided by race. I’ve made it sound more sentimental than it is, probably because I chose it instead of O. Henry’s ‘Gift of the Magi’ for fear of ridicule. The story also contains the word “portjackson” which I assume is a plant or tree, but to look it up would be to ruin the frisson of seeing the word. Portjackson.

(1967; included in A Walk in the Night, Heinemann African Writers Series, which seems to be out of print.) 

‘Never Trust a Man Who Bathes with His Fingernails’ by Ann Quin

Since her death in 1973 it has been really hard to get hold of Quin’s short pieces: credit for their reissue is down to Jennifer Hodgson, who also has an academic work on Quin in preparation. This is writing from the inside, which is to say that any superficial realism is only there to provide an arena where another, far subtler struggle is taking place, almost not articulated at all. In this story, An unspecified threat runs through the piece. As every event occurs, and there aren’t many, dangerous further possibilities appear without having been written. Death is never far from the action. I have already been sniffy about plot: there is a plot here, but it’s been messed with, as if parts of it (particularly the dénouement) had been excised. Good.

(1968; now in The Unmapped Country, due in 2018 from And Other Stories.) 

‘A Bit of a Smash in Madras’ by Julian Maclaren-Ross

This story is worth reading for its energy level, which stops just short of delirium, and the writer’s knack for capturing the wild lexicon of 1940s slang. He knows how to start: “Absolute fact, I knew damn all about it”. In the middle, he mainly knows how to swear brilliantly and how to display the excesses of colonialism— let’s just say he is a very flawed narrator indeed. And he really, really knows how to end with a very sly “look to the camera”. The brilliant last sentence gives away the tawdry fact that, in life as in fiction, Maclaren-Ross was overfond of delivering bombastic monologues at the bar. But they don’t make bar-room bores quite like him any more, alas.

(1940; most recently in Selected Stories from Dewi Lewis, but out of print I think.) 

‘Let Me Tell a Story Now’ by Bessie Head

I would never have heard of Bessie Head if she hadn’t been strongly championed by Alice Walker, who particularly admires her devastating novel “Maru”. Bessie Head also wrote many short stories, of which this is among the shortest. It relies on a rhetorical device which is hardly new, but the timing is really well judged. She begins by decrying the frustrations that go with any identity once it has been imposed upon you: her identity as a writer and the identity chosen for her by the state mean, she says here, that limits are put by others on what she can and cannot do, on what she can write. Here comes the device: “For instance, I would like to write the story about a man who is a packing hand at the railways…” and then she writes the story, or most of it anyway, before saying that she can’t write it. Apart from the obvious joke here, there is a powerful sense of a writer working against the times and against the form of the story itself.

(Heinemann African Writers Series, 1989; again, out of print I’m afraid.) 

‘Report on the Thing’ by Clarice Lispector

For Lispector, any everyday object can be the start of meditations on time, the universe, God, as well as her own domestic routines. In this instance we’re dealing with an alarm clock which serves as the pretext for a wild, incantatory resistance to any notion of categorisation or predication. The story is littered with what is and what isn’t this or that: “The Sun is, not the Moon. My face is. Probably yours is too.” Philosophical ideas are combined with intensely physical description, making this a typical Lispector piece where any and all assumptions are reclaimed through the medium of the body, the body which writes.

(1974; in Complete Stories, Penguin. Translated by Katrina Dodson. Online here