Introduction

One of my flatmates at college was a timid philosophy student. I never heard her enter a room or walk down the corridor, and was convinced she floated around in ballet slippers, yet when I consulted her footwear, it comprised of the typical student menu of Doc Martens and Converse. Every few weeks, we’d have a party in the flat, invariably with a theme, and whilst she never expressed a wish to attend, she didn’t indicate a desire to forego it either. Although I guess it was hard not to attend a party that was taking place five metres away from your bedroom.

She always appeared at these gatherings, but I could never calculate how long she stayed, nor discern precisely when she had entered or exited the room. She left little trace; neither ate nor drank, but she observed intensely, and occasionally made an insightful remark. She removed one of the most trying characteristics from friendship: expectation. Whilst most of us spend our mid-twenties drunk on people-pleasing, she’d no desire to participate in it, nor to offer others a complete picture of how she carried herself in the world. We can often mistake this behaviour for evasiveness, hostility or even failure on our part. When another flatmate complained that she was difficult to get to know and asked me to describe her personality, I said that she was like a short story.

‘Forever Overhead’ by David Foster Wallace

When David Foster Wallace writes in the imperative, you stop and listen. You accept his personal as universal in the story ‘Forever Overhead’ because he’s gifted it to you in such an airtight condition, that you don’t feel a single draught when you read it. It’s spiked with the usual DFW arrangements, which are filtered through the punch of the present tense. While the focus is on a boy about to dive into a pool, it’s the process rather than the result that’s tested out here. It’s a disservice to pathologise every bit of text that DFW wrote, and to relate this piece directly to his mental health. The process of thinking and its consequences need not always be understood in a clinical context; it can be more interesting to reach for an alternative. Thinking is both a gift and a curse in ‘Forever Overhead’. One of the most impressive things in this story is how the narrator’s thoughts order and manipulate time. You can see that this was achieved through utter graft and witness the energy it must have taken to capture anticipation so accurately: “There’s been time this whole time. You can’t kill time with your heart. Everything takes time. Bees have to move very fast to stay still.”

In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Little, Brown, 1999. Can be read online here

‘The Thirtieth Year’ by Ingeborg Bachmann, translated by Michael Bullock

I read that our brains (see Robert Sapolsky’s Behave) don’t fully develop the capacity to tolerate strong divergences from our opinions until around the late-twenties. With this in mind, I recommend you wait until you’re over thirty to read this story. It has the similar effect on one’s morale as Philip Larkin’s poem ‘On Being Twenty-Six’ although Larkin’s ‘source-encrusting doubt’ has hardened to a mouldy loaf by Bachmann’s ‘The Thirtieth Year’. Like ‘Forever Overhead’, this story takes place almost entirely in the mind of the narrator, with some cameos from the outside world. The speaker surveys his life as he enters his thirtieth year, and begins to regard the previous years as probationary. Expectations are lamented upon, as is the wodge of irritations manufactured simply through the passage of time. The most objectionable of irritants is touched upon too, that of unsolicited advice. “The Thirtieth Year” reads like a throat-clearing, not without some significant coughs, but it stresses the comfort we might find in self-clarity.

Collected in The Thirtieth Year, 1987

‘Funes the Memorious’ by Jorge Luis Borges

We zoom out from the apertures of lens ‘13’ and ‘30’ and consider a lifetime. The life of Funes is recalled through the narrator’s memory in an insecure way, and the infrequency of their encounters is stressed (‘I never saw him more than three times.’). Frequency does not necessarily inform intensity. Some of the people I love most in my life I’ve have met no more than ten times face-to-face. Borges knew that you can see someone three hundred times in your mind. Perhaps the architecture of them that you’re building in your head is erroneous, and incomplete, but does that make it worthless? Funes is chronometrical and can tell the time without consulting a clock (a method later adapted and adopted by the character, Crocodile Dundee). It’s easy to feel shame when reading this story as it highlights human negligence and ignorance. It shows how complicit we are in the hierarchisation of life. Simone Weil described attention as the ‘purest and rarest form of generosity’ and the story of Funes extends the hand of kindness to memory and leaves us to contemplate its destructive and creative nature.

First published in La Nación in 1942. Collected in Fictions, various editions. Can be read online here

‘The Encyclopaedia of the Dead’ by Danilo Kiš

Strangely, I read Danilo Kiš before I ever read Borges. I have no defence. Kiš, like his literary hero, is a masterful archivist of experiences. The story opens with a reference to the Vasa warship, itself a repository of many lives and objects lived, and subsequently preserved. Kiš was a remarkable stylist and literary critic and deplored identity-literature as he felt it made the single story somehow acceptable to the reader. Kiš shows us that there’s more than one way to present and re-present a life; there’s a curriculum vitae or a biography, but there’s also the wine stain we leave on a carpet or the fact that we may clandestinely listen to Drake on repeat. And for a little while, we are the containers for these things. They are in us because wherever we go, we ‘bear our grief within ourselves’.

Collected in Encyclopaedia of the Dead, FSG, 1997, translated by Michael Henry Heim, republished by Penguin Modern Classics, 2015, translated by Mark Thompson. Can be read online here

‘The Kiss’ by Anton Chekhov

James Wood’s description of ‘The Kiss’ in his book The Nearest Thing to Life is pitch-perfect. It relates to his theory of ‘serious noticing’ and he writes of how hypervigilance can transform our relationship to time and experience. The story exists also as an instruction of how to tell a story. Ryabovich becomes obsessed with a woman who erroneously kissed him in the darkness. He did not see her, only sensed her. If someone made a film-short of ‘The Kiss’ now, I’d put my money on Richard Linklater for the role of director. Experience isn’t as faithful to time as we think. Certainly not after it’s been fed through our brain repeatedly. Ryabovich is masterful at synthesising the experience in his head, but not in his life, and this is a common theme in the stories that I admire. We can all relate to the comfort found in projected experiences rather than lived ones.

Read in Short Stories from the 19th Century, selected by David Stuart Davies, 2000 and widely collected. Can be read online here

‘The Necklace’ by Guy de Maupassant, translated by Joachim Neugroschel

It’s depressing how human behaviour doesn’t evolve. Well at least that’s what it feels like after reading the desolate short story, ‘The Necklace’. This plot has the flavour of a Kanye & Kim vignette (but not April 2018 moral philosopher Kanye). Not least because it involves jewellery in Paris. Whilst I did not grow up poor, I grew up in a materially precarious environment. Nothing was taken for granted and luxuries were speculative and mostly realised through bank loans. The longest relationship I’ve ever had is with debt. Why? Because I also wanted what I didn’t have. I wanted to live in a city I was not born in and then in a country I was not born in. I had an idea of the life I should be living, and whilst it didn’t involve jewellery or designer handbags, I had a sharp sense of entitlement. ‘The Necklace’ highlights how odious an trait entitlement is and how recklessly we can mistake imprisonment for escape.

Collected in The Necklace & Other Tales, 2003. Can be read online here