‘Fish out of Water’ by Claire-Louise Bennett

In exquisite prose, which reads like Beckett on oestrogen, Bennett recounts her relationship with the surreal portraiture of Dorothea Tanning. When literature encounters art, there is often a sense that the writer has contented to ‘chance upon’ or ‘meet with’ art. Bennett goes further, subjecting herself to an encounter in the deeper sense of ‘experiencing’ or ‘undergoing’. She slips between first person plural, second, and first and third singular, to explore and unfold her kinship with Tanning. With its fleur de lait paper and debossed carton cover, the book itself is an objet d’art. I sleep with mine by my bed.

Published by Juxta, 2020

‘Words from a Glass Bubble’ by Vanessa Gebbie

From the first line it is established, with warm, bustling confidence, that the words of the title are spoken by an effigy of the Virgin Mary, or VM as she becomes known. The protagonist Eva carries a heavy emotional burden and finds solace in this item of ‘low’ religious art. I was raised by women who found support in similar mass-produced plastic Madonnas and slippy-eyed saints, which function not so much as a source of power in themselves, but as a means to connect with something bigger. In Eva’s case, this ‘something bigger’ is her own capacity to transgress and transcend. 

Collected in Words from a Glass Bubble, Salt, 2008

‘Live that you may Live’ by Sarah Hall

Sotheby’s commissioned this story to showcase a 19th Century carved mahogany bed for its ‘Erotic: Passion & Desire’ sale. Hall’s story is set in a humbler bed, where a girl-child wakes in the night. Her imaginings, and those of her mother, sweep into a dreamlike narration of the making and unmaking of women, past and to come. Though the carved bed is not described, the story works ekphrastically, leaving the mind full of the bed’s dark veneer, the deep glow of its wood, and its finely carved motifs: a siren, swans, wavelets and the crimped edges of cockleshells… The story’s warnings and promises are sensed like those felt on contact with an object that has journeyed through centuries, absorbing countless stories on the way. 

First published, in a slightly different version, as ‘The Swan and the Courtesan’ by Sotheby’s on 2 February 2017, and is available to read here. Collected in Sudden Traveller, Faber & Faber, 2019

‘Loose Ends’ by Tania Hershman

Hershman has a wonderful way with words and the gaps between them. In this story, she works with a technique similar to decoupage, using disconnections to make connections. The result is nonsenses that are emotive, physical and strangely meaningful.

First published in The End, an anthology of writers’ responses to paintings by Nicolas Ruston, Unthank, 2016

‘Portrait: Eric Gill Dreaming’ by Alison MacLeod

With the daring and délicatesse of a master surgeon, MacLeod examines the life of Eric Gill, the man, and the work of Eric Gill, the artist. Conceived for radio, this story is a mixed-media artwork of sound and image. “Listen!” instructs a nameless narrator at the story’s start: trees creak, the latches of bedroom doors rattle, and whitewashed walls whisper for hush. MacLeod lifts the lid on this singular household, shrinking neither from the shadows of Gill’s life nor from the light of his work.

Broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on 19 January 2018

‘Shakespeare on the Buses’ by Vesna Main

Main delivers the story as an articulate, high-level, continuous stream of reported conversation from a certain ‘V’, who discusses the fit and misfit between nationality, persons and cultural artefacts, and how all this relates to notions of belonging and exile. Fans of Temptation will know that the collection includes a more obvious candidate for this anthology, but ‘Shakespeare on the Buses’ highlights the extent to which the arts provide a home for those with only tenuous ties to any nation’s turf. ‘V’ guides us through her carefully curated mind-space, sharing choice exhibits, and passing on insights that come bubble-wrapped in verbiage, to be transported away to the mind museums of other wanderers like herself. 

[Many thanks to Nicholas Royle for introducing me to Main’s work, and for gracing Anglophones with the first English translation of Vincent de Swarte’s Pharricide (Cōnfingō), which features a macabre artist, of sorts. Royle’s translation is shortlisted for The Society of Authors’ TA First Translation Prize.]

First published in Temptation: A User’s Guide, Salt, 2018

‘Still Life’ by KJ Orr

Among the sumptuousness and flourish of a Dutch still life, there is often a memento mori: a game-bird draped lifeless over the edge of a lavishly set table; a fly on the blushing cheek of an apple; a tulip hanging limp-stemmed, shedding petals. In this story, a father struggles to make sense of his daughter’s stilled life when she is struck with an inexplicable sickness just as she should be coming into bloom. Like the Dutch masterworks, Orr’s ‘Still Life’ is all the more poignant for being so perceptively and pitilessly observed. 

First published in Light Box, Daunt Books, 2016

‘Art, for Fuck’s Sake’ by Leone Ross

The story’s double-stranded plotline is quickly clear: a solitary writer and self-declared celibate sets out to engage in a three-way artistic collaboration and a threesome. This knowledge serves to front-load the narrative tension: will the writer get us there, and how? Writing sex scenes is home turf for Ross, so it’s perhaps no spoiler to let on that she does get us there. It’s the ‘how’ that’s so dizzyingly impressive, with Ross pulling off the virtuoso feat of sustaining both controlled edging and Baroque revelry. 

First published in Brown Sugar 2: Great One Night Stands – A Collection of Erotic Black Fiction, Simon & Schuster, 2002Collected in Come Let Us Sing Anyway and Other Stories, Peepal Tree Press, 2017

‘Pure Hollywood’ by Christine Schutt

This story reads like a product of the seventh art: cinema. The principal setting, or set, is a house that is an architectural chef d’oeuvre, with a Hockney-esque pool and walls decorated by celebrity artists. After the demise of its owner, a supporting cast emerges to tot up the value of their potential inheritance, putting tabs on artworks in which their interest is purely financial. The leading lady witnesses the house being dismantled, and the gloss of her glamorous life cracks to reveal rot and emptiness. Everyone and everything is playing a part: the husband plays ‘Daddy’, the house plays ‘Home’ and laughs stand in for love, while art is deployed as a signifier of worth – or as a front for the lack of it. 

Collected in Pure Hollywood, published by And Other Stories, 2018

‘And So On’ by Ali Smith

I hunted through my Ali Smith collection for a story I remembered, featuring a Smith-ish narrator and her father at a gallery, and spent a happy moment not finding that story, browsing, and finding many others that might have ended up here. I settled on ‘And So On’, which preambles and ambles through stories within stories, presenting: life as art; art as an imitation of life; life lived well and true as something that cannot be faked; art as something to hold onto in the face of death; death as a stealer-away, a cheat; and artful living (and dying) as a double-cheat so that death is not the end of the story, but only a part. 

Collected in Public Library and Other Stories, Penguin, 2016

‘Andy Warhol’s Self-Portrait’ by Michelle Tea

In boisterous, big-hearted prose, Tea goes back where she came from, taking Warhol with her. The result is an unclassifiable text that was first delivered as a speech, is sold as an essay, and might be marketed as anything from journalism to life writing. For me, it read like a multi-stranded micro-bildungsroman, offering insights into both Tea’s and Warhol’s lives. It has a walk-and-talk energy, and offers insights into the uneasy relationship between high and low art, the commercialization of art, and the extent to which art can reach out and change us. 

Collected in Against Memoir, published by And Other Stories, 2018

‘Attrib.’ by Eley Williams

‘Attrib.’ tells the story of a foley artist whose surroundings conspire to interrupt the production of a soundscape intended to glorify Michelangelo’s masterworks. In quirks and quips, it calls out the uneven distribution of power that maintains the effacement of certain populations, raising questions about who gets to name and attribute meaning, who gets to express themselves, and who gets to be recognised as a creator. It also gives a joyful and hilarious demonstration of an artist’s power to disrupt and provoke change. 

[Williams’s collection also boasts the startling and beautiful ‘Smote’ (or ‘When I find I cannot kiss you in front of a print by Bridget Riley’). ‘Attrib.’ made the anthology because visual art made a place for it in my mind before the story was written; in 1996, I encountered Foley Artist by Tacita Dean, and discovered what a foley artist is and does. 

Many thanks to Sophie Haydock for introducing me to ‘Attrib.’ through The Word Factory Short Story Club.]

Collected in Attrib. and Other Stories, Influx, 2017