In an interview for Five Dials, Lydia Davis said that certain words and sentences “defy assimilation”, meaning that on each reading they continue to strike her as “surprising, fresh and new”. Looking at my list below, I note that this is one thing many of the pieces have in common. Something else that’s clear when looking at this list, is that the content, for me, is subordinate to the form: the words and the spaces between. Anything can carry if the writing is good enough. I decided to make an anthology of writing that has marked me in some way as a writer, and has helped me on the way to becoming a writer (always becoming a writer). In no particular order I’ve tried to illustrate, in the case of each, what I learned.
Category: Vanessa Onwuemezi
Vanessa Onwuemezi is a writer and poet living in London. She graduated from the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Birkbeck, 2018. She is the winner of The White Review Short Story Prize 2019.
‘Axolotl’ by Julio Cortázar, translated by Paul Blackburn
Where is your narrator? A simple enough question, the narrator has to be somewhere. But it’s something that, as a beginning writer, is easy to forget until you’re halfway through a story, or a chapter, and you’re left wondering why your story is proving so unwieldy. In this short piece Cortázar achieves a seamless shift in perspective, while the narrator remains constant, one mind to another mind. Some technical dexterity is required to get this right, and he gets it so right, all the way penetrating into this existential question, the “diaphanous interior mystery” of consciousness.
First published in Spanish in Litereria, 1952 and collected in Final del Juego. First published in English in End of the Game, Pantheon, 1967 and collected in Blow Up And Other Stories, Pantheon, 1985
‘Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby’ by Donald Barthelme
The importance of the title, and those first lines.
First published in his 1976 anthology, Amateurs. Recently collected in a Penguin Mini Modern Classic with the same name, 2011. Available to read here
‘In the Penal Colony’ by Franz Kafka, translated by Michael Hofmann
The subversion of our sense of reality is sometimes the best way to evoke it.
First published as ‘In der Strafkolonie’, Wolff in October 1919. Widely collected in English, including in Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2007
‘Wrestling with Achelous’ by Ashton Politanoff
The writing is always better when it resists the desire, (the writer’s desire, the reader’s desire, the modern desire?), for a clear ‘meaning’. This story rests in ambiguity and, in my view, is all the more inventive and humorous for it.
First published in NOON Annual, 2015
‘Work’ by Denis Johnson
Tense, and time. Johnson’s collection of stories is narrated by the same protagonist throughout. Studying sentences like “But now the river was flat and slow”, I learned (continue to learn) to manage tense in a story. Speaking in the past tense, within that speaking about something that happened further in the past, or is happening in the ‘present’ of your story, in the past tense, confused yet? Perspective rears its head again, where is your narrator telling the story from, what point in time? This will set the tone. If the character is talking to us about an event that took place a year previous, the rougher edges of what looks like a harrowing experience may have smoothed out somewhat, they know what happened next, compared to something that happened to the protagonist the day before. Just knowing this while you’re writing gives a better flow, the language will naturally follow from the awareness of perspective. And on to the language, there is definitely something that defies assimilation: “the air turned such a strange color I thought my life must be leaving me.” A hailstorm, such a description allowed me to see it as if for the first time.
First published in The New Yorker, November 14, 1988 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Jesus’ Son, FSG, 1992, Granta, 2012. Also available to read here
‘The Distance of the Moon’ by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver
To indulge completely in fantasy, and to risk. By risk I mean to avoid resting in comfort for long, always trying to expand the reaches of what you’re doing, never shying away from the new and untested. In the Cosmicomics Calvino uses scientific hypotheses of the day as jumping-off points, creating a new genre described as “a subspecies of science fiction” by Ursula K. Le Guin.
First published in Italian in 1965. First published in English translation in Cosmicomics, Harcourt Brace, 1968. Collected in The Complete Cosmicomics, Penguin Modern Classics, 2010. Available as an animation, in Hebrew with subtitles here
‘Solo Dance’ by Jayne Anne Philips
This story is less than a page, it’s all action and observation: daughter goes to see her father in hospital, he talks, he gets out of bed for a while, “she combs the back of his head with water and her fingers”. The finer details of their relationship, their past, his preoccupations, regrets, and pains are conveyed to us in a few spoken words, observations, “the skin on his legs was soft and pure like fine paper”. Phillips does not spell out the situation for the reader in any way, yet we understand.
Collected in Black Tickets, Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1979/Allen Lane, 1980. Available to read on Phillips’s website, here
‘Smote (or When I Find I Cannot Kiss You In Front Of A Print By Bridget Riley)’ by Eley Williams
The line spacing in this story began for me an experiment with form, still ongoing. The form carries much of the weight of any story, in terms of its ‘meaning’ or ‘message’. The spacing around the word ‘But’ in this story lends the word its but-feeling, to borrow a phrase from Wittgenstein.
First published on The White Review website, April 2015. Collected in Attrib. And Other Stories, Influx Press, 2017
‘Pnin’ by Vladimir Nabokov
His complete surrender to his own merriment would prove irresistible…with abrupt barks of clockwork hilarity coming from Charles, and a dazzling flow of unsuspected lovely laughter transfiguring Josephine, who was not pretty, while Eileen, who was, dissolved in a jelly of unbecoming giggles.
These lines, in their richness, flow and descriptive sleight of hand, the laughter, along with the prettiness of one girl conservatively used to describe the lack-of of the other, became something to aspire to in the realm of imagery and description. The story as a whole presents a challenge to the usual narrative construction, in that the collusive ‘we’ narration at the beginning, becomes an ‘I’ around halfway through the story. This is discussed in the podcast.
First published as a short story in The New Yorker, 1953. Later published as the first chapter of the novel, Pnin. You can listen to the short story on The New Yorker podcast here
‘Tender Buttons’ by Gertrude Stein
There’s a sense of rhythm in reading these sentences aloud, given by her placement of words and use of punctuation. Many writers make use of the rhythm of words, of course, but the music in these phrases is all the more clear due to the language’s incomprehensibility. I will often know the rhythm of a sentence before I know what the words will be, so I’ll write down any words, so long as they have the correct number of syllables, to preserve the rhythm in my memory. I went back to Stein when I was writing a piece called At the Heart of Things, when I felt like I’d lost the music of the writing. And also I find refuge in all its nonsense.
First published in 1914 as Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms. Current available from Dodo Press, 2016. Read some of it here
‘The Watchful Toad’ by Lydia Cabrera, translated by Alberto Hernández-Chiroldes and Lauren Yoder
The stories in this collection are based mostly on Yoruba mythologies and folk tales exported to Cuba along the slave routes. They cross the line between the natural and the supernatural with a shrug of the shoulders, “no transition and no surprise”, borrowing from Cortazár’s ‘Axolotl’. This is a recent addition, and is opening up avenues in my thinking around narrative progression and the interaction of the mundane and the supernatural. This story, and the others in the book, don’t merely dwell in fantasy, for want of a better word, for its own sake, but they signify a much deeper understanding of the moral ambiguity a good story must be able to contain, and the redemptive unity of all things in nature.
First published in Spanish as ‘El sapo guadiero’, in Cuentos Negros de Cuba, Ediciones Universal, 2012. First published in English in Afro-Cuban Tales, University of Nebraska Press, 2004
‘The Aleph’ by Jorge Luis Borges
I have very little to say about this story. Only that this was one of the first short stories I read, years ago. It emptied my mind, is all I can say, and it’s what a writer, this writer, is aiming for, but is so rarely achieved. Talking about it only takes me further away from it, and is no substitute for reading it. Luckily, you can do that here, a 1945 translation by Norman Thomas Di Giovanni in collaboration with the author.
First published in the Argentine journal Sur in 1945. First published in English in The Aleph and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1971. Currently available in The Aleph, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000 and Collected Fictions, Viking, 1998