‘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.

Introduction

These are a few of the favourite and formative short stories that came to mind. Making this list has reminded me just how much short stories have been bound up in my day-to-day life: as a gateway into art and literature when I was a teenager, in my own more recent practice as a writer, and in having the privilege of publishing stories by others. The stories are presented here in the order in which I encountered them, and somehow I haven’t included a story – any story! – by the great Danilo Kiš.