‘Bliss’ by Katherine Mansfield

Rich and strange, heart-breaking and cruelly funny, this is one of my favourite Mansfield stories among many. Mansfield, like Chekhov, can conjure unalloyed joy. Bertha Young’s excitement – albeit about a dinner party – is infectious, yet we see from the start how it renders her vulnerable. She hides it from Harry, her husband – ‘she couldn’t absurdly cry: “Hasn’t it been a divine day!”’ – and instead delights over her beautiful bowl of fruit, and the anticipation of welcoming the enigmatic Pearl Fulton. Bertha ‘fell in love’ with Pearl Fulton the first time she saw her. We wonder later how to take this; is it just a turn of phrase? Central to the story is a beautiful pear tree in Bertha’s garden, in full and perfect blossom, ‘a symbol of her own life.’ The dinner guests – Pearl Fulton excepted – are hilariously dreadful, yet Bertha maintains her unbearable bliss, becoming ‘ardent’ (such a laden word) before inevitably, this being Mansfield, a shadow is cast. Each time I read this story the pleasure only increases, laced as it is with pain. Early on, Bertha ‘seemed to see on her eyelids the lovely pear tree’, and so it is for the reader, left wondering at Bertha’s capacity for joy in her stifling, unsympathetic world.

First published in the English Review (1918), now in Selected Stories, Oxford World’s Classics, 2002, and other Mansfield collections, available online here

‘Tributaries’ by Ramona Ausubel

I was introduced to this story by Helen Oyeyemi on a writing course a few years ago. Ausubel’s whole collection has heart – a kind of affection for and between her characters that is not often in evidence in short stories, or is hard to get away with if it’s there (Lorrie Moore does it well). Her stories are also fantastical, and in this one, we zoom in on teenage girls at a slumber party as Genevieve tells her friends, “My parents both have perfect love-arms.” Even though Genevieve adds that it is “almost sick,” the way they use these arms to write love letters to one another, all the other girls hope for exactly this. For in the world of ‘Tributaries’, people grow extra arms from their chests when they are truly in love. There are variations: one girl’s grandmother has seven love-arms; the school teacher Claribel has hands all over her chest that clean each other’s nails while she marks papers.  This sounds ridiculous, almost grotesque, but that heart of Ausubel’s that I mentioned prevails, and this exploration of love-arms – the use of fake arms, the presence of wayward or unusual arms – becomes a beautiful meditation on how we love, and love differently.

In A Guide to Being Born, Riverhead, 2013; available online here

‘A Shocking Accident’ by Graham Greene

This story is brilliant for the concept at its core – that a tragedy (the death of a parent) can have about it an inherent comedy (method of dispatch) such that it haunts the offspring left behind in a uniquely undignified way. I first read it in an anthology of the same name, and sadly it set the bar so high that most of the other stories couldn’t compete. It also has a great opening. Like David Copperfield summoned to the headmaster’s office on his birthday, expecting a hamper and receiving instead news of his mother’s death, Jerome sits opposite his housemaster without fear, for he is an ‘approved, reliable’ boy, destined ‘for Marlborough or Rugby’. Rather, the housemaster appears a little afraid of Jerome. What does he have to tell him? The news is delivered, and a guilty smile spreads across the reader’s face. Perhaps there is also a snort, or a hoot, at the gift of this awful, wonderful image. So many short stories are dark, it is true, and this one in a way is no exception. But it is also exceptionally funny.

In A Shocking Accident: stories with a twist in the tail, ed. Sara Corrin, Walker Books, 2003; available online here

‘Debarking’ by Lorrie Moore

This is another one I highly recommend you hear the author read herself, which you can if you buy the audiobook.  Lorrie Moore’s warm, laconic voice brings out the best in the humour here, and there is so much of it. In this long short story, newly divorced and nervous Ira starts a relationship with long-divorced but possibly unhinged Zora. Standing defiantly between them is Zora’s teenage son, Bruno – or Bruny, or Brune, depending on Zora’s fancy. Mother and son play footsie under the table, wrestle each other onto the sofa, and turn all Ira’s attempted dates into a disturbing threesome. Bad enough, but add in Zora’s sculptures of pubescent boys, ‘priapic with piccolos,’ and her planned children’s book about a hedgehog entering a house full of crocodiles… “I’ll spare you the rest,” Zora says, but she does not spare poor Ira. Sad and comical in equal measure, relatable but bizarre, sympathetic but also pathetic, watching forlorn Ira navigate this woman is mesmerising.

In Bark, Faber & Faber, 2014 and in The New Yorker, online here

‘As They Rode Along the Edge’ by Leonora Carrington

Virginia Fur lives in an abandoned village, and rides around, ‘between precipices, across trees,’ on a wheel. She has ‘a mane of hair yards long and enormous hands with dirty nails’, and she smells pretty interesting. Virginia Fur falls for a wild boar called Igname after he declares his love, dressed up for the occasion in a wig of squirrels’ tails and fruit, and with a nightjar perched atop his head. How could she resist? I couldn’t. Sadly, their furious passion is short-lived. Carrington’s stories often tread a line between the fabulous and the wilfully surreal, and ones that tip too far in the latter direction can make for a bewildering read. This one delivers the satisfaction of all Carrington’s strange imaginative flourishes adorning a story that we can recognise: love lost and avenged. I can’t remember where I first found this story, but it has lodged in my imagination ever since. Carrington’s work is a great reminder to let rip when it comes to writing, to embrace ideas and let them ride their wheels into the wild.

in The Seventh Horse and Other Tales, Virago, 1989

‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ by Gabriel García Márquez

Márquez is here because he was such an influence on my young self. As a teenager, I pretty much wanted to be him (I’d have accepted the generous moustache), and my first ‘proper’ short story was a wholesale Márquez rip-off, of which I was quite proud. This story is resplendent with so many of the Márquezian traits I know and love. Days of rain have left Pelayo’s house infested with crabs, and ‘the world had been sad since Tuesday.’ Then he finds a ragged old man face down in the muddy yard. The man has enormous wings. Pelayo ignores his neighbour’s advice to club this apparent angel to death, and instead locks him in the chicken coop. Soon, visitors are flocking from far and wide, and Pelayo is raking it in. Only when a woman who has been turned into a spider arrives with a travelling fair are Pelayo, his family, and his aloof angel left alone. Infestations, transformations, curious crowds, extreme weather, and mystery make this classic Márquez. It strikes me now that all those elements have indeed snuck into my own writing, though I am sadly still short a generous moustache.

In Collected Stories, Penguin, 1996; first published in English in Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories, Harper & Row, 1978; available online here

Introduction

This list is incomplete. It’s a bodge job, a let’s-fuck-off-home-early-eh number, a half-formed thing. I didn’t mean it to be but it is. I have lost my copies of Borges’ Labyrinths and Peter Carey’s Collected Stories. I let a friend borrow Krzhizhanovsky’s 7 Stories and he never gave it back. The anthology that contains Bartleby is at the bottom of a box under a dustsheet in an upstairs room. And so on. So there’s no ‘Life And Death In The South Side Pavilion’ here, nor ‘The Quixote of Pierre Menard’, nor ‘In The Pupil’. I didn’t want to write about them if I didn’t have them to hand.

It’s incomplete for other reasons, too. It’s incomplete because I’m incomplete (regrettably, woefully so). I haven’t read enough. More specifically, I haven’t read enough writers of colour, or non-European writers, or gay writers, or women writers. My list and I are twin inadequates.

And it’s incomplete because I made it that way. It should have more comic stories in it (there’s no Wodehouse, no Runyon, no Thurber) and more detective stories (no ‘The Big Knockover’, no ‘The Purloined Letter’) but I left them out. Curators gonna curate. And I left out some stuff I know you’ll have all read already (of course you’ve all read Eley Williams’ stories, of course you all know ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’). But I wouldn’t want you to think I left out Raymond Carver for that reason. I left him out because I can’t abide him.