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A Personal Anthology, by Timna Fibert
The short story I think of most often was about a woman whose house was damp whilst she was getting a divorce. It was written in sentence-long paragraphs and I have a vague memory of rotting floorboards with spaces between them. I have a feeling that the divorcing woman went mad for a bit – but it was a domesticated sort of madness, which prevented her from being able to pay her bills but did not prevent people from leaving her alone to look after herself. Despite being tragic in a quiet and strangled sort of way, I think it was quite funny, although I don’t remember any jokes. Things like seasons and vermin and offspring toppled out of existence between the damp and perfect paragraphs that were also sentences.
I’m about 75% sure this story exists. I came across it on the wilds of the internet via a link from I don’t know where, during a time when I was looking for I don’t know what. Probably it sat for a while on my browser in the mysterious coded potential of a small tab getting smaller, squeezed tight by informational clutter administrative and otherwise, before a routine electronic cataclysm caused my system to crash and I lost it along with some other things I had forgotten I didn’t want to forget. The divorcing woman disappeared and mostly what I remember about her are the gaps between her sentences.
Blanchot says that tone in literature is “not the writer’s voice, but the intimacy of the silence he imposes upon the word.” Sometimes I think he means something like – a writer’s voice consists in the vibrations that hang in the air after the story has finished, innocent as church bells on Monday morning. Other times I wonder if it’s the exact opposite – that when you write a story you freeze the thing you’re writing about, like a doctor freezes off a wart, and the intimate silence is the wartless unhealed wound left by words transfigured into chilly unreal.
Either way, it captures what I’m always looking for when reading; the sense of things falling away. At heart I’m something of a secular mystic, and what I like best is when a story leads me right into the middle of an Indiana Jones-style jungle bridge, but whilst it tempts me across to the other side it brings me to a plank that can’t hold the weight of the story’s specificity, so that the wood crumbles away, presenting me to the ravine. As I tumble I remember I never wanted to get to the other side to begin with, and when I started to read, this was what I hoped for: a few moments alone with the blank dark damp.
The short story is a perfect medium for this kind of plunge. With the proximity of both beginning and ending haunting every sentence, it barely exists, a vivid island of words surrounded by their opposites. My favourite stories feel as though they’re always in conversation with their own disintegration. Wanting to exist, but also acutely aware that in so many different ways they can’t, and don’t. I think about my divorcing madwoman and her gappy floorboards. The fact that her disappearance has not disappeared. That she exists as a hole in my head. She’s silent, and her story is riddled with silences, but they’re her silences, specific but inarticulate utterances of the funny aching hollow at the heart of things.
All of the twelve stories I’ve chosen left me with that sense of the apophatic. Each feels as though they have left enough space for me to fall through the cracks. The stories suggested themselves to me in thematic clumps, and I arranged them carefully, according to a design that I can’t quite articulate. The jungle bridge leads from ‘The Blank Page’ to ‘The Instant of my Death’. In between, I hope, are some pleasurable tumbles.
P.S. If anyone does know the story of my damp divorcee – please tell me! If there’s one thing compiling this list has shown me is that the silences of remembered things are usually made more potent by encountering them again.
‘The Blank Page' by Karen Blixen, under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen (Published in Last Tales, Random House, 1957)
“Hear then: Where the story-teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence. Whether a small snotty lass understands it or not.”
Instead of writing an introduction, I should really have just presented this story. In gorgeous, circuitous detail, it teaches us (the quiet readers of a story narrated aloud by a woman who cannot read) how to produce the most perfect kind of silence. It portrays creativity is inherently female – not, I don’t think, because it’s talking specifically about female creativity, but because it wants to use the particular muffled and obscure experience of being a woman at that time (or any time?) as a metaphor for the awful liberation offered by the symbol created by a work of art. That final image! I find it genuinely revelatory.
‘The Figure in the Carpet’ by Henry James (First published in Cosmopolis, 1896. Collected in The Figure in the Carpet and Other Stories, Penguin Books, 1986; also available as a Little Black Classic, Penguin, 2015. Read online at Project Gutenberg here)
“‘I see–it’s some idea ABOUT life, some sort of philosophy. Unless it be,’ I added with the eagerness of a thought perhaps still happier, ‘some kind of game you’re up to with your style, something you’re after in the language. Perhaps it’s a preference for the letter P!’ I ventured profanely to break out. ‘Papa, potatoes, prunes–that sort of thing?’ He was suitably indulgent: he only said I hadn’t got the right letter.”
‘The Figure in the Carpet’ forces you to accept ambiguity, waking up your thoughts and giving them insomnia. This was one of the stories I couldn’t have omitted without ingratitude – I read it early and it’s become part of the furniture of my brain. It’s about a young critic who dedicates his life to learning the hidden meaning of an author’s work. Like Paul Auster’s City of Glass or any number of Borges’ stories, it captures something ineffable in concrete, only to sink it just out of view so that we really feel its absence.
I am often very sure that I know things – about myself, other people, the meaning of books and films and tv shows - right up until the moment that I try to articulate them to myself or others. Then I have that moment of terrifying undoing when I realise that nothing exists outside the how of my saying it, and if I don’t have that how, the knowledge recedes, and I’m left with nothing but a feeling of personal insufficiency. I think that’s what’s compelling about ‘The Figure in the Carpet’, more than it being a theorisation of ‘criticism’ or ‘authorship’ or whatever – it’s a story about the frustration of feeling like you ought to be able to know.
‘Fragment of a Diary’ by Amparo Davila, trans. Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson (English translation published in The Houseguest and Other Stories, New Directions, 2018)
“I’ve always liked stairways, with their people who go dragging their breath up them and fall dully down them in a shapeless mass. Maybe that’s why I chose the stairs to suffer on.”
A man sits on the steps and practices suffering. He exercises his pains – moving from the 4th degree to the 9th of suffering, gaining mastery over remorse and jealousy. It’s a perfect portrayal of the paradox of the martyr – and of the artist. The hubris of trying to be in control of pain, thinking that if you just dwell on it enough, it won’t overwhelm you in the end. As long as you’re in love with suffering, you can never really suffer. Of course, ultimately, it’s love that gives the lie to this – because the most unbearable pain of all is the one that’s poisoned by the hope that things might stop hurting quite so much.
‘On the Day of the Crucifixion’ by Leonid Andreyev, trans. Herman Bernstein (English translation published in The Crushed Flower and Other Stories, 1916. Read online here)
“On that terrible day, when the universal injustice was committed and Jesus Christ was crucified in Golgotha among robbers—on that day, from early morning, Ben-Tovit, a tradesman of Jerusalem, suffered from an unendurable toothache.”
This story begins my little trio of god texts. As I say in the introduction, I myself am not religious, but religious stories were some of the first texts I saw being talked about with reverence. Stories that were held up as something important, rather than your ‘Biff and Chips’ or Charlotte’s Webs, which were, as far as I could tell as a child at least, for play, or simply ‘educational’. Yes, I was indeed a fairly serious sort of child.
My grandpa on my mum’s side was a Church of England vicar, whilst my dad is a very atheistic Jew who tried sporadically to keep up the tradition of Shabbat and Passover. All this culminated in a personal sense that when people talked about god, it was a symbol for something foreign, distant, and outside the everyday.
The excerpted sentence above pretty much summarises the plot of this story. In the shadow of infinite suffering, Ben-Tovit has a tooth ache. The description of a man not noticing the immensity of something right beside him is as discomfiting as it is amusing. You get a prickling feeling that the sublime could pass you by and you wouldn’t even know it, because you’d been too busy explaining the details of your own personal gripes to notice that the irredeemable world was in the process of being redeemed.
‘The Martyrdom of St. Edmund, King of East Anglia, 870,’ by Abbo of Fleury, trans. Kenneth Cutler (Collected in Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer, Oxford University Press, 1882. Read online here)
This kept popping into my mind when I was putting together my anthology, and in the end I just gave in to whatever it was my subconscious was trying to tell me.
It’s a hagiography of a King who’s martyred by invading Vikings for refusing to give up Christianity. It’s not a short story but I think it feels like one to read it today. What’s stuck with me is the way that it depicts (or rather, doesn’t depict) pain. The weirdness of it! The odd, affectless way that physical agony is described! There’s a line about him being pricked all over with spears ‘like a hedgehog’ that I think about weirdly often – it’s so impassive, disconnected - like his body is nothing but surface.
I read this at university and I remember not really knowing what to do with it academically. Now I’ve forgotten everything I learnt about hagiography and Abbo of Fleury, but the feeling of reading the text hasn’t budged – its bright, solid images, its refusal to go inside of things.
Perhaps this is what I like about reading it: that it reminds me of the uncanny fact of other lives and other times. Often stories give us the illusion of true empathy – of feeling with. But reading this, with all its meanings distant and its contexts inaccessible, I become aware of how many things have been, are, and will forever be alien to me.
‘God’s Love’ by Sheila Heti (Published in Mal Journal, 2019. Read online here)
“Jenna, you better start loving God now, cause the years are passing, and when I screw you, I can see there are little hairs in your ass that weren’t there before, so I’m just telling you that you better find him soon.”
At her best, Heti is simultaneously deft playful and slight, and profound tragic and weighty. Sometimes her stories get a bit cute for me, but this one hits the note perfectly. Consisting of a man exhorting his girlfriend to stop sending emails to other men and to start loving God instead, it’s both funny and humiliatingly human. Is it cynical? Certainly it’s cruel, in the way only impeccably observed truthfulness can be. The speaker is so misguided that he’s almost endearing. At the centre of it there’s an interminable anxiety, and a stupid, stubborn, ridiculous refusal to believe that nothing’s ever going to calm it. And what is the speaker supposed to do with that? Heti doesn’t presume to know – only, not this.
‘Good Old Neon’ by David Foster Wallace (First published in Harper’s Magazine, January 1998, and collected in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Little, Brown, 1999, and The David Foster Wallace Reader, Little, Brown, 2014)
“My whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people. Mostly to be liked or admired. It’s a little more complicated than that, maybe. But when you come right down to it it’s to be liked, loved. Admired, approved of, applauded, whatever. You get the idea.”
I know at least one person whose life was saved by this story. I’m not exaggerating. My own experience – who knows? The effect it had on me was so intense, it’s certainly not far off. Reading it at 19, trying to work out why I couldn’t find a way of being alive that felt natural, or make connections that felt effortless, or have an emotion that felt pure – it put those experiences I saw as insoluble personal failings into the context of being a human subject and having to deal in the insufficiency of concrete things. I re-read it every couple of years, so I can confirm – it’s not just a late-adolescence thing. The stubborn sense of knotty anguish that forms at the beginning gives way to a struggling acceptance of the indignity of it all, and it’s so tender, so kind, so tremulously sublime, that every time I read it again, I feel it opening up inside my lungs. “So cry all you want, I won’t tell anybody.”
‘Artur and Isabella’ by Dasa Drndić, trans. S.D. Curtis (English translation published in Doppelgänger,Istros Books (UK), 2018 and New Directions (US), 2019. Read online here)
“He watches grey-haired ladies weeing in their nappies and smiling. They smile tiny smiles and they smile broad smiles. When they give off big smiles, old ladies quiver. Old ladies in aspic. In buses they piss and smile to themselves.”
This is not a what I would call a fun story to read. It’s unflinching about the physical ignominy of aging. Lots of shit. Piss. Shrunken genitals. Atrophied genitals. Under surveillance by a police state, Artur and Isabella perform sex acts on each other and obsess about hats and garden gnomes and chocolate balls – bits of stuffthat they invest with meaning whilst their bodies degrade.
I’m really selling it, I know.
There’s something quite Beckettian about the grimness of this story – the highest praise I can give. It’s an exploration of the humiliation of embodiment, about whether souls exist without the inevitability of excrement. The end is weird and esoteric and offers no closure – just a different type of unease. I think it’s fantastic. But I suggest that you don’t read it over lunch.
‘A Visitation’ by Bruno Schulz, trans. Celina Wieniewska (English translation published in ‘The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories’, Walker, 1963)
“In winter it would be still deep night when Father went down to these cold and dark rooms, the light of his candle scattering flocks of shadows so that they fled sideways along the floor and up the walls; his task to wake the snoring men from their stone-hard sleep.”
Most of the stories I’ve chosen for this list have been percolating in my mind for at least a year – some, decades. In contrast, I discovered Bruno Schulz a month or so ago and I’m absolutely giddy about it. It was a bit like finding out about a new spice – how did I not know that things could taste like Cardamom? Suddenly and inexorably there’s another flavour in the world.
All the stories in this book (is it a collection? Is it actually a novel?) are dark, funny, and intensely weird. This particular one is about a man in conflict with the Demiurge. Its images are often shocking in their potency – ‘illness settled like a rug in the room’, ‘suddenly the window opened with a dark yawn’, ‘father began to shrink day to day, like a nut drying inside a shell’.
There is just a tiny bit of shit again (sorry), but unlike the previous story ‘Artur and Isabella’, it’s defiantlyexcremental – a chamber-pot emptied into the darkness as a nose-thumb to the divine. A man’s heroic, insane, tragic refusal to submit to the dictates of form.
‘House of Flesh’ by Yusef Idris, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies (English translation published in Egyptian Short Stories, Hinemann Educational, 1978)
“The ring is beside the lamp. Silence reigns and ears are blinded. In the silence the finger slides along and slips on the ring. In silence, too, the lamp is put out. Darkness is all around. In the darkness eyes too are blinded.
The widow and her three daughters. The house is a room. The beginning is silence.”
I wrote in my introduction about silences – this story is consumed with them. Huge gaps for things that can’t be said and can’t be looked at. Female sexuality here is a desperate, muffled thing, which creeps about secret and ravenous, stealing food like a neglected spaniel. Mellifluously told, it’s a dark fairy-tale that makes you feel the void that exists between people, and the ways that sex can close that void in unsettling and sometimes radically impersonal ways – a coming together of flesh which supersedes whatever else it is the body houses.
‘Savoir’ by Helene Cixous, trans. Geoffrey Bennington (English translation published in Veils, alongside an essay by Jacques Derrida and drawings by Ernest Pignon-Ernest, Stanford University Press, 2001)
“From then on she did not know. She and Doubt were always inseparable: had things gone away or else was it she who mis-saw them? She never saw safely. Seeing was a tottering believing. Everything was perhaps.”
This is my ‘if you like this, you’ll love…’ Clarice Lispector substitution, because I feel very strongly that Cixous deserves a Personal Anthology slot. I discovered Cixous from her writing on Lispector, and I think she’s devastatingly wonderful.
This story, for example. It is, quite literally, luminous. In it, a woman goes blind from myopia, then has an operation which causes her to regain her sight. On one Tuesday in January, everything that was obscured from her slowly comes back into view.
“What was not is. Presence comes out of absence, she saw it, the features of the world's face rise to the window, emerging from effacement, she saw the world's rising.”
The feeling of reading it is close to elation. But the woman’s euphoria is tinged with the tiniest hint of mourning (what elation isn’t!) - not for her blindness, but for the fact that the present moment is passing, the moment in which her blindness is still visible within the more solid things of the world. The felt sense of doubt amongst the certainties of seeing.
As a text about blindness, it manages to escape the trap that Sontag identifies in Illness as Metaphor, of making disability into a cipher for some kind of moral failing. Cixous herself had myopia, and this story is at least semi-autobiographical. I work as an audio describer, so I often speak with people who have visual impairments. It’s made me realise that there are things that sight hides from us – ambiguities that the rationality of vision refuses to let us see. Those of us with sight don’t live in the knowledge of the things that we don’t know – that’s why a magician’s misdirection works so well on us. We assume that everything is already revealed.
‘The Instant of My Death’ by Maurice Blanchot, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (English translation published in The Instant of my Death along side Demeure by Jacques Derrida, Stanford University Press, 2000)
“In his place, I will not try to analyze. He was perhaps suddenly invincible. Dead – immortal. Perhaps ecstasy. Rather the feeling of compassion for suffering humanity, the happiness of not being immortal or eternal. Henceforth, he was bound to death by a surreptitious friendship.”
This sparse little text is nonetheless vast and obscure. The story is about a man in the second world war, dragged out of his house to the sound of gunfire. He has rifles turned upon him – but then, abruptly, he’s released, to wander through the woods and see the farmlands burning around him.
Blanchot’s theories of literature as absence clarified a lot of things I’d felt about books, but never seen articulated. Both Lydia Davis and Paul Auster, two authors I adore profoundly, are amongst his foremost translators. Reading him I always have a sense that his writing is halfway between earth and heaven – but where ‘heaven’ is just empty oxygenless space where your organs would get crushed to nothing by pressure and you’d instantly expire just from your body being made so ridiculously small.
This story is no exception. It’s both philosophical and political, tying the injustice of war to the injustice of mortality. There’s critical speculation that it’s autobiographical and that Blanchot, like Dostoevsky, actually did have a near death-by-firing-squad experience. It’s unclear from the story how much is true - the narrator identifies with the ‘young man’, only to disavow their shared experiences. This is typical of Blanchot – there are never any certainties in his writing – not even death, which, always threatened, never actually arrives.
Timna Fibert is a writer and audio describer, based in Hackney. She won the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize 2023 with ‘Signs and Wonders’, and she’s currently working on a novel narrated by a lecherous copse of trees. She’s due to start a Literary Theory PhD at Goldsmiths, studying negated vocality and Blanchot.
You can browse the full searchable archives of A Personal Anthology, with over 2,400 story recommendations, at www.apersonalanthology.com.
A Personal Anthology is curated by Jonathan Gibbs, author of two novels, Randall, and The Large Door, and a book-length poem, Spring Journal. His story 'A Prolonged Kiss' was shortlisted for the 2021 Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award. He is Programme Director of the MA/MFA Creative Writing at City, University of London.
If you are interested in contributing your own Personal Anthology to the project, then please let me know by replying to this email. I’m always on the lookout for guest editors!
We usually end the Spring-Summer run of personal anthologies with a collaborative summer special anthology, open to all to suggest their favourite holiday- or summer-themed short stories. So get thinking, and get in touch if you’d like to contribute!
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