Friday, 18 November 2011

One Word Leads to Another

by Johann Peter Hebel

A rich man in Swabia sent his son to Paris to learn French and a few manners. After a year or more his father's farmhand came to see him. The son was greatly surprised and cried out joyfully, "Hans, whatever are you doing here? How are things at home, what's the news?"

"Nothing much, Mr William, though your fine raven copped it two weeks ago, the one the gamekeeper gave you."

"Oh, the poor bird," replied Mr William. "What happened to it?"

"Well, you see, he ate too much carrion when our fine horses died one after the other. I said he would."

"What? My father's four fine greys are dead?" Mr William asked. "How did that happen?"

"Well, you see, they were worked too hard hauling water when the house and the barns burned down, and it did no good."

"Oh no!" exclaimed Mr William, horrified. "Our house burnt down? When was that?"

"Well, you see, nobody thought of a fire when your father lay in his coffin. He was buried at night with torches. A small spark soon spreads."

"That's terrible news!" exclaimed Mr William in his distress. "My father dead? And how is my sister?"

"Well, you see, your late father died of grief when the young Miss had a child and no father for it. It's a boy."

"There's nothing much else to tell," he added.

Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826) is best known for his collection of stories, The Treasure Chest, published in 1811 and a firm favourite of Kafka, Canetti, Heidegger and others. He spent most of his life as a teacher but won success not only as a prose writer but also a poet. His prose work marks a definite stage in the evolution of the short story as an artform.

Friday, 15 October 2010


by John Barth

Note: This piece is simultaneously a microfiction and the longest story in existence. It is, in fact, an infinite story; and it is one of the clearest examples of John Barth's conceptual debt to Jorge Luis Borges. It can be found in Barth's excellent short story collection, Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice (1968)

John Barth (1930-) is an American writer most famous for vast postmodern epics such as The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy, although he is also adept at much shorter lengths. His incredible range of prose styles, deep philosophical insights, enormous erudition, immense narrative skill and restless originality have earned him a place at the very apex of the highest summit of World Literature. His epistolary book LETTERS is possibly the most complex novel ever written.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Tail of the Sphinx

by Ambrose Bierce

A dog of a taciturn disposition said to his Tail:

"Whenever I am angry you rise and bristle; when I am pleased you wag; when I am alarmed you tuck yourself in out of danger. You are too mercurial -- you disclose all my emotions. My notion is that tails are given to conceal thought. It is my dearest ambition to be as impassive as the Sphinx."

"My friend, you must recognise the laws and limitations of your being," replied the Tail, with flexions appropriate to the sentiments uttered, "and try to be great some other way. The Sphinx has one hundred and fifty qualifications for impassiveness which you lack."

"What are they?" the Dog asked.

"One hundred and forty-nine tons of sand on its tail."

"And --?"

"A stone tail."

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (1842–1914) was an American writer perhaps best known for his satirical lexicon, The Devil's Dictionary, which seeks to redfine common words on a mischievously cynical basis. His nihilism, best exemplified by his personal motto "Nothing Matters", was partly for show. He encouraged younger writers and his wit was often as wry as it was dark. Sometime in 1914, while reporting on the Mexican Revolution, he disappeared without trace.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Grave Demeanour

by Rhys Hughes

When the man known as John Loop died he was buried in an old churchyard and his friends cut some flowers from his own garden to lay respectfully on his grave. The rains came and the dead flowers began to slowly rot.

The other flowers in the garden were stricken with grief at the loss of their friends. The murders of those seven daffodils had been blatant and cruel. The surviving flowers had no chance of getting revenge, but they wanted to express their sadness by making an appropriate gesture.

They waited until the first bumblebee of the year appeared and landed on the petals of the nearest flower. The moment it crawled inside the trumpet to look for pollen, that daffodil made a special effort and snapped shut around it, just like a Venus Flytrap, and kept squeezing tight until the bee suffocated.

It wasn't easy for the daffodil to uproot itself and walk all the way to the churchyard. Even the hardiest perennials find such activity exhausting and rarely indulge in it, so for a daffodil it was gruelling in the extreme. Eventually it arrived at the grave where the murdered flowers lay and it opened its trumpet and placed the dead bee on top.

Then it went back to the garden and replanted itself, satisfied that it had discharged its duty and employed the correct symbolism in doing so. Humans are mourned with flowers; flowers are mourned with bees. But the story doesn't end there.

The friends of the bumblebee were distraught when he didn't return to the hive and they went out to search for him. At long last his corpse was found in the churchyard. The other bees decided to hold his funeral the following day and adorn his grave with a freshly killed bear.

Shortly after the next sunrise they swarmed out and chased a bear over a cliff. Then they pushed its body to the churchyard and laid it on top of the bee. It was fatiguing work but worth it for the symbolic value of the huge hairy cadaver.

The friends of the bear wailed and wept for an entire week before fishing a salmon from the river and draping it over the dead bear's head. As for the friends of that salmon: once they heard the news they ganged up on a squid and ended its many-armed life. But how they managed to get it to the grave is still a mystery.

The friends of the squid decided to honour its passing with a dead albatross, so one of them reached up through the surface of the ocean and snatched a bird in flight and dragged it down and drowned it. The corpse of that albatross was later positioned with great reverence on top of the squid on top of the salmon on top of the bear on top of the bee on top of the flowers on top of the man John Loop.

A few days later, the friends of the albatross caused a small aeroplane to crash. The pilot bailed out in time but his craft plummeted into a hill. The birds dragged the wrecked plane to the churchyard and laid it gently on the grave. Then they flew away.

The friends of that aeroplane bombed a cathedral and piled the rubble on top of the smashed machine. Then the friends of the demolished cathedral all crossed a bridge at the same time and caused it to collapse with the weight. The broken bridge ended up on the grave on top of the bombed cathedral just as etiquette demands.

But the friends of the bridge responded to the loss of their friend by killing the east wind that was making their railings sing; and so the other winds killed a radio transmission that was passing through the atmosphere shortly afterwards; and the friends of that particular frequency sent an offensive message into space that would kill with shame the satellite that received it. And so on.

Months, years, centuries passed…

One day a robot found himself passing through the churchyard. He saw the tower of dead objects and his scientific curiosity was engaged. Extending his arms, he climbed to the summit and sat there with a dreamy look in his crystal eyes.

"This tower contains a single example of everything in the world and many things outside it," he said to himself, "with the exception of—"

Suddenly he lost his balance and toppled over the edge. He was so high that the Earth was only the size of an alien fruit below him. As he accelerated he dimly wondered what the juice of that fruit might taste like. The answer was oil and electrons. But that, in fact, was his own juice after he landed.

While he cooled in pieces beside the grave of John Loop, his friends brought a newly slaughtered human to lay on top of him…

Rhys Hughes (1966-?) His work is a fusion of precise logic, intricate plots, cunning wordplay, relentless invention and multilayered irony. His books include Worming the Harpy, The Smell of Telescopes, The Postmodern Mariner, Sangria in the Sangraal and The Brothel Creeper; with The Impossible Inferno, The Senile Pagodas, Bone Idle in the Charnel-House, Wuthering Depths and Fists of Fleece still to come.

Sunday, 11 April 2010


by Donald Barthelme

I put a name in an envelope, and sealed the envelope; and put that envelope in another envelope with a spittlebug and some quantity of boric acid; and put that envelope in a still larger envelope which contained also a woman tearing her gloves to tatters; and put that envelope in the mail to Fichtelgebirge. At the Fichtelgebirge Post Office I asked if there was mail for me, with a mysterious smile the clerk said, "Yes," I hurried with the envelope to London, arriving with snow, and put the envelope in the Victoria and Albert Museum, bowing to the curators in the Envelope Room, the wallpaper hanging down in thick strips. I put the Victoria and Albert Museum in a still larger envelope which I placed in the program of the Royal Danish Ballet, in the form of an advertisement for museums, boric acid, wallpaper. I put the program of the Royal Danish Ballet into the North Sea for two weeks. Then, I retrieved it, it was hanging down in thick strips, I sent it to a machine-vask on H.C. Andersens Boulevard, everything came out square and neat, I was overjoyed. I put the square, neat package in a safe place, and put the safe place in a vault designed by Capsar David Friedrich, German romantic landscape painter of the last century. I slipped the vault into a history of art (Insel Verlag, Frankfurt, 1975). But, in a convent library on the side of a hill near a principal city of Montana, it fell out of the history of art into a wastebasket, a thing I could not have predicted. I bound the wastebasket in stone, with a matchwood shroud covering the stone, and placed it in the care of Charles the Good, Charles the Bold, and Charles the Fair. They stand juggling cork balls before the many-times-encased envelope, whispering names which are not the right one. I put the three kings into a new blue suit; it walked away from me very confidently.

Donald Barthelme (1931-1989). One of the greatest short story writers of all time, Barthelme perfected the use of the ironic non-sequitur in philosophical tales of modern life. He often wrote about "sets" rather than "individuals" and his blending of absurdism, melancholia and erudite whimsy created a unique style of fiction that many have attempted to imitate since. The majority of his work is in print and his uncollected pieces have finally been collected. The Teachings of Don B.: Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories and Plays is now available.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Moulds of the Earth

by Bolesław Prus

One time I happened to be in Puławy with a certain botanist. We were seating ourselves by the Temple of the Sibyl on a bench next to a boulder grown over with mosses or moulds which my learned companion had been studying for several years. I asked what he found of interest in examining the irregular splotches of beige, grey, green, yellow or red?

He looked at me distrustfully but, persuaded that he had before him an uninitiated person, he proceeded to explain: “These splotches that you see are not inanimate dirt but — collections of living beings. Invisible to the naked eye, they are born, carry out movements that are imperceptible to us, enter into matrimonial bonds, produce offspring, and finally die. More remarkably, they form as it were societies which you see here in the form of the variously colored splotches — they cultivate the ground beneath them for the next generations — they proliferate, colonize empty places, even fight each other.

“This grey splotch, large as the palm of a person’s hand, was two years ago no larger than a penny. This tiny grey spot a year ago didn’t exist and comes from the great splotch that occupies the top of the boulder. These two again, the yellow and the red, are fighting. At one time the yellow was the larger, but slowly its neighbor has displaced it. And look at the green one — how its grizzled neighbor is making inroads into it, how many grey streaks, spots, clumps can be seen against the green background?”

“As it is among people,” I interjected.

“Well, no,” replied the botanist. “These societies lack language, art, learning, consciousness, feeling; in a word — they lack souls and hearts, which we human beings possess. Here everything happens blindly, mechanically, without sympathies and without antipathies.”

A few years later I found myself beside that same boulder at night, and by the light of the moon regarded the changes that had taken place in the forms and sizes of the various moulds. Suddenly someone nudged me. It was my botanist. I asked him to have a seat; but he stepped before me in such a way as to hide the moon, and whispered something voicelessly. The Temple of the Sibyl, the bench, and the boulder vanished.

I sensed about me a faint luminosity and an immense void. And when I turned my head to the side, I saw something like a schoolroom globe that shone with a faint light, as large as the boulder beside which we had been a moment before. The globe slowly revolved, showing successive new areas. There was the Asian landmass with the little peninsula of Europe; there was Africa, the two Americas...

Looking intently, I made out on the inhabited lands the same kinds of splotches, beige, grey, green, yellow and red, as on the boulder. They comprised myriads of vanishingly small points, ostensibly motionless, actually moving very lazily: an individual point moved at most by a two-minute arc in an hour, and that not in a straight line but as it were oscillating about its own center of motion.

The points joined, separated, vanished, came to the surface of the globe: but all these things did not merit particular attention. What was of consequence was the movements of entire splotches, which diminished or grew, showed up in new places, infiltrated or displaced one another. The globe meanwhile kept making its rounds and seemed to me to execute hundreds of thousands of revolutions.

“Is that supposed to be the history of mankind?” I asked the botanist standing beside me. He nodded in confirmation.

“All right — but where are the arts, knowledge?...”

He smiled sadly.

“Where’s consciousness, love, hate, longing?...”

“Ha! ha! ha!...” he laughed softly.

“In short — where are the human souls and hearts here?...”

“Ha! ha! ha!...”

His demeanor offended me.

“Who are you?” I asked.

Just then I found myself back in the garden beside the boulder, whose shapeless splotches swam in the moonlight. My companion had vanished, but now I knew him by his mockery and melancholy.

Bolesław Prus (1847-1912). Born in Hrubieszów, a Polish town on the border with Ukraine, he became one of the most significant Polish writers of the 19th century. At the age of fifteen he took part in the Polish Uprising against Russia and was imprisoned, an experience that left him traumatised for many years. His most famous novel, The Doll, was published in book form in 1890. Reconstructing the city of Warsaw in minute detail, this novel has often been seen as a forerunner to James Joyce's Ulysses.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The End

by Fredric Brown

Professor Jones had been working on time theory for many years.

"And I have found the key equation," he told his daughter one day. "Time is a field. This machine I have made can manipulate, even reverse, that field."

Pushing a button as he spoke, he said, "This should make time run backward run time make should this," said he, spoke he as button a pushing.

"Field that, reverse even, manipulate can made have I machine this. Field a is time." Day one daughter his told he, "Equation key the found have I and."

Years many for theory time on working been had Jones Professor.

End The

Fredric Brown (1906-1972). One of the finest exponents of 'flash fiction' in the 20th Century. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, Brown wrote scores of such pieces for a variety of magazines, many of these tales demonstrating a postmodernist love of unusual rhythm and fragmentation. He was equally adept at longer works. His refined sense of the absurd and questioning of the nature of reality were hugely influential on Philip K. Dick. Brown's novel, What Mad Universe (1949), is an excellent example of his ability to perfectly balance outrageous humour with serious speculation.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

On Parables

by Franz Kafka

Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the sage says: "Go over," he does not mean that we should cross over to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labour were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.

Concerning this, a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables, you yourselves would become parables and with that rid yourself of all your daily cares.

Another said: I bet that is also a parable.

The first said: You have won.

The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.

The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924). A Czech writer of monumental importance, Kafka was barely published in his own lifetime and left instructions that his manuscripts should be burned after his death. Fortunately this did not occur. Novels such as The Trial, The Castle and Amerika explained the frustrations of the modern world in a way that had never been achieved before. His complete short stories constitute a trove that can be continually mined for wonders.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

The Picnic Party

by D.F. Lewis

Gushing Downs was peppered with picnic parties: a loom of dawnlight; twirling parasols; bright checked tablecloths spread over the greenest grass possible (possible, that is, outside the scope of a painting); wicker baskets brimming with edible goodies of every dietary persuasion; and joyful, sexy people.

"Nice day, Louise." A hand both saluted and shaded the sun.

"It'll be even nicer when the wine coolers arrive."

The voices of chirpy, dimply children mingled with the deeper grown-up sounds. The clink of glasses. The buzz of bee. The chomp of molars. The giggles of those deep in love with each other.

"It'll be great when the competition begins."

"Yes, it'll soon be time."

Any stranger might have questioned what competition was in prospect. Three-legged or egg-and-spoon races ... or both together? Tug of love? The loudest laugh? The furthest roll of the hoop? The fastest spin of the top with a cracking whip? The prettiest frock? The sweetest smile? The longest beard? The shortest? The ugliest pulled face? The biggest this, the smallest that? The most durable picnic? The maroon-party to beat all maroon-parties?

It was probably none of these. Whilst it wasn't, after all, any old stranger who questioned the prospect.

As a rubicund retainer arrived with cases of chilled white wine, and amid the consequent hilarity surrounding the popping of corks, it gradually became clear to the stranger what exactly was to transpire. Each group of picnickers was sited beside one of the many natural geysers that abounded on the Downs. The openings were controlled by manual valves -- and the intention was to release them in one fell swoop, whereby the winning group would be the one with the tallest and longest lasting fountain. Furthermore, a special prize was to be given for the fountain that emerged with the fanciest configuration.

As the sun dipped below the distant wooded hills, it spread along the horizon like thick cut marmalade. The wine corks took up new crescendoes of popping, as bonfire beacons were set alight across the Downs by each picnic group. Then, there was a secret starting signal (which was only obvious retrospectively to the stranger) -- and the geysers were released in a perfect flashpoint of simultaneity. Some spluttered in short silver cascades or spirts of gurgling spray. Others were sufficiently tall to steal gold from the sunset and become gushing giants of myth and magic. A few, even taller, sported every colour of the rainbow plus colours unknown to the painter's palette. Yet, there was one geyser, the tallest of all, which lost its colour as it sprayed new-born stars across the darkening sky -- and at the mountain-peak of its fountaining power, it formed a mighty dragon's head. The roar from the head's gargling mouth was incredibly even louder than the geyser which had originally given it birth.

The picnickers were cowed by the intrinsic, if short-lived, magnificence of such a white-water beast looming from the earth in cataclysmic contrast to the rearing tides of night...

After eventually packing their hampers, the parties wended their way home across the Downs, each jollifier with a blazing torch. The stranger followed, keeping himself to himself, and softly sobbing. He had stayed on the Downs long enough to watch the geysers being pent up within their rightful confines of dark earth -- except, of course, for that single squirt the picnickers had forgotten to cap within its oubliette, one that continued spluttering, perhaps pathetically, perhaps otherwise, forming snowdrop petals in the marooned night. Tiny silver frostfish sparkling: sparkling, even, without light.

The stranger knew -- despite the carefreeness of those erstwhile picnickers whom he followed -- that the treasure which Dragon Earth greedily guarded was itself.

Having the sense of floating upon one among an archipelago of ice-carvings, the stranger shuddered with ultimate fear. The fear of self.

O Stranger, O Saint George.

D.F. Lewis (1948- ). An incredibly prolific author of short baffling tales mostly published in British and American small-press magazines in the late 1980s and 1990s. With an extremely dense style and themes often taken from pulp horror writers, Lewis has managed to create a distinctive voice for himself in the literary underground. His best work is saturated with an intense brooding atmosphere and frequently explores the territory that Angela Carter once labelled 'the mercantile gothic'.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Making Do

by Italo Calvino
translated by Tim Parks

There was a town where everything was forbidden.

Now, since the only thing that wasn't forbidden was the game tip-cat, the town's subjects used to assemble on meadows behind the town and spend the day there playing tip-cat.

And as the laws forbidding things had been introduced one at a time and always with good reason, no one found any cause for complaint or had any trouble getting used to them.

Years passed. One day the constables saw that there was no longer any reason why everything should be forbidden and they sent messengers to inform their subjects that they could do whatever they wanted.

The messengers went to those places where the subjects were wont to assemble.

"Hear ye, hear ye," they announced, "nothing is forbidden any more."

The people went on playing tip-cat.

"Understand?" the messengers insisted. "You are free to do what you want."

"Good," replied the subjects. "We're playing tip-cat."

The messengers busily reminded them of the many wonderful and useful occupations they had once engaged in and could now engage in again. But the subjects wouldn't listen and just went on playing, stroke after stroke, without even stopping for a breather.

Seeing that their efforts were in vain, the messengers went to tell the constables.

"Easy," the constables said. "Let's forbid the game of tip-cat."

That was when the people rebelled and killed the lot of them.

Then without wasting time, they got back to playing tip-cat.

Italo Calvino (1923-1985). Born in Cuba. Grew up in San Remo, Italy. One of the greatest writers of the 20th Century. Extremely versatile, Calvino produced superb examples of neo-realism, modern fables, science fiction, fantasy and OuLiPo experimentalism. Numbers in the Dark is a representative cross-section of his life's work. Tip-cat is a game that involves hitting a stick across a certain distance and trying to estimate the number of hops it will take a player to cover the same distance.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

A Shortish Gent

by Daniil Kharms
translated by Neil Cornwell

A shortish gent with a pebble in his eye went up to the door of a tobacconist's shop and stopped. His black polished shoes gleamed on the stone step leading up to the tobacconist's. The toe-caps of his shoes were directed at the inside of the shop. Two more steps and the gentleman would have disappeared through the door. But for some reason he dilly-dallied, as though purposely to position his head under the brick which was falling from the roof. The gentleman had even taken off his hat, baring his bald skull, and thus the brick struck the gentleman right on his bare head, broke the cranium and embedded itself in his brain. The gentleman didn't fall. No, he merely staggered a bit from the terrible blow, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, used it to wipe his face, which was all gooey from blood and brains, and, turning towards the crowd, which had instantly gathered around the gentleman, he said: -- Don't worry, ladies and gents: I've already had the vaccination. You can see -- I've got a protruding pebble in my right eye. That was also once quite an incident. I've already got used to that. Now everything's just fine and dandy!

And with these words the gentleman replaced his hat and went off somewhere into the margins, leaving the troubled crowd in complete bewilderment.


Daniil Kharms (1905-1942). Born in St Petersburg. From "Sherlock Holmes" he took the pseudonym "Kharms". With Alexander Vvedensky he co-founded the avant garde literary movement, OBERIU (An Association of Real Art). Typical catch-phrases of the movement: "Art is a cupboard!" and "Poems aren't pies, we aren't herring!" Continually arrested for subversion, Kharms was murdered by enforced starvation in the psychiatric ward of a Lenningrad prison. Why not buy Incidences, his collected short stories...