I have not yet read everything there is. So these sorts of lists cause me a degree of discomfort. Here are twelve stories which occurred to me. They were not chosen with any organising principle in mind. None that I am aware of in any case. Unless …. 

I have the suspicion that there is something about a great short story that is entirely sufficient to the sliver of life spent reading it. You begin it at exactly the right moment, it fills you completely while you read, it makes the changes to you that the author intended – or even better, changes they could never have predicted – and it leaves you as you leave it, gone from each other entirely. Something has happened to you. But it has been so subtle and so quick that you have not noticed. The person who finishes the story is other than the person who started it. Necessarily, when this happens, the reading itself is forgotten.

So, here, maybe, are twelve stories that were not quite good enough.

‘The Colonel’s Photograph’ by Eugène Ionesco, translated by Jean Stewart

This was, somehow, part of the set reading in either English or French (I read it in English, but perhaps we looked at the French as well) in secondary school in Ireland in the 1980s. It was the first non-realist piece of fiction that I’d ever encountered and it made a huge impression on me. What is going on? How are people being murdered continuously even though everyone knows what the murderer looks like, and how he operates, and where? Why are there military trucks in the street? Who is the colonel? Why are people so interested in his photograph? So interested that it gets them killed? What you need to understand is this: the contents of Edouard’s briefcase, the rumble of those military trucks, the click of the impossibly tall policemen’s boots, a bouquet of flowers, a fountain.

The original, ‘La Photo Du Colonel’, first appeared in Nouvelle Revue Française, 1st November 1955. This translation is from the collection of the same name published by Faber & Faber in 1967, and in the USA by Grove Press in 1969

‘Mystery in São Cristóvão’ by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson

Much as in Ionesco’s story, there is something here – barely hidden – that should worry any homeowner, family man, upstanding member of society. The fragility of bourgeois life is much attested to, but it’s always fun to see it wobble, and in this close-to-perfect story Lispector – genius of the invisible incident – gives everyone the heebeegeebees.

Appears in the New Directions / Penguin Modern Classics Complete Stories, 2015. The original, ‘Mistério em São Cristóvão’ was first published in a pamphlet by the Brazilian Ministry of Education and Health in 1952. More famously of course in the collection Family Ties in 1960)

‘How Things Were Done in Odessa’ by Isaac Babel, translated by Peter Constantine

From 1923, this tells the story of how Benya Krik became The King. It’s funny and it’s not-funny, but it is funny, because you have to laugh. I would also commend to you the story of the death of Froim Grach. And any other of the Odessa stories for that matter. And any of the Red Cavalry stories, of course. And anything by Babel. Everything, in fact, by Isaac Babel. For Isaac Babel is The King.

First published in Russian in LEF: Journal of the Left Front for the Arts #4, 1923. Appears in the Norton Collected Stories of Isaac Babel, 2002

‘The Story’ by Cathy Sweeney

A story about a story is one of my favourite sorts of stories. In this story by Cathy Sweeney is another story, by a man called Albert Solberg. It is read by the narrator in a shed, on and off, smoking a pipe, in secret. The secret story is always, ultimately (isn’t it?) a love story. And even a story about a love that appears afterwards, when it is all too late, when there is nothing to be gained from it but pain and sorrow, is still a love story.

From the collection Modern Times, Stinging Fly Press, 2020

‘Valentino’ by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Avril Bardoni

A long story. A short novella. About Valentino, for whom his family hold high hopes. But Valentino seems incapable of anything really, other than being loved. And it is love for Valentino, which Ginzburg makes impossible to resist, that creates and destroys, starts and stalls and continues … everything. A queer tragedy, a comedy, an Italian masterpiece, a heartbreak, and a joy.

From Valentino and Sagittarius, NYRB Classics, 2020

‘They Keep Killing Us’ by Sergio Loo, translated by Annie McDermott

By us we mean us. I’ve never been to Mexico City, but this is familiar. This slice, this throat-cut cross section, of the city’s queer scene, its hook-up scene, its murdering, cock-sucking, clubbing scene, its infectious, paranoid scene, its bathhouse scene, its gossiping, drinking, fucking, living, breathing, loving, exhilarating scene. Familiar like vertigo. What are we like?

Published online in The White Review, June 2018, and available to read here. Collected in Frank Wynne’s anthology Queer, Head Of Zeus, 2021

‘The Events On The Banbury’ by Witold Gombrowicz, translated by Bill Johnston

We’re like this. No one writes sexual tension like Gombrowicz, and this surreal story of a ship full of horny sailors becalmed but bestirred on a voyage to Valparaíso is bizarre, embarrassing, ridiculous, accurate, enviable, outrageous, and very funny.

First published in Poland in 1933. This translation from the collection Bacacay, Archipelago Books, 2004

‘The Castafiore Emerald’ by Hergé, translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner

Of course I’m serious. A perfect plot, immaculately paced, beautifully rendered. The boy detective and his alcoholic friend host opera diva Bianca Castafiore, her entourage and her diamonds at Marlinspike Hall. There is hilarity, cleverness, intrigue, a sense of justice, romance, deft characterisation – all of it as preposterous and as entertaining as an aria from Rossini. A master class in story creation.

First published in 1963

‘Aballay’ by Antonio Di Benedetto, translated by Martina Broner

Aballay decides to stay on his horse. He has killed a man, and he has heard of holy saints who sat atop pillars and columns, and he has decided to stay on his horse, never to dismount, out of penance. Like all good stories it reminds me of other stories. Ultimately it reminds me of Oisín, returning to Ireland from Tír Na nÓg. Death is always a sudden ending.

From the collection Nest in The Bones, from Archipelago Books, 2017

‘The Houseguest’ by Amparo Dávila, translated by Audrey Hararis and Matthew Gleeson

Dávila’s writing puts you somewhere slightly outside the world as it is, and directs your attention back towards things previously unacknowledged and unnamed. It’s like looking through a window into your own home and seeing a monster fold your bedclothes. Here, the monster comes to stay, and does not leave. And we can’t have that.

From the collection of the same name, New Directions, 2018. The story is available to read on LitHub, here

‘The Vampire in Love’ by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Only Vila-Matas could write a lovely, funny, startlingly moving story about a paedophile barber who tap dances his way through the streets of Seville, past the locals who know him as Nosferatu, to the Cathedral, to see one last time the altar boy he loves. I mean, it would only occur to Vila-Matas to write such a story. And we should all be grateful.

From Vampire In Love – Selected Stories, And Other Stories Press, 2016

‘The Last Heat of Summer’ by Percival Everett

Difficult to say what this story is about, other than a fathers and sons camping trip, fishing, a first kiss, a tiger, and the repetitive slaughter of loved ones who want to save you. You tell them to stay away. But they come anyway. Everett looks like he doesn’t care, that he writes like no one is reading. But he does care. He considers the reader. And he knows us better than he lets on, better by far than we realise. It’s a large part of his power. This is a strange story, but like the strangeness in all great fiction it finds the strangeness in its reader, and embraces it. It comes anyway. And it’s a very beautiful thing.

From the collection Damned If I Do, Influx Press, 2020