Philip Ó Ceallaigh, Irish short story writer, recommends…

(CLASSIC: from Red Cavalry, 1920)

The lulling, poetic opening of Isaac Babel’s Crossing the Zbrucz could be one of Turgenev’s more perfumed descriptions of nature: “Fields of purple poppies flower around us, the noonday wind is is playing in the yellowing rye, the virginal buckwheat rises on the horizon like the wall of a distant monastery.” This yields to: “An orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head… The odour of yesterday’s blood and of slain horses drips into the evening’s coolness.” This unsettling mix of registers is typical Babel, who never gets too cosy with the reader. Evening falls and the narrator is billeted with a Jewish family. ‘..I find ransacked wardrobes, on the floor scraps of women’s fur coats, pieces of human excrement and broken shards of the sacred vessels used by the Jews once a year, at Passover”. He orders the Jews to clean up. “They hop about on felt soles, clearing the detritus from the floor… monkey like, like Japanese in a circus…” The narrator lies down to sleep for the night and is at some point shaken awake from a nightmare by the woman of the house, who is concerned because he is thrashing about and kicking her “Papasha”. She draws back a blanket: “An old man is lying there on his back, dead. His gullet has been torn out, his face has been cleft in two…” The woman explains that the Poles murdered him there in that room, though he begged to be killed in the yard so his daughter did not have to watch. On top of the stylistic mayhem, the disoriented reader does not even know the identity of the narrator. Is he Red Army cavalryman, a Cossack perhaps, who is describing these dirty and obsequious Jews? Is it a Soviet Commissar who notes the excrement and the broken sacred vessels? Or is the narrator the author himself, Isaac Babel, a Russian-speaking Jew from Odessa, coming into full contact with Ashkenazi heartland his own people, only decades before it was finally erased?

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(MODERN: from Honored Guest, Vintage Books)

A world away from Babel, but just as adept at delivering a kick in the nuts, is booze-soaked Charles Bukowski. In The Copulating Mermaid of Venice, California a couple of winos steal a corpse. She turns out to be the hottest date either of them have had in quite some time. They have epiphanies (“she can’t say NO!” and “Everything is so sad – that we live all our lives as idiots and then finally die.”) In the drunk exhausted dawn they push her out to sea, and among the seaweed and the waves, with her hair moving in the current, she becomes a mermaid. The joy of Bukowski is he is anti-literary. He turns junk into art and spits in your eye. He is efficient, concise. Some of his poems are short stories – compact punchy narratives – as are so many episodes from his novels.

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