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Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel
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Red Cavalry (1926)

by Isaac Babel

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Issac Babel was born in Odessa (Russia) in 1894 and was executed on 27 January 1940 as part of the Stalin purges. His career as a writer could be described as patchy. He achieved fame when some of his short stories were published in Moscow in 1923. These were taken from two of his collections: Red Cavalry and Odessa. Other stories appeared later but he seems to have struggled to publish much else. If his writing career was patchy so is much of the information concerning his life in Russia and much of this is down to the man himself. His daughter who lived in Paris and was ten years old when Isaac Babel died claims that he was a man who spun stories about his life; he could have been a spy working for one of the groups in Revolutionary Russia, he was almost certainly a cavalry officer if we can believe the stories he told in Red Cavalry, his 'autobiographical' stories describe a life in a jewish family struggling to cling to their religion and identity in the face of pogroms and racially motivated cleansing operations and he seems to have inside knowledge of the jewish criminal gangs operating in Odessa. We know that he tried to make a name as a film script writer and published a couple of plays, but his fame today rests on his short stories.

This book is a penguin Classics edition and groups his short stories in three main sections: Early Stories and Autobiographical Stories, Red Cavalry and Odessa stories. They are clearly the work of the same author with their mixture of realistic incidents and impressionistic flourishes that serve at times to wrong foot the reader. They are mainly told from a first person perspective or that first person is inserted into the story, here is a typical example from Sunset, one of the Odessa gangster stories:

'Benchik' he said let us take this job on ourselves, and people will come and kiss our feet. let us kill Papasha, whom the Moldavanka no longer call Mendel Krik. The Moldavanka calls him Mendel the Pogrom. Let us kill Papasha - can we wait any longer?'
'It is not yet time' replied Benchik, 'but time is passing. Listen to its footsteps and make way for it. Step aside, Lyovka.
And Lyovka stepped aside, in order to make way for time. It started on it's path - time, the old cashier - and on its path it met Dvoyra, the King's sister, Manasse, the driver, and the Russian girl Marusya Yevtushenko.
Even ten years ago I knew men who wanted Dvoyra, the daughter of Mendel the Pogrom..................................................​


This first person approach adds realism or perhaps makes all the stories a sort of eye witness account. Babel may have been both a Cavalry officer and an Odessa gangster, but first and foremost he was a jewish writer, a Russian jewish writer and this is evident from both the stories in the autobiographical section and in the Odessa section. Curiously enough the author's jewish identity is subsumed in the Red Cavalry stories. Here a young man reports incidents from the wars that followed the Russian revolution: the Poles seem to be the enemy but factions from the red army and the white army are adept at changing sides. It really is the fog of war where individual incidents are used to demonstrate the dehumanising effect of what seems to be an endless war. There are some graphically explicit incidents described in a matter of fact way with elements of conversation that might have been an inspiration for Joseph Heller's [Catch 22]. Certainly the reader is made to feel the mud, the blood, the confusion and the self serving of a cavalry squadron in an age where horses were being overtaken by machinery as a weapon of war. Various officers and other characters appear and reappear in the stories but there is no underlying progression, there is however the attempt by the author to fit in, to conceal his jewishness and the final story ends:

I had to leave. I got a transfer to the sixth squadron. There things were better. Somehow or the other, Argamak had taught me how to sit in the saddle the Tikohomolov way. My dream was fulfilled. The Cossaks stopped following me and my horse with their eyes.

In collections of stories such as this some will stand out because of the content of the stories others for the portrayal of a time and place that is unfamiliar. Babel rarely fails to establish a background that is both exotic and interesting, but he can lose the reader with an overstuffing of titles and place names. Many of the stories are in some respects fragmentary incidents (especially in Red Cavalry) that have to stand on their own, eye witness accounts that have no revelatory plot twists designed to amuse; the reader must make their own judgement and draw their own conclusions. However the last two stories in the Odessa section serve to demonstrate the culture clashes caused by the revolution. 'The End of the Almshouses' tells of a group of jewish people who are housed in a building in the cemetery wall, they make a living by digging graves, washing bodies and burying the dead. The revolution has caused a shortage of wood and so the working group hit on the idea of re-using the same coffin, the living is good as people are prepared to pay, however when a local war hero is buried with military honours the workers are not able to save their coffin. Belts must be tightened, food becomes scarce and when a member of a new revolutionary council visits the cemetery the almshouses are cleared. Karl-Yankel is the story of a Jewish grandmother who kidnaps her grandson in order for a backstreet circumcision to be performed. The father returning from the war takes his grandmother to a tribunal for retribution and their follows a trial which describes the hysteria that such a clash of culture can produce.

Isaac Babel is now firmly ensconced in the canon of Russian writers and certainly in the smaller canon of Russian jewish writers. His short stories plunge the reader into an era and a culture that is entirely convincing. When I finished the book I discovered there is now available a single volume of Babel's collected works, which includes all his stories, his film scripts some letters and his plays. I was tempted to make another purchase but have contented myself by thinking I have perhaps already read the best of his stories and a re-read of these would serve just as well. I found the translation by David McDuff a bit clanky in parts, but this may be due to the style of Babel's prose. The new collected volume has a different translator.
4 stars ( )
2 vote baswood | Jun 23, 2019 |
6
  serzap | Oct 3, 2018 |
Read these stories a long time ago, during my university years. I liked the way Babel writes. He's one of the few that didn't make me turn away from short stories.
Since I won't be rereading this book I'll set it free shortly. ( )
  BoekenTrol71 | Mar 27, 2018 |
The stories are entertaining; it's the diary excerpts at the back that grab my attention. Seeing how the two tie together is very interesting. ( )
  EricCostello | Aug 6, 2017 |
(2014 Boris Dralyuk translation)

A remarkable assembly of short pieces of writing, somewhere between journalism, short-story collection and novel, making up a composite picture of the experience of war in a Cossack Red Army cavalry unit fighting against the Poles in 1920.

This isn't an anti-war book, of course - as far as Babel and his readers were concerned, their country was being attacked from all sides and had every reason to defend itself - but it's a book that makes no attempt to conceal the cruelty and disorder that go with the suspension of the normal limits of civil society. Passages that seem to be celebrating the exuberance, skill and bloody-mindedness of the Cossacks are set against descriptions of rapes, brutal torture and casual vandalism, and those in turn with lyrical passages where the narrator caught up in the beauty of something in the towns and villages that they are all busy destroying.

The Catholic and Jewish religion of the locals is particularly involved in this: the narrator feels obliged to mock the superstition and exploitation that goes with it, but clearly still has the relics of a religious (urban Jewish) upbringing and the respect for religious leaders and sites that goes with that: in a church with excrement and holy relics scattered over the floor, we get a loving and detailed description of the wonderful naive wall-paintings in which the saints are clearly all modelled on local characters. There are similar tensions going on when the narrator comes into contact with local Jews. He's clearly simultaneously attracted and disgusted by the Hasidic shtetl-culture.

This must have been a very tricky book to translate, as Babel is constantly switching voices and registers without warning, drawing on everything from high literary language to extremely coarse dialect. Dralyuk seems to have done very well and most of the text reads quite naturally, but this isn't a book where you can ever escape from the awareness that what you are reading is a translation. Dialect is always a problem: I found it disconcerting that his Cossacks were using so many Americanisms, but of course it's almost impossible to write earthy dialect that doesn't have some sort of regional marker to it. There were passages I had some trouble making sense of at first, but that probably comes from Dralyuk's poetic instinct to render the full complexity of Babel's layering of images, leaving the reader with a lot of unpacking to do (one of these is the "milk" passage Dralyuk discusses in his English Pen article).

Very interesting, and definitely a book that increased my motivation to learn Russian (although I suspect that it would be quite challenging for a beginner...). ( )
2 vote thorold | Sep 9, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (69 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Isaac Babelprimary authorall editionscalculated
Catteau, JacquesTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Constantine, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dirda, MichaelIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dralyuk, BorisTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maspons, OriolPhotographersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mir, EnricDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Timmer, Charles B.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Urban, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zgustová, MonikaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393324230, Paperback)

"Amazing not only as literature but as biography."—Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

One of the great masterpieces of Russian literature, the Red Cavalry cycle retains today the shocking freshness that made Babel's reputation when the stories were first published in the 1920s. Using his own experiences as a journalist and propagandist with the Red Army during the war against Poland, Babel brings to life an astonishing cast of characters from the exuberant, violent era of early Soviet history: commissars and colonels, Cossacks and peasants, and among them the bespectacled, Jewish writer/intellectual, observing it all and trying to establish his role in the new Russia. Drawn from the acclaimed, award-winning Complete Works of Isaac Babel, this volume includes all of the Red Cavalry cycle; Babel's 1920 diary, from which the material for the fiction was drawn; and his preliminary sketches for the stories—the whole constituting a fascinating picture of a great writer turning life into art.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:57:51 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"The brutalities and dualities of war and religion unflinchingly depicted by this major Russian-Jewish writer War's mess and muddle, the brutality and the inanity of fighting-few have better captured this than Isaac Babel, who was a journalist with the Soviet First Cavalry Army. His unflinching portrayal of the murderous havoc of battle is offset by an unexpected and wry humour: having seen the fighting up close, Babel is able to find the funny side of war while depicting its bloody side-in all its mesmerising and casual violence. The lyricism and bitterness that characterise the thirty-five short stories of Red Cavalry are stunningly reproduced in this new translation by the award-winning Boris Dralyuk"--… (more)

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