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The Complete Works of Isaac Babel by Isaac…

The Complete Works of Isaac Babel

by Isaac Babel

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Isaac Babel was Russian, killed in 1940 by firing squad at 45-years old for “being a member of a terrorist conspiracy.” Let us make no mistake: he was killed for his stories. Those stories and other writings are collected here, in this volume edited by Nathalie Babel with an Introduction by Cynthia Ozick. I came here looking for a reference dropped by Sam Lipsyte in The Ask in which a legless soldier of the Iraq war calls his prosthetics “my girls.” Lipsyte tells us his character copies a soldier, Vassily, in a Babel story. This new translation dated 2002 has such a sense of the absurd and contemporaneity it doesn’t seem possible it is 100 years old.

Lipsyte’s reference to Vassily, I assumed, was buried in the Red Cavalry Stories, themselves filled with pitiless carnage paired with jokes: “So there we were making mincemeat of the Poles at Belaya Tserkov…we got cut off from the brigade commander…no less than a hundred and fifty paces away, we see a dust cloud which is either the staff or the cavalry transport…off we rode. They were eight sabers. Two of them we felled with our rifles…The horse that the Big Ace was riding was nice and plump like a merchant’s daughter but it was tired. So the general drops his reins, aims his Mauser at me, and puts a hole in my leg…

I got my wheels rolling and put two bullets in his horse. I felt bad about the horse. What a Bolshevik of a stallion, a true Bolshevik! Copper-brown like a coin, tail like a bullet, leg like a bowstring. I wanted to present him alive to Lenin, but nothing came of it. I liquidated that sweet little horse. It tumbled like a bride, and my King of Aces fell out of his saddle. He dashed to one side, then turned back again and put another little loophole in my body. So, in other words, I had already gotten myself three decorations for fighting the enemy…

‘You’ll get me a Red Medal!’ I yell. ‘Give yourself up while I’m still alive, Your Excellency!’”

…'Forgive me,' [the general replies], 'but I cannot give myself up to a Communist…finish me off like a soldier.'

'Well, I guess I did.'” [from KONKIN]Forgive me for butchering the story in my attempt to show you the shocking nature of Babel’s razor-sharp humor. It is not a long story, three pages or so, and this book is filled with more very short stories, also edgy, always pointed. This translation of the complete works gives short introductions to each series of stories or other work, and in one we learn about the Red Army campaign: “In late May 1920, the First Calvary of the Soviet Red Army, under the command of General Budyonny, rode into Volhynia, today the border region of western Ukraine and eastern Poland. The Russian-Polish campaign was underway, the new Soviet government’s first foreign offensive, which was viewed back in Moscow as the first step toward spreading the doctrines of World Revolution to Poland, then to Europe, then to the world…Babel chronicled this campaign [in which he was a war correspondent] in his Red Calvary stories…” [--Nathalie Babel]The campaign began in May 1920 and by September of that year, the soldiers still alive were straggling back in failure. The stories were first published in magazines throughout the 1920s before being collected for a volume in 1926. They grew out of a “1920 Diary” in which Babel recorded his “firm Socialist convictions, his sensitivity, his horror at the marauding ways of his Cossack companions, his ambiguous fascination with ‘the West and chivalrous Poland,’ his equivocal stance toward Judaism, with feelings that fluctuate between distaste and tenderness toward the Volhynian Jews, ‘the former (Ukrainian) Yids.’” [--Nathalie Babel] By publishing his stories throughout the 1920s in magazines, Babel kept the disastrous military campaign in the public eye. Dangerously for him, Babel often used the real names of commanders, including Budyonny, who was destined to become a Marshal of the Soviet Union, despite his uninspiring leadership in the field so hilariously portrayed by Babel. In 1926 Babel responded to criticism that he used real names to document the absurdist atrocities committed. I give you a short version of one of his last for the Calvarymen series:

A Letter to the Editor
In 1920 I served in the First Cavalry’s Sixth Division, of which Comrade Timoshenko was commander at the time. I witnessed his heroic, military, and revolutionary work with much admiration. This wonderful and pristine image of my beloved division commander long ruled my imagination, and when I set about to write my memoirs of the Polish Campaign, my thoughts often returned to him, But in the process of writing, my aim of keeping within the parameters of historical truth began to shift, and I decided instead to express my thoughts in a literary form. All that remained of my original outline were a few authentic surnames…under extreme [time] pressure, and in this last minute rush, I overlooked the vital task of changing the original surnames in the final proofs. I need not stress that Comrade Timoshenko has nothing whatsoever in common with the character in that piece, a fact clear to anyone who has ever crossed paths with the former commander of Division Six, one of the most courageous and selfless of our Red Commanders.
I. Babel
Strange as it may seem, when I was reading the stories I began to feel a connection with the way we produce humorous TV serials today. Babel’s voice is so unique, hilarious, and humane that he would have been a huge success in Hollywood. The campaign against Poland and Ukraine was a painful reminder of the limits of coercion, and Babel created characters that live in our imaginations and gave them speaking roles that highlight his taste for the absurd. Imagine my delight, then, to discover that Babel also wrote screenplays, which are included at the end of this collection.

Films in the 1920s were silent films. Babel apparently wrote a screenplay version of his Red Calvary story “Salt,” which was made into a movie in 1925, directed by Pyotr Chardynin and produced by the Ukrainian State Film Company. Babel also wrote subtitles for and screenplays based on the work of others. In 1926 the silent movie “Roaming Stars,” loosely based on Shalom Aleichem’s novel of the same name, Babel wrote the screenplay and subtitles, transforming King Lear’s daughters:
Part Two
62. Two of the daughters are stout, middle-aged Jewish women, the third is a girl of about six. Like Otsmakh, the actresses are also wearing lacquered officer’s boots with spurs. Their stomachs are squeezed into satin vests. One of the women is wearing a kind of helmet from which two braids hang down; the second woman, a cap full of feathers. The third of King Lear’s daughters—the six-year-old—has her hair loose, and is wearing a garland of paper flowers, The girl has on a simple peasant tunic. The Jewish women are having a quick snack before the curtain rises. Otsmakh runs past them with the bell.
63. Otsmakh runs onto the stage, the curtain is down.
65. King Lear’s throne stands to the side of the stage. Above the throne hang Japanese fans and family photographs of God knows who, mostly military figures, Right in front of the audience is a case with Hebrew inscriptions, like the cases in synagogues where the Torah scrolls are kept. Otsmakh rings the bell, and looks through a hole at the audience.
66. The eighth row of the orchestra. The audience is from a little ramshackle Galician town. Hasidic men, old women in brown wigs, and headdresses, young men with swank sideburns, opulent Jewish women in tightly corseted dresses. A multitude of children. Babies make up a third of the audience. They are squealing, crying, or sleeping…
In Babel’s screenplays, actors do not even have to speak to be funny. Babel pokes fun at everything, everyone. This play does not have a happy ending, however, the fact of which has parallels with Babel’s other work.

After his success with the Red Cavlary stories, Babel traveled, wrote stories, and published dispatches from the field: Georgia (1922-24), and France (1935). In one dispatch from Georgia, Babel muses about ‘Muslim Seminaries and Soviet Schools:’ "Influencing a person’s soul requires vision and circumspection. Under the difficult conditions of the East, these qualities must be multiplied by ten and pushed to the limit…[The Mensheviks] imported the guileless ardor of shortsighted national chauvinism into the tottering kingdom of the Ajarian Mullah. The results were not surprising…Mistrust has been fanned in the Muslim peasants, and passions burst into flame…the Menshevik school…undermined the authorities of its founders but also gnawed away at the basic foundations of the culture…"
Russians have always known the power of the written word. Babel was exceptional in his understanding, his honesty, and his skill. He does more with a handful of Cyrillic characters and two pages than most people can manage in a book-length novel. He was dangerous. He is still dangerous to those who think they can’t be seen to make mistakes.

Sorry for all the extensive quotes, but Babel writes better than I do. Here is an interview with the amazing Peter Constantine. And thanks to Sam Lipsyte for bringing me to this place. I never did find that reference to “my girls.”
( )
  bowedbookshelf | Aug 25, 2015 |
Because I just had to walk into a used bookstore in Rochester and just had to buy something. I'm enjoying the updated translation so far. ( )
  donp | Nov 17, 2008 |
For me, the jury's still out on this guy. Not real sure what the appeal is, but most of what I read were the amateur pieces in the front.
  RodneyWelch | May 18, 2006 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Isaac Babelprimary authorall editionscalculated
Babel, NathalieEditormain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Constantine, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ozick, CynthiaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0393328244, Paperback)

Arguably the best book of short stories published in 2001, The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, expertly translated by Peter Constantine, should affirm Babel's place among the top Russian short story writers. Like Chekhov, Isaac Babel primarily wrote odd, tightly wrung little stories in which he displays a variety of convincing styles and tones, with each piece having an immediacy and weight that exceeds its brevity.

Babel's writing life lasted approximately 20 years. (He was executed by Stalin after a few military subjects unflatteringly portrayed in his "Red Cavalry" stories gained positions of influence.) His most notable stories depict the Russian civil war and Jewish soldiers, his childhood, and Jewish thugs in his native Odessa. Often journalistic in style, his stories provided gripping war accounts to Russians eager for news from the front, as in this passage from "The Church in Novograd":

We drank rum, waiting for the military commissar, but he still hadn't come back from the headquarters. Romuald had collapsed in a corner and fallen asleep. He slept and quivered, while beyond the window an alley seeped into the garden beneath the black passion of the sky. Thirsting roses swayed in the darkness. Green lightning bolts blazed over the cupolas. A naked corpse lay on the embankment. And the rays of the moon streamed through the dead legs that are pointing upward. So this is Poland...
This collection is a delight for its organization: the stories are grouped by periods, feature introductions, and include helpful maps. The preface and afterward by his daughter and editor, Nathalie Babel, are insightful. Also included are two plays, several screenplays, a chronology, and an introduction by Cynthia Ozick. The Complete Works of Isaac Babel should be a welcome addition to readers of literature everywhere. --Michael Ferch

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:46 -0400)

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W.W. Norton

2 editions of this book were published by W.W. Norton.

Editions: 0393048462, 0393328244

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