Isaac Babel (1894-1940)

I’ve been meaning to read Babel for several years now, but he was so highly recommended, and my Norton ‘Selected Writings’ looked so dense I was starting to feel too intimidated to begin.  If I’m honest, one reason for embarking on this Russian Reading project in the first place, was to force myself to finally settle down with the book once I got the right place in the timeline.

Babel is most famous for his ‘Red Cavalry’ stories and, written in a no-frills journalistic style, these are must-reads for anyone interested in the Russian Civil War.  While my reading up until now has danced around depictions of the revolution (Zamyatin writing science-fiction, Teffi was in Paris and everyone else was describing pre-revolutionary fervour), these stories take you right into the middle of the conflict.  Rape, murder and pillage are commonplace and the writing does nothing to disguise the horrors of the period.

As for the writing style itself, things snapped into place after I read Chris Power’s analysis of Babel’s stories in the Guardian.  He spelled out what I really should have identified for myself, namely that ‘Babel and Hemingway are strikingly similar.’  If you admire Hemingway’s sparse macho writing then you’ll love the ‘Red Cavalry’ stories.  In fact, Hemingway read and admired Babel, a fact I learned from John Updike’s review of ‘The Complete Isaac Babel’ for the New York Times.  These stories feel like the literary equivalent to the Soviet posters of the period.  Babel was, after all, hired to write propaganda copy for the Red army newspaper.  He uses stark images and is unafraid of violence; his language is utilitarian and precise, every word used to further the cause.


1920 Red Army poster by Dmitrii Stakhevich Orlov (D. Moor) with the caption ‘Have you volunteered?’

What makes the Norton edition of the selected writings so powerful is that, after the ‘Red Cavalry stories’ there are about 70 pages of diary entries, Babel’s own notes from this period.  If I was teaching a course on Babel, or creative writing, or reportage, there would definitely be a lesson on matching the entries to the final stories.  It’s not only a fascinating glimpse at the writer’s process, it’s also a lesson in self-censorship.  Although the narrator of the ‘Red Cavalry’ is Jewish, he is not overly interested in Jews, spreading his attention equally amongst the different groups he encounters.  The diary tells a different story, giving me my first literary view of a whole section of Russian society.  Babel clearly knew his audience and knew the boundaries of their interest in this marginalised group, but while other writers I’ve read have explicitly worried over what it means to be Russian, Babel is the first to struggle with imposed stereotypes and prejudices.

Personally, my favourite stories weren’t from the ‘Red Calvary’ at all, but Babel’s more nostalgic, less Hemingway-esque ‘Odessa stories’.  For a start, fewer people are shot in the face and then mutilated; also, the warmth from the Odessa sun seems to seep into the tales themselves.  If this reading project has shown me anything, it’s how important the literary tradition can be to readers and writers alike.  I feel as if the propaganda stories suffer from a lack of reference as they show an appropriately Communist distain for Bourgeoisie literary culture.  Thanks to their explicit engagement with the established Jewish community, even though it is upheaval, the ‘Odessa Stories’ have more heart than the macho ‘Red Cavalry’.

Overall, Babel has been a bit of shock.  My previous Russian reading has not been so explicitly violent and, though I realise now how foolishly naïve I’d been, I think I’d hoped to read my way through a PG rated revolution.  Babel has taught me otherwise, and I’m grateful that the lesson has come from such an accomplished writer.

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