Isaac Babel Essay - Isaac Babel World Literature Analysis

Isaac Babel World Literature Analysis

The famed Victorian English dandy and writer Oscar Wilde once said of his writing that he had spent an entire morning taking a comma out and the afternoon putting it back in. Isaac Babel showed much of the same meticulousness in his writing. Each of his sketches was a tiny work of brilliance, agonized over for days in order to produce a perfect image that would burn in the reader’s mind. He once showed an interviewer a thick sheaf of paper which proved to be no fewer than twenty drafts of one of his stories, “Liubka Kazak” (“Lyubka the Cossack”).

Babel’s prose was far removed from any sort of Victorian ornateness. He preferred to employ a spare, even severe language that eschewed any excess. There was no room for extended description or explanation in his stories. Instead, Babel preferred to rely upon sharp, well-chosen images of the story’s events in order to develop his characters’ relationships and actions. As a result, the events and characters of his stories have considerable power to remain in a reader’s mind long after the story is finished and the book is returned to the shelf. One cannot quickly forget the Cossack commander Savitsky or the Jewish gangster Benya Krik, men fairly bursting with energy, ready and willing to take what they want.

Babel’s approach to the literary portrayal of violence has been one of the most controversial aspects of his writing. Unlike his prerevolutionary predecessors, Babel was unsparing in his portrayal of the darker side of human nature, particularly in the war-torn Poland of Red Cavalry but also among the seamy underside of Odessa. He dared to show these places in all their gritty reality, depicting rape, torture, and murder in a carefully chosen and spare prose that captures the lolling of a corpse’s head as skillfully as it describes the light slanting down on the sacred art of a church located just behind the battle lines.

However, realistic portrayals of violence were not the only characteristic of Babel’s writing that set him apart from previous authors and made him part of a new literary movement. He was also fascinated with the speech of the ordinary people, and he used rough colloquial language not only in the characters’ dialogue but also in the narrative, capturing the distinct nature of his characters’ points of view. Although this technique, known as skaz from the Russian word skazit’, meaning “to say,” could easily have become an excuse for carelessness in a lesser writer, Babel adopted it with a sure and poetic mastery of tone. The reader can tell that Babel himself is quite aware of the strictures of standard literary Russian and is departing from them as a deliberate artistic choice, in a controlled fashion, to bring the reader closer to the ordinary people and the manner in which they actually speak.

Red Cavalry

First published: Konarmiia, 1926 (English translation, 1929)

Type of work: Short stories

Babel depicts the battles between the Russian revolutionaries and the Poles with a raw energy and vividness.

Red Cavalry (or Konarmiia in Russian) is a collection of short stories firmly planted in the birth trauma of the Soviet Union. To the Russian reader of the 1920’s, Red Cavalry had the sound of the new language of the new regime. The very word konarmiia was a coinage of the Russian Civil War, a joining of the Russian words for “horse” and “army,” and was used to replace the old word for cavalry, with its associations of elite regiments staffed by aristocrats. However, the English translator did not attempt to capture that sense, instead choosing the more descriptive title Red Cavalry. Even in translation, however, Red Cavalry loses little of the raw energy of the original Russian.

This collection of short stories begins with a bang in “Perekhod cherez Zbruch” (“Crossing into Poland”), with the news that Novograd-Volynsk has been captured. The narrator describes how he crosses the Zbruch River, followed by an encounter with a...

(The entire section is 1694 words.)