Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1694
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.
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 Jewish family in the house where he is to be billeted for the night. Each of the stories follows a similar pattern, with the first-person narrator, Kiril Lyutov, having various encounters with the Cossacks and with the Poles and Jews in the territories through which the army rides. Almost all the encounters are violent, and each is vividly limned with strong, active words.
Although there is no obvious continuing between the chapters and each story can be read as a stand-alone tale or vignette, together the stories add up to a plot line that is more than the sum of its parts, making the book resemble a novel rather than merely a collection of unrelated short stories. The overall theme of the book is Lyutov’s acclimation to life among the fierce and wild Cossack horsemen. Through rough and often bitter experience he learns to accept violence with an approximation of the casualness with which the Cossacks approach it. When he goes into battle with an unloaded weapon and his deception is discovered, the Cossacks curse him as a coward, venting their disgust at cowardly, bespectacled intellectuals in general. Yet at the same time they depend upon him to read them their unit newspaper and to write letters home to their families, for they are almost entirely illiterate. It is a curious and awkward symbiosis, but Lyutov begins to adapt, until in “Moi pervyi gus’’(“My First Goose”) he is able to appropriate and kill a gander he finds waddling about the barnyard of an old woman with whom he argued over recompense for quartering. For the first time he gains a measure of real respect from the Cossacks because he has proven himself capable of the same sort of unthinking violence they practice so casually. His experience also gives him new insight into the values of the Cossacks, as can be seen in the story of the death of Commander Trunov. This fearless Cossack, knowing full well that he will die in taking on an enemy aircraft, hands over his boots so some other soldier can use them, since they still have plenty of wear in them.
Yet even in the final story, Lyutov remains a man apart, never able to see the world in the casual manner of the Cossacks, who view life as a green meadow upon which women and horses walk. In this final image, Red Cavalry, which is meant to be an unsparingly realistic portrayal of warfare, still retains some of the idealism of the Romantics, in particular the concept of the Noble Savage, whose naturalness has not been warped by civilization’s hypocrisies.
Tales of Odessa
First published: Odesskie rasskazy, 1931 (English translation, 1955)
Type of work: Short stories
Babel writes about life in the Jewish ghetto of Odessa, including tales featuring Benya Krik and other local gangsters.
Like Red Calvary, each story in Tales of Odessa can stand on its own, but together the stories create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. However, in this collection the elements of violence, while still present, are less overwhelming than the wholesale destruction of the war-torn countryside during the Polish campaign of 1920. The cruelties of Odessa are smaller, more subtle, but they still have the power to destroy. At times, as can be seen in “Istoriia moei golubiatni” (“The Story of My Dovecote”), one of Babel’s earlier stories that was not included in Tales of Odessa, they can erupt into an anti-Semitic pogrom different only in the scope and degree to which the perpetrators are sanctioned by the central government.
Jewishness and anti-Semitism are the major themes of Tales of Odessa. Although Babel wrote in Russian for a Russian audience, there is a deep thread of similarity between the Tales of Odessa and the body of Yiddish literature that was produced by Odessa’s Jewish community in the years before the Russian Revolution, particularly the work of Sholom Aleichem, who wrote stories about the Jewish community as both an enclosed society and a vulnerable group surrounded by hostile Gentiles. Babel, however, did not take quite the same indulgent attitude toward his coreligionists. His attitudes and mind-set had been reshaped by his experiences riding with the Cossacks, and as a result he was more willing to criticize the flaws and weaknesses of a Jewish society whose members often tried to survive by keeping its collective head down in the face of hostility.
Thus, his heroes are not meek and submissive Jews but the nearest approximation he could find to the Cossacks. Like those fierce horsemen, Benya Krik (literally, Benny the Shouter) and the gangsters of the Jewish ghetto are quick with their fists, fearless in the face of danger, and unwilling to allow anyone to place limitations on their freedom to experience life to the fullest. When the police try to raid their gathering during a wedding ceremony, they burn down the police station. Benya both fights and cons his way through life, using his fists or his glib tongue depending upon which can gain him the best advantage. However, there always is more than a little self-mocking in the humor of these stories, with Babel poking fun at the very concept of the grand, the epic.
Because Tales of Odessa was published after Red Cavalry, most critics generally assumed that the stories in Tales of Odessa were written after those in Red Cavalry, even though the stories in Tales of Odessa are in many ways weaker. As a result, there has been a sense that Babel somehow exhausted his creative capacities in writing Red Cavalry, and Tales of Odessa represented a diminishment of his ability. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, literary historians have been able to examine many of the obscure regional journals in which the Odessa stories originally appeared in 1922 and 1923, and thus have demonstrated that, far from representing a decline, the stories show the development of an author who was still working on perfecting the stories that would become Red Cavalry. Only with the success of that book did Babel go ahead and collect the earlier set of stories in Tales of Odessa.