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Although Isaac Babel spent most of his career writing short stories, he tried his hand at other genres without making significant contributions to them. He wrote two plays: Zakat (1928; Sunset, 1960) and Mariia (1935; Maria, 1966). He also wrote several screenplays, most of which remain unpublished. Babel was known to have worked on several novels, but only a few fragments have been published. If he ever completed them, either he destroyed them or they were confiscated by police when he was arrested in 1939, never to be seen in public again. Because of their fragmentary nature, the tendency among critics is to treat them as short fiction. He also wrote a brief autobiography, a diary, reminiscences, and newspaper articles.


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Isaac Babel’s greatest achievement lies in short fiction. From the outset, he established himself as a premier short-story writer not only in Russian but also in world literature as well. He achieved this reputation not only through his innovative approach to the subject matter—the civil war in Russia, for example, or the Jewish world of his ancestry—but also through his stylistic excellence. His mastery of style earned for him, early in his career, a reputation of an avant-garde writer—a model to be emulated, but at the same time difficult to emulate. He elevated the Russian short story to a new level and attracted the attention of foreign writers such as Ernest Hemingway, who read him in Paris. At the same time, it would be unjust to attribute his greatness only to the uniqueness of his subject matter or to his avant-garde style. Rather, it is the combination of these and other qualities that contributed to his indisputably high reputation among both critics and readers, a respect that seems to grow with time.

Discussion Topics

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Did Isaac Babel’s riding among the Cossacks of the Mounted Army and his close association with Nikolai Yezhov during the Great Purges reflect a persistent desire to toy with danger?

How does Babel’s portrayal of the Cossacks in Red Cavalry reflect the Romantic ideal of the Noble Savage?

Although the Cossacks are the nominal heroes of the Red Cavalry stories, Babel’s portrayal of the Polish Jews shows surprising elements of sympathy alongside negative images of filth and poverty. To what degree does this reflect Babel’s own ambivalence about his origins?

How are the Jewish gangsters of the Tales of Odessa similar to the Cossacks of Red Cavalry?

How does Babel use humor in his portrayal of the gangsters in Tales of Odessa to mock concepts of heroism?


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Avins, Carol J. “Kinship and Concealment in Red Cavalry and Babel’s 1920 Diary.” Slavic Review 53 (Fall, 1994): 694-710. Shows how a diary Babel kept during his service in the 1920 Polish campaign was a source of ideas for his collection of stories Red Cavalry. Claims that Babel’s efforts to conceal his Jewishness, recounted in the diaries, is also reflected in the stories.

Carden, Patricia. The Art of Isaac Babel. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972. In this discerning study of Babel’s art, Carden combines biography and analysis of his main works and themes, especially his search for style and form, and philosophical, religious, and aesthetic connotations. The meticulous scholarship is accompanied by keen insight and empathy, making the book anything but cut-and-dried. Includes a select bibliography.

Charyn, Jerome. Savage Shorthand: The Life and Death of Isaac Babel. New York: Random, 2005. A fascinating, critically lauded account of Babel’s work and life.

Ehre, Milton. “Babel’s Red Cavalry: Epic and Pathos, History and Culture.” Slavic Review 40 (1981): 228-240. A stimulating study of Babel’s chief work, incorporating its literary, historical, and cultural aspects. No attention to detail, but rather a sweeping overview.

Falen, James E. Isaac Babel, Russian Master of the Short Story. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1974. Falen’s appraisal of Babel is the best overall. Following the main stages of Babel’s life, Falen analyzes in minute detail his works, emphasizing the short stories. Lucidly written and provided with the complete scholarly apparatus, the study offers an exhaustive bibliography as well.

Hyman, Stanley Edgar. “Identities of Isaac Babel.” The Hudson Review 8 (1956): 620-627. Hyman sees as one of the major themes in Babel’s stories changes of identity through ritual of rebirth. Their true dichotomy is that of culture and nature, of art and the life of action, of necessity and freedom. For Hyman, the Jews are the heirs of all world cultures. A thought-provoking essay.

Luplow, Carol. Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1982. This detailed, full-length study of Babel’s most famous collection focuses on the narrative perspective of the stories, the basic dialectic between the spiritual and the physical which they embody, their style and romantic vision, and the types of story structure and epiphanic vision they reflect.

Mendelson, Danuta. Metaphor in Babel’s Short Stories. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1982. A scholarly discussion, drawing from linguistic and psychological studies as well as structuralist studies of narrative. Analysis of Red Cavalry as an episodic novel in the modernist tradition, rather than as a strictly linear realist work, makes clear how the action of the book takes place on several poetic planes at once.

Poggioli, Renato. “Isaac Babel in Retrospect.” In The Phoenix and the Spider. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957. Poggioli discusses the three curses of Babel’s life: race, poverty, and the calling of an artist. He also comments on Babel’s attitude toward war and his inferiority complex, resulting in his admiration for the cossacks as men of action.

Shcheglov, Yuri K. “Some Themes and Archetypes in Babel’s Red Cavalry.” Slavic Review 53 (Fall, 1994): 653-670. Discusses initiatory and otherworldly thematic patterns in “My First Goose,” showing how Babel used archetypes subtly and selectively. Concludes that “My First Goose,” with its density reinforced by archetypal connotations, is an emblematic prototype of later works of Soviet fiction that focus on similar themes.

Sicher, Efraim. Style and Structure in the Prose of Isaak Babel. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1986. Primarily a formalist study of the style of Babel’s stories. In addition to discussing Babel’s lyrical prose, the book analyzes setting, characterization, narrative structure, and point of view in Babel’s stories.

Terras, Victor. “Line and Color: The Structure of I. Babel’s Short Stories in Red Cavalry.” Studies in Short Fiction 3, no. 2 (Winter, 1966): 141-156. In one of the best treatments of a particular aspect of Babel’s stories, Terras discusses his style in terms of line and color and of his poetic inclination.

Trilling, Lionel. Introduction to The Collected Stories. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1955. Trilling stresses the difference between the cossacks and the Jews as one of the backbones of Red Cavalry and Babel’s relationship to them in terms of test and initiation. A good general introduction to Babel’s works.

Zholkovskii, A. K. “How a Russian Maupassant Was Made in Odessa and Yasnaya Polyana: Isaak Babel and the Tolstoy Legacy.” Slavic Review 53 (Fall, 1994): 671-693. Examines the influence of Tolstoy on Babel, arguing that although both sought to liberate the individual from impersonal routine, Babel’s approach is the opposite of Tolstoy’s; whereas for Tolstoy finding the self meant relinquishing falsehood and society and returning to truth and childlike innocence, for Babel, one finds the self through erotic contact, culture, art, and invention.


Critical Essays