Isaac Babel Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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 He also wrote several screenplays, most of which remain unpublished.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.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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?


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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...

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