Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Red Cavalry and Other Stories by Issac Babel

Red Cavalry and Other Stories by Issac Babel (2006, 400 pages, translated by David McDuff)

Red Cavalry and Other Stories is a wonderful world class cultural treasure that lets us into a way of life that was destroyed by war and prejudice.     The stories are mostly set in the Jewish communities of Russia. Most were written in the 1920s and 30s with a few earlier stories included.    Babel (1894 to 1940)  was from Odessa and most of the stories in the collection either take place in Odessa or are about the author's experience in the Russian Army fighting in Poland during WWI.   Russian has produced two great 20th century short story writers and one was helped get his first work in print by the other.   Fortunately the literary reputation of Babel has nothing to do with that of his one time mentor Maxim Gorky.   I have posted before on the huge damage done to the literary future of Maxim Gorky by his status as the pet writer of Stalin.   Gorky was probably killed by the Russian secret police and Babel certainly was.  In retrospect Babel's long term affair with the wife of the head of Stalin's secret police was probably not a real bright idea.   (You can read more about Babel here and I have previously posted on one of my favorite of his short stories, "Guy de Maupassant" about a man hired to help produce a Russian edition of the complete short stories of de Maupassant.)

Frank O' Connor in The Lonely Voice:  A Study of the Short Story says that Babel in many of his stories somehow wants to  explain the conflict in the soul of the central character in the Russian Cavalry who wants badly to fit in with the brutal hyper masculine Cossack troops while at the same time being true to a culture that value learning and reading above almost everything.  In one of the stories it was somehow very moving to me to see people talking about reading Spinoza.   Babel had all of the life experiences in the stories in terms of military service.   He makes no effort to make himself out a hero.   It is the story of an intellectual and a man very into the reading life trying to cope with horrible brutalities.     One can see the real attraction this violent world had for him.  He was not a hero at all, just an ordinary man.   

There are scenes of horrible senseless cruelty in these stories.   Babel is considered the leading voice of Russian Jewish Culture and I think these stories are probably required reading for anyone interested in this area.

The stories in the Red Cavalry section of the book are connected through sharing a common lead character.   Those in the famous Odessa stories are stand along works.   

There is a lot one could say about in praise of this collection of short stories.   As I read these stories I felt very sad knowing what was coming for the Jewish community in Odessa.   

Red Cavalry and Other Stories is a great treasure.   To anyone who would say the short story is somehow an inferior literary genre I would simply say read these stories.   

These stories are not light reading.   They can be hard to take at times as they are so real and the horror in the stories is so undisguised.   

I totally endorse this collection of short stories.   There is a well done introduction and a very informative afterword by Lionel Trilling.   Babel wrote no longer works of fiction and got his start writing as a journalist.   He was a dedicated communist all of his adult life, though not blind to the flaws in Soviet society.

Please share your experience with Babel with us.    

Mel u



Prashant C. Trikannad said...

I enjoyed reading your reviews over the past few days but I can't say much because I haven't read any of the writers featured here. I'd like to read Babel and Franzen, though.

Sushma Joshi said...

Thank you Mel for this review. I've read a lot about Babel and I am very intrigued. I can't find his books in Kathmandu so I'm taking myself off to hear his story on hte New Yorker's website, where there appears to be an audio version read by George Saunders:

Sushma Joshi said...

I just heard George Saunders read aloud "You Must Know Everything" by Babel. And it is an incredibly sharply observed story of depth and complexity and ambiguity.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a very interesting book. Thanks for the heads up and the great review.

Dwight said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Babel a few years ago. Well, enjoy isn't quite the right word for Red Cavalry since parts are disturbing (as you say). If you haven't already read them, read his Odessa stories--lots of fun and Benya Krik is a great "creation". Glad to see your post on Babel!

Mel u said...

Prashant C. Trikannad-a few of Babel's short stories can be found online-a very powerful writer

Man of La Book-thanks very much for your comment and visit

Sushma Joshi-in my post on Babel's short story "Guy de Maupassant" there is a link to this story-I hope you enjoy his work

Dwight-the collection contained the Odessa Tales and they were simply great works-good to see you back on my blog-

Mel u said...

Sushma Joshi-thanks very much for the link-two more of Babel's short stories can be heard here in a beautiful reading on Miette's Bedtime Podscasts

Dwight said...

Hi Mel. Never left. I've just been too reticent to leave comments lately. Recently many comments I've made on book-related blogs have either been deleted or not approved by the moderator for posting. *shrug* I've turned, mostly, into a lurker because of it.

Mel u said...

Dwight. Our joint reading of Parades End was a great experience for me.

Dwight said...

Absolutely (and don’t think I was referring to you in my comment)--I was just discussing the film/TV version of that this weekend with my wife. I think she's looking forward to seeing it almost as much as I am.