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My People

Isaac Babel, 5 April 1990

... Zhitomir, 5 June 1920. Jews beside a large house, including a yeshivah-bokher in glasses. An old man with a yellow beard. I want to stay, but the men from signals are winding the wires in. Naturally, since the headquarters has gone. I decide to stop with Duvid the Disciple. The soldiers try to dissuade me, but the Jews ask me to stay ... I wash ... Bliss ...


Gabriele Annan, 7 September 1995

1920 Diary 
by Isaac Babel, edited by Carol Avins, translated by H.T. Willetts.
Yale, 126 pp., £14.95, June 1995, 0 300 05966 3
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Collected Stories 
by Isaac Babel, translated by David McDuff.
Penguin, 364 pp., £6.99, June 1995, 0 14 018462 7
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... Isaac Babel was a middle-class Jew from Odessa who rode to war with a Cossack regiment. This extraordinary conjunction occurred during the Russo-Polish war of 1920. It is not news, because the single work that made Babel a famous writer – the short story collection Red Cavalry – is based on his experiences that summer, when he turned 26, at the First Cavalry Army HQ in a Volhynian village ...

We stop the words

David Craig: A.L. Kennedy, 16 September 1999

Everything you need 
by A.L. Kennedy.
Cape, 567 pp., £16.99, June 1999, 0 224 04433 8
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... times like this’. Must I read this? ‘You must know everything,’ said the master storyteller Isaac Babel a few years before he disappeared into a Stalinist labour camp. A taboo on such material, whether self or socially imposed, would inflict its own kind of moral injury. For a start we should concentrate on the excellence or otherwise of the art ...

On Ilya Kaminsky

Colin Burrow: Ilya Kaminsky, 24 October 2019

... herself in 1941), her one-time lover Osip Mandelstam (who died in a transit camp in 1938) and Isaac Babel (who was executed in 1940). He takes on not just the burden of translating the political and erotic energies of 20th-century Russian poetry into a new language, but also a burden of historic suffering. There are moments in his early work when his ...

Crabby, Prickly, Bitter, Harsh

Michael Wood: Tolstoy’s Malice, 22 May 2008

War and Peace 
by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Vintage, 1273 pp., £20, November 2007, 978 0 09 951223 3
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... If the world could write by itself,’ Isaac Babel said, ‘it would write like Tolstoy.’ The remark is quoted at the head of Richard Pevear’s introduction to this handsome new translation of War and Peace. I should like to think Babel meant that if the world was given to intricate thematic contrasts and parallels among its materials, to careful cross-cutting between city and country, high society and hunting, the salon and the racetrack, home and abroad, it would have written War and Peace and Anna Karenina ...

A Long Day at the Chocolate Bar Factory

James Wood: David Bezmozgis, 16 December 2004

‘Natasha’ and Other Stories 
by David Bezmozgis.
Cape, 147 pp., £10.99, August 2004, 0 224 07125 4
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... that Roman worked as a masseur along ‘the Baltic coast’. Bezmozgis has surely learned from Isaac Babel, even if his sentences lack the blazing oddity of the Odessa master. He has learned from Babel how to turn his sentences into provocations and near exaggerations – ‘torture’, ‘enemy’, ‘Soviet ...


Christopher Tayler: The Fabulous Elif Batuman, 17 February 2011

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them 
by Elif Batuman.
Granta, 296 pp., £16.99, April 2011, 978 1 84708 313 5
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... with long-standing traditions. Professors exhibit mild intellectual vanity – ‘Why,’ an Isaac Babel specialist wonders in the course of recruiting the writer as a graduate assistant, ‘would you study the gospel with anyone but St Peter?’ – but also a lovable completism. At Yasnaya Polyana, an ‘International Tolstoy Scholar’ insists on ...

On David King

Susannah Clapp, 21 June 2018

... picture of the art critic David Sylvester – and dug up an extraordinary billowing image of Isaac Babel. In 1989 he arrived with a previously unpublished photograph of Jean Genet, which he had taken in the early 1970s. It was the most tremendous close-up: just nose, eyebrows and set mouth. You could count the pores. As he handed the picture ...

I was warmer in prison

Vadim Nikitin: ‘A Terrible Country’, 11 October 2018

A Terrible Country 
by Keith Gessen.
Fitzcarraldo, 352 pp., £12.99, July 2018, 978 1 910695 76 0
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... of the contemporary Western male’. It shamelessly deployed Descartes, Hegel, Henry James, Isaac Babel and the Naqba as fodder for the rom-com exploits of its protagonists. Mark – an unmoored PhD student obsessed with Russian history, literature, beer and women – justifies sleeping with someone he doesn’t much care for by invoking Lenin in ...

Fathers and Sons

John Lloyd, 6 March 1997

Informer 001: The Myth of Pavlik Morozov 
by Yuri Druzhnikov.
Transaction, 200 pp., £19.95, February 1997, 1 56000 283 2
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... to play cat-and-mouse with him throughout the war, until he died of a heart attack in 1945.) Isaac Babel, a man with a career as many-sided as his talent, was given the job of cleaning up the screenplay and apparently did so with due zeal. But by now, the project had the smell of death on it: Babel, less ...

Eat Caviar

Daniel Soar: Rubem Fonseca’s Cunning Stories, 26 February 2009

‘The Taker’ and Other Stories 
by Rubem Fonseca, translated by Clifford Landers.
Open Letter, 166 pp., $15.95, November 2008, 978 1 934824 02 3
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... about diamond smugglers and carnival artistes that is narrated by a filmmaker obsessed with Isaac Babel. The stories’ subtlety with their sources allows them, unlike the novels, to be read as pure noir entertainment: ‘Night Drive’, in Landers’s translation, was first published in Ellery Queen’s Prime Crimes 5. It’s one of Fonseca’s ...


Stephen Wall, 16 March 1989

The Art of the Novel 
by Milan Kundera, translated by Linda Asher.
Faber, 165 pp., £9.95, June 1988, 0 571 14819 0
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Adult Pleasures: Essays on Writers and Readers 
by Dan Jacobson.
Deutsch, 144 pp., £12.95, May 1988, 0 233 98204 3
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... underdeveloped and short on illustration. Dan Jacobson’s subjects range from Byron to Isaac Babel, from Theodore Herzl the Zionist to the South African Olive Schreiner, and also include some mordant reflections on a D.H. Lawrence conference at Sante Fe and a note on the biblical genesis of his own novel The Rape of Tamar. There ...

Into the Eisenshpritz

Elif Batuman: Superheroes, 10 April 2008

Life, in Pictures: Autobiographical Stories 
by Will Eisner.
Norton, 493 pp., £18.99, November 2007, 978 0 393 06107 9
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by David B..
Cape, 368 pp., £12.99, March 2006, 0 224 07920 4
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by Adrian Tomine.
Faber, 108 pp., £12.99, September 2007, 978 0 571 23329 8
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Misery Loves Comedy 
by Ivan Brunetti.
Fantagraphics, 172 pp., £15.99, April 2007, 978 1 56097 792 6
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... from the perspective of Jewish assimilation, one work that jumps out as a literary precursor is Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry story cycle, which appeared in Russia in 1926 (the first English translation was published in 1929). The cycle comprises 33 very short stories based on Babel’s experiences working for the Red ...

Levi’s Oyster

Karl Miller, 4 August 1988

The Drowned and the Saved 
by Prime Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal.
Joseph, 170 pp., £10.95, April 1988, 0 7181 3063 4
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... the more literal the better. Levi’s words bring to mind the art of the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel, who rode with Budyonny’s Red Cavalry after the Revolution, through scenes of hardship and atrocity. Babel’s art is imaginative, figurative. It has been said, by Dan Jacobson, that he ...

Capital W, Capital W

Michael Wood: Women writers, 19 August 1999

Women Writers at Work 
edited by George Plimpton.
Harvill, 381 pp., £9.99, February 1999, 1 86046 586 2
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Just as I Thought 
by Grace Paley.
Virago, 332 pp., £8.99, August 1999, 1 86049 696 2
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... but recreating in fiction, promoting to a second and possibly less perishable life. She describes Isaac Babel, whom she admires, as using his imagination ‘to understand what had happened, what was real’, and also as having ‘the imagination to be just’, and her fiction is full of small but earnest attempts to save people and places by imagining ...

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