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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 ...

Citizen Grass and the World’s End

Neal Ascherson, 17 October 1985

On Writing and Politics: 1967-1983 
by Günter Grass, translated by Ralph Manheim.
Secker, 157 pp., £12, September 1985, 0 436 18773 6
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Günter Grass 
by Ronald Hayman.
Methuen, 80 pp., £2.75, September 1985, 0 416 35490 4
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... sure of one ally: the future. Silone and Moravia, Brecht and Döblin outlived fascism, just as Isaac Babel and Osip Mandelstam outlived Stalinism – though it killed them ... This was the case until today, or rather, until yesterday. For with the loss of mankind’s future, the ‘immortality’ of literature, taken as a certainty until now, has ...

In Memoriam: V.S. Pritchett

John Bayley, 24 April 1997

... if we pay strict attention to them; and they are set up as arbitrarily as a magazine scenario. Isaac Babel, whom Pritchett admired and on whom he wrote a shrewd critique, can be shameless in his exploitation of consciousness in relation to event. As Pritchett pointed out, the peasant’s goose whom the narrator ruthlessly kills in one of his most ...


Neal Ascherson: Organised Crime, 3 July 2008

McMafia: Crime without Frontiers 
by Misha Glenny.
Bodley Head, 432 pp., £20, April 2008, 978 0 224 07503 9
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... As Misha Glenny says, the rule of the great Karabas recalled the pre-1917 Odessa described by Isaac Babel, with its cast of fabled Jewish gangsters, such as Benya Krik, with his car-horn that played ‘Laugh, Clown, Laugh!’ Karabas was not a Jew, but fitted perfectly into that urban legend. ‘The more I spoke to Odessites of any nationality, the ...

Time of the Assassin

Michael Wood, 26 January 1995

Proust and the Sense of Time 
by Julia Kristeva, translated by Stephen Bann.
Faber, 103 pp., £20, July 1993, 0 571 16880 9
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Le Temps sensible: Proust et l’expérience littéraire 
by Julia Kristeva.
Gallimard, 451 pp., January 1995, 2 07 073116 2
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The Old Man and the Wolves 
by Julia Kristeva, translated by Barbara Bray.
Columbia, 183 pp., £15, January 1995, 0 231 08020 4
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... the wolves, and let go of your need. ‘I see you,’ a Cossack says to a Jewish officer in an Isaac Babel story, ‘I see all of you. You are trying to live without enemies.’ This must be appeasement a pathetic failure to acknowledge and live with the violence and privation of out condition. But what would it be like to live only with enemies, to ...

I’m hip. I live in New York

Theo Tait: Leonard Michaels, 3 March 2016

by Leonard Michaels.
Daunt Books, 131 pp., £9.99, June 2015, 978 1 907970 55 9
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... the stairs and die. Most of all, couples fight, cheat and savage each other. Michaels wrote that Isaac Babel was the writer who influenced him ‘more than any other’. And in his stories it sometimes seems as if the violence of Odessa’s underworld, or Cossack cavalrymen on the rampage, has been imported incongruously into a world of drug-addled ...


August Kleinzahler: Remembering Thom Gunn, 4 November 2004

... Thom said. Which I did, and it dazzled me. Another time Thom said to me, ‘I’ve been reading Isaac Babel for the first time. He’s very important to you, isn’t he? Well, of course he is, he’d have to be.’ I gave Thom a copy of Charles Nicholl’s The Fruit Palace, which he loved, likewise Trainspotting. Almost anything scatological had great ...

Where have all the horses gone?

Eric Banks: Horse Power, 5 July 2018

The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey through Human History 
by Susanna Forrest.
Atlantic, 418 pp., £9.99, October 2017, 978 0 85789 900 2
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Farewell to the Horse: The Final Century of Our Relationship 
by Ulrich Raulff, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp.
Penguin, 448 pp., £9.99, February 2018, 978 0 14 198317 2
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... farm population dropped steeply, from nearly 1.1 million in 1944 to 147,000 a decade later. What Isaac Babel called obyezloshadenie, or dehorsification, unfolded over a longer period, and more recently, than we might think.Horses were as ubiquitous in the 19th century as cigarettes were in the 20th and some saw them as no less a threat to public ...

I sailed away with a mighty push, never to return

Sheila Fitzpatrick: Jews in the Revolution, 17 March 2005

The Jewish Century 
by Yuri Slezkine.
Princeton, 438 pp., £18.95, October 2004, 0 691 11995 3
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... non-elite groups. Jews in the Soviet cultural and intellectual elite – among them the writers Isaac Babel and Eduard Bagritsky, and Meyerhold, the great theatre director – suffered along with non-Jews during the Great Purges, especially if they had close personal ties to purged Communist leaders. And no doubt many of them, like ...

Off the record

John Bayley, 19 September 1985

Life and Fate 
by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler.
Collins, 880 pp., £15, September 1985, 0 00 261454 5
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... which Tolstoy’s is not, although it may seem to be. In some ways Grossman is much more like Isaac Babel, on a huge scale. So much for the stock claim in terms of construction, technique, effect. But what about the message of War and Peace, its celebration of Russian life, the drive of its propaganda? This is a different and more complex matter, and ...


Keith Gessen: In Odessa, 17 April 2014

... Odessa is a Russian or Ukrainian city, the evidence is mixed. In ‘How It Was Done in Odessa’, Isaac Babel has his Jewish mobster Benya Krik, whose associate has shot an innocent man during a robbery, explain that everyone makes mistakes, even God. ‘Was it not a mistake on God’s part to settle the Jews in Russia, where they have been tormented as ...

The Writer and the Valet

Frances Stonor Saunders, 25 September 2014

... to the Lubyanka, and killed with a single bullet to the back of the head. The same fate awaited Isaac Babel, who was taken from Peredelkino in May 1939. There were others, less well known, but equals in the manner of their death. Boris Pasternak in 1956, the year he gave the manuscript to BerlinWilliam Hayter, the British Ambassador in MoscowIsaiah ...

A Shark Swims through It

Lidija Haas: A Talent for Nonchalance, 8 March 2018

A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays and Poetry 
edited by Kevin Bowen and Nora Paley.
Farrar, Straus, 371 pp., $27, October 2017, 978 0 374 16582 6
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... different sense from someone like Philip Roth, and though she was often placed in the tradition of Isaac Babel, she told an interviewer that she hadn’t read him before she started publishing fiction and that it was a question of familial rather than literary lineage: ‘I would say we had the same grandfather. So it’s an influence that’s linguistic ...

I tooke a bodkine

Jonathan Rée: Esoteric Newton, 10 October 2013

Newton and the Origin of Civilisation 
by Jed Buchwald and Mordechai Feingold.
Princeton, 528 pp., £34.95, October 2012, 978 0 691 15478 7
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... The life of Isaac Newton falls into two halves, and the main problem for Newton studies is how to fit them together. In the first half he was a sulky Cambridge mathematician who, at the age of 44, astonished the world with a work of natural science that was soon recognised as one of the greatest books ever written ...

Singer’s Last Word

John Bayley, 24 October 1991

by Isaac Bashevis Singer, translated by Rosaline Dukalsky Schwartz.
Cape, 224 pp., £13.99, October 1991, 0 224 03200 3
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... for a people to write about itself can be both inspiration and good business. It certainly was for Isaac Bashevis Singer. His incomparable sense of Polish Jewry, the Yiddishness in which he was brought up, renders itself to the reader as if in the palpable form of experience: the words seem to sit us down and bring us beer and brandy with a side order of ...

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