- Paperback: 400 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Classics; Revised ed. edition (7 July 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0140449973
- ISBN-13: 978-0140449976
- Product Dimensions: 13 x 2.3 x 19.8 cm
- Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 242,178 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Red Cavalry and Other Stories (Penguin Classics) Paperback – 7 Jul 2005
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About the Author
Isaak Babel (1894-1941). Short story writer and playwright who was a correspondent with the Red Army forces of Semyon Budyonny during the Russian civil war. Babel's fame is based on his stories of the Jews in Odessa and his novel Red Cavalry (1926). He was the first major Russian Jewish writer to write in Russian.
DAVID MCDUFF was born in 1945 and was educated at the University of Edinburgh. His publications comprise a large number of translations of foreign prose and verse, including contemporary Scandinavian work. His first book of verse, Words in Nature, appeared in 1972. He has translated a number of nineteenth-century Russian prose works for the Penguin Classics series. These include Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot (2004),The House of the Dead, Poor Folk and Other Stories, Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories and The Sebastopol Sketches, and Nikolai Leskov's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. He has also translated Andrei Bely's novel Petersburg for Penguin.
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Top Customer Reviews
The stories are excellent and as enjoyable, fascinating is probably a more apt term, as stories of war and all that it entails can be. The stories are beautifully written and surely stand high in the great Russian literary tradition. The prose is staccato, imagery is haunting, metaphors are gloriously earthy and even brutal. Some readers won't like the murder, the rape, the looting, but this is a collection of war stories and, in fact, represents toned down reality - Isaac Babel's `1920 Diary', upon which these stories are based, is far more brutally graphic.
I confess to not being a great fiction/literary reader and my prime interest in reading `Red Cavalry' was historical and prompted by some claims on the web that `Red Cavalry' portrayed antisemitic pogroms committed by Red Army soldiers. It does not.
The volume contains other short stories. Babel's tales of Jewish gangsters in pre-revolutionary Odessa are written in the same style as `Red Cavalry' but, being later, Babel's style has been further refined. These are also excellent.
I must make one comment on the accompanying interpretative essay in this volume. The notion that Babel only supported the revolution because he was Jewish has an unpleasant whiff about it.
I enjoyed his autobiographical stories best of all.
The book lacks depth or even any literary merit. As a Russian history aficionado, I really looked forward to reading Red Cavalry. But the shorts are, by and large, inconsequential. They rarely capture the mood of the soldiers, or the harshness of what they had to endure. The same goes for their opponents. Some appear to be rambling vignettes of Jewish shtetls in the Pale of Settlement.
I remember reading that Budyonny or Timoshenko resented the way the Red Army was portrayed in the book. I can only asume that it's because it was not glorified. But I would not recommend this book to anyone who wants an insight in to the depravity of war, or more importantly, the Russian Civil War.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Red Cavalry is a series of short stories which observe the invasion of the Soviet Cossacks into Poland in the war with that Slavic nation in 1920. Polish dictator Pilduski's forces beat back the Soviets. Red Cavalry is told by an intellectual glasses wearing Jewish reporter for "The Red Soldier" newspaper. Babel's fictional reporter comments on interesting characters in the Cossack cavalry ranks; Polish peasants and horses that are highly prized by the author. Babel opens our eyes to the cruel and sudden violence and tragedy in war by reporting several gruesome scenes during the short war.
This Penguin edition also includes earlier stories by Babel and several short stories on the Jewish criminal world in Odessa. One of the most shocking of the early tales deals with the loss of a Jewish lad's story of an anti-Semitic pogrom in his village. Babel deserves a wider readership than is granted him in Anglo-American literary circles. The author writes with a poetic pen while never letting his readers escape from the harshly cruel world he is describing. Read Babel and enrich your reading horizons!
Babel uses a modernist approach in the manner in which he characterizes the narrator who frames the story. His identity emerges in a slow, fragmentary way. In the third story, "A Letter," we learn he is literate when he writes "a letter home to the motherland" (96) dictated to him by an illiterate Cossack. Several stories later in "Gedali" we learn he is Jewish, and in the immediately succeeding story, "My First Goose," we are informed he is educated, a law graduate from St. Petersburg University. Yet it is not until we are approximately two-thirds through the collection that we learn his name when a Cossack addresses him incongruously as "Lyutov" (184). Incongruous, because Lyutov means ferocious in Russian, and is a strange name for an intellectual with spectacles on his face and autumn in his heart. Throughout the collection the narrator's benign nature is juxtaposed with the ferocity of the other characters. Although he feigns toughness, " `One eats it with gunpowder,' I replied to the old man. `And seasons it with the finest blood ...' " (118), he is unable to execute when the situation demands it. When a dying Cossack asks Lyutov to kill him to put him out of his misery, Lyutov cannot pull the trigger, and the platoon commander must perform the unpleasant deed, admonishing Lyutov: "You four-eyed lot have as much pity for us as a cat has for a mouse" (135). In a similar vein, in "After the Battle," Lyutov refuses to return fire when a Pole shoots at him. As the skirmish ends, exhausted, he begs "fate for the simplest of abilities-the ability to kill a man" (222). Killing a goose induces anxiety: "I had dreams and saw women in my dreams, and only my heart, stained crimson with murder, squeaked and overflowed" (123). Upset over killing an animal for food, he is unable to consummate sexual intercourse. The narrator is an anti-hero. He fails with women; he cannot kill the enemy in war; he can do nothing well but write.
Victor Erlich suggests that Babel's tendency to "juxtapose contraries" is a shaping force in the author's art. One need go no further than the start of the first story, "Crossing the Zbrucz," to demonstrate the contrary styles of Babel's writing:
Nachdiv 6 has reported that Novograd-Volynsk was taken at dawn today. The staff has moved out of Krapivno, and our transport is strung like a noisy rearguard along the high road, along the unfading high road that goes from Brest to Warsaw and was built on the bones of muzhiks by Nicholas I.
Fields of purple poppies flower around us, the noonday wind is playing in the yellowing rye, the virginal buckwheat rises on the horizon like the wall of a distant monastery. The quiet Volyn is curving. The Volyn is withdrawing from us into a pearly mist of birch groves, it is creeping away into flowery knolls and entangling itself with enfeebled arms in thickets of hops. An orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head, a gentle radiance glows in the ravines of the thunderclouds and the standards of the sunset float above our heads. The odour of yesterday's blood and of slain horses drips into the evening coolness. (91)
This passage is beautifully lyrical and at the same time barbaric, juxtaposing nature and violence. It begins as a military report, continues with a lyrical description of the countryside with its purple poppies, yellowing rye, flowery knolls, and pearly mist of birch groves, then abruptly moves into violence as the orange sun becomes a severed head and the odor of blood and slain horses permeates the evening coolness.
In a similar vein, the penultimate story, "The Rebbe's Son," demonstrates Ehrlich's view that incongruity forms a part of the structure of the collection. As the narrator begins to pack a dying Jewish soldier's belongings into a trunk, he notes:
Portraits of Lenin and Maimonides lay side by side. Lenin's nodulous skull and the tarnished silk of the portraits of Maimonides. A strand of female hair had been placed in a book of the resolutions of the Sixth Party Congress, and in the margins of communist leaflets swarmed crooked lines of Ancient Hebrew verse. In a sad and meager rain they fell on me-pages of the Song of Songs and revolver cartridges. (226-27).
A portrait of the father of the Russian Revolution lies beside a portrait of one of the great Jewish philosophers and Talmudic scholars of the Middle Ages. Hebrew verse appears in the margins of communist leaflets. Ammunition and pages of the Hebrew Bible are strewn together. Babel brings together the incongruous and is able to make shocking contrasts because he is writing about a revolution. Revolution is chaos. Chaos cannot be depicted in an orderly manner.
 Victor Erlich. Modernism and Revolution: Russian Literature in Transition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994, p. 150.
Babel's style and his short stories (many times as short as half a page) ask to be read with a level of engagement that many are incapable of. Luckily the stories are both easy and enjoyable to re-read and offer much to be considered and mulled over - though his stories are in prose they demand the attention and interaction of poetry.
Babel is a unique and interesting writer, and his stories are by no means light reading. Presenting moral questions of persecution, violence and conflicting identities (ethnic, religious, political - to name a few) Babel is a Russian writer to be savored.
One note on this Penguin edition: the notes are lacking compared to most Penguin Classics publications and the translation begs for these notes to have been better compiled and expanded. Many words are left untranslated and many times translations are made in an attempt to maintain a Polish or Russian sound - which though wonderful for those that have the knowledge or time to appreciate it is for anyone else an unnecessary distraction from Babel's writing.