Isaac Emmanuelovich Babel

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Isaac Emmanuelovich Babel

The Russian writer Isaac Emmanuelovich Babel (1894-1941) was a master of the short story. His compact, vivid stories of Jewish life in the Odessa of his childhood and of the Russian Revolution are written with great subtlety and intense moral passion.

Isaac Babel was born on July 1, 1894, in Odessa to middle-class orthodox Jewish parents. As a boy, he studied the Bible and the Talmud intensively at home, and at school he was an outstanding student, writing stories in French by the time he was 15. He absorbed a detailed knowledge of Jewish life and culture, which he used in many of his later stories. In 1915 he left home for St. Petersburg, where he was befriended by the writer Maxim Gorky, who as a magazine editor published two of Babel's stories in 1916. The Russian authorities, however, labeled the stories subversive and indecent, and Babel would have been prosecuted but for the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917.

For the next few years Babel abandoned literature. He engaged in political, journalistic, and administrative activities for the Bolsheviks, and in 1920 he became a political commissar in a Cossack cavalry regiment fighting for the Bolsheviks in Poland. This experience was the basis of short stories he began publishing in 1923, which were collected in the volume Red Cavalry (1926) and established his fame. They are stories of extreme brutality, violence, and cruelty, often told with grim, ironic humor. Babel's style is ornate, with colorful imagery and startling metaphors, while his technique of moral understatement emphasizes shock and moral impact.

Babel's stories of Jewish life in Odessa, in a collection first published in 1926 but subsequently augmented, are largely based on his own, often painful boyhood and youth. "The Story of My Dovecote" recounts the terrifying experiences he and his family suffered as victims of a pogrom, or organized massacre. There are also extravagantly humorous tales of gangsters in the Odessa underworld.

Babel lived in France periodically from 1928 to 1934. He found writing increasingly difficult in the oppressive environment of Soviet literature during the 1930s. Although recognized as a major author, he was viewed with suspicion by U.S.S.R. authorities and published little during this period. He was arrested by the Soviet secret police on unspecified charges in 1939 and died in a Siberian concentration camp on March 17, 1941.

Babel's name was officially obliterated from the annals of Soviet literature for the 15 years following his arrest. In 1954 he was formally rehabilitated, and many of his works have been reprinted since then.

Further Reading

The most thorough biographical account of Babel is in his own The Lonely Years, 1925-1939: Unpublished Stories and Private Correspondence, edited by Nathalie Babel (trans. 1964). There are valuable additional accounts, including reminiscences of the writer by his contemporaries, in Babel's You Must Know Everything: Stories, 1915-1937, edited by Nathalie Babel (trans. 1969). Both volumes contain important stories never before published. Interesting interpretations of his writing are in the introduction by Lionel Trilling to Babel's Collected Stories (1955), and in Edward J. Brown, Russian Literature since the Revolution (1963).

Additional Sources

Falen, James E., Isaac Babel, Russian master of the short story, Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press 1974. □

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Isaac Emmanuelovich Babel (ē´säk əmänōōā´ləvĬch bä´bəl), 1894–1940, Russian writer, b. Odessa. Babel was quick to embrace the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, but in the end it was the regime born of that revolution that destroyed him. He won fame with Odessa Tales (1921–23), written in Russian-Jewish dialect, and Red Cavalry (1926, tr. 1929), dramatic stories based on his life in the army (he had concealed his Jewish identity) and employing the racy slang of the Kuban Cossacks with whom he rode. The original journal from which this book was written, 1920 Journal, was published in Russia as the Soviet Union disintegrated and translated into English in 1995. A brilliant litarary stylist, he wrote a uniquely terse and forceful prose, combining astringent Jewish irony with Russian caricature, lyricism with brutality, and comedy with bleakly grave subject matter. He also wrote the novel Benia Krik (1927) about an Odessan Jewish gangster, and turned to drama with Sunset (1928) and Maria (1935). Babel was criticized by the Communist party during the 1930s, arrested in 1939, and executed in 1940 after a 20-minute trial. After Stalin's death, some of his works were republished in censored form in the Soviet Union. Translations of his best stories appear in Collected Stories (1955) and You Must Know Everything (1969). The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, edited by his daughter Nathalie, was published in English translation in 2001.

See memoir by his companion, Antonina Pirozhkova (tr. 1996); biography by J. Charyn (2005); studies by P. Carden (1972), R. W. Hallett (1972), J. E. Falen (1974), D. Mendelson (1982), M. Ehre (1986), and R. Mann (1994).

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Babel, Isaac Emmanuelovich (1894–1941) Russian short-story writer. Babel's works, many of which are informed by his military service and experience of persecution, include Tales of Odessa (1924) and Red Cavalry (1926). He died in a Siberian concentration camp, a victim of Stalin's purges.