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 Emmanuelovich Babel
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 on Isaac Emmanuelovich Babel
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 Biography Sources
Falen, James E., Isaac Babel, Russian master of the short story, Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press 1974.