The Collected Short Stories of Isaac Babel
Edited by Nathalie Babel, translated by Peter Constantine
I bought the collected short stories for my brother’s birthday in January last year and had to buy my own copy after flicking through his; flicking through book-gifts is something I never do but couldn’t resist this time. At first I was so overwhelmed by it that I couldn’t think of how to review it other than just by typing READ THIS BOOK in capitals. Tonight I was planning one of those “books and music I discovered in 2007” posts and it was the first thing I thought of. Then it started to overshadow everything else.
The stories are in three major groups: the Odessa stories, gangster tales which are like Damon Runyon rewritten by Isaac Bashevis Singer, only about hundred times better than that. The Red Cavalry cycle, Babel’s most famous series, describes the war between the Soviet Army and Poland in the 1920s. The later stories, such as ‘The Story of my Dovecote’, are beyond comparison with anything else I’ve read.
Babel’s life story is terrifying: he remained in the Soviet Union after most of his family had fled – “I am a Russian writer. If I did not live with the Russian people, I would cease being a writer. I would be like a fish out of water” – and was killed by Stalin’s secret police in 1940. Doing Google searches on Babel revealed the blogs of many students who had been set his stories in literature courses, complaining that they couldn’t relate to them. These were the scariest things I found on the internet last year.