If you want to write a better short story, read Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry. It’s that simple. Jesus’ Son? Johnson readily admits he ripped off Babel. George Saunders claims Babel freed him. Even Hemingway might concede In Our Time contains Babel’s stamp.
Like all writers of his generation, Babel witnessed major historical events: the Russian Revolution, World War I, and the rise and dominance of Stalin, who would later order Babel’s execution. Sent as a journalist to the Polish-Soviet War, he reported on the Soviet Union’s campaign to occupy Poland. His diary of the time was the germ for the stories in Red Cavalry. Babel brought a unique perspective as a bookish Ukrainian Jew to the brute force of Soviet soldiering. This encounter provided his subject matter, but like all great autobiographical writers, he transcends his own life. What is so stunning about Babel’s writing is not what, but how.
He’s one of the first twentieth-century writers to stitch the romantic and the real. This passage from the opening story, “Crossing the Zbrucz,” is a prime example: “Fields of scarlet poppies blossom around us, a midday breeze plays in the yellowing rye, and virgin buckwheat rises on the horizon like the wall of a distant monastery. The quiet Volyn bends. Volyn recedes from us into the pearly mist of birch groves and creeps into the flowery hills, its feeble arms getting tangled in thickets of hops. An orange sun rolls across the sky like a severed head, a gentle light glitters in the ravines of clouds, and the banners of sunset flutter over our heads. The scent of yesterday’s blood and dead horses seeps into the evening coolness.” Babel lingers on the beauty of the terrain, the natural world, but just as the reader might grow bored of his descriptions, no matter how rich, Babel hits us with that “severed head” and “yesterday’s blood.” Tucked into the searing natural beauty of the world is the reality of mankind’s perennial violence.
The narrator enters a squalid room, orders the people to clean up, and after he falls asleep, a woman awakens him: “‘Pan… You’re screaming in your sleep, thrashing around. I’ll make your bed in the other corner. Because you’re shoving my papa.’” He sees papa with his “gullet ripped out, his face is hacked in two.” She says, “The Poles were slashing him, and he kept saying, ‘Kill me in the backyard so my daughter doesn’t see me die’… And now you tell me… you tell me where else in this whole world you’ll find a father like my father…’” End of story. Notice how Babel doesn’t enter the narrator’s consciousness. We see our cocksure narrator become witness to both man’s brutality and altruism in a moment, an experience that will change him forever—or so the reader is left to conclude.
“Crossing the Zbrucz” is three pages. A quick glance at the page count in the table of contents in the excellent new edition by Pushkin Press (Is anyone putting out more satisfying books to hold in one’s hands than Pushkin these days?) will show that Babel’s longest story is nine pages. Most are five. Cutting and concision remain hallmarks of Babel’s style. Tolstoy put Napoleon on the hilltop in his thousand-plus pages, but Babel doesn’t concern himself with capturing the whole. He strikes at the mud, the hamlets, and shtetls, and he returns with beautiful miniatures. Think less the slithering bodies of Rodin, more the quiet geometry of Brancusi.
Still, Babel has the consciousness of the cosmos. An awareness of the universe following its course allows Babel to comment on the meaninglessness of human endeavor. The violent acts we commit with so much self-importance are so many grains of sand tossed to the wind. The result is a sort of cosmic joke. “My First Goose,” perhaps the most famous story in the collection, is not about owning a first goose but about killing one. The narrator, accused of being too intellectual, steps on a goose’s head to gain the acceptance of a group of Cossack soldiers. As this folly plays out, Babel writes, “The moon hung over the yard like a cheap earring.” Later, “Evening enveloped me in the bracing dampness of its twilight sheets—evening laid its palms on my burning forehead.” And the penultimate line: “There were six of us, huddling together for warmth, our legs tangled, under a roof full of holes that let in the stars.” The universe is by turns cheapened by our acts, but there’s also indifference and compassion. The ability to invoke the grander scheme amidst dramatic action places Babel at Shakespeare’s table.
As was typical in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Babel went the way of the emerging violent world he charted early on. Cheka goons came knocking on his door with their leather gloves, wearing their leather coats, and carrying their Nagent revolvers, a typical visit for so many writers and artists in the late Twenties and Thirties. They removed, tortured, and then shot Babel after a twenty-minute mock trial (these details only came to light in the Nineties). They stole Babel’s life, his future writing, but they also took what was written: every shred of his correspondence, diaries, and manuscripts. Nothing has surfaced. What brilliance existed in those pages? Writers visiting Babel saw mounds of paper stacked on his desk. Babel joked—he was a notorious joker—“This is what I’ve cut.” More likely, it was what he hadn’t published. So often when faced with the brutality of the twentieth century, we must console ourselves: At least we have the masterpiece that is Red Cavalry.
Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel