Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel (1926)

17 January, 2012

Red Cavalry is a collection of 35 short stories written by Russian-Jewish author Isaac Babel. It’s based on his experiences with General Budenny’s First Cavalry Army during its ill-fated attempt to invade Poland and spread the Bolshevik Revolution West into Europe in the summer of 1920.

The stories are very short and sometimes very brutal and characterised by unexpected phrases and imagery. But this summary doesn’t quite capture the complexity of his affects; in my option these are created because the texts operate like collages or cubism by harshly juxtaposing widely contrasting styles, perspectives, voices, attitudes. These include:

  • descriptions of the ancient Jewish communities he comes across in Poland, their poverty and superstitions
  • his inner voice, entranced by childhood memories of Talmuds and Jewish scholarly lore
  • the disdainful scepticism of an urban, rational, revolutionary, post-religious Jew
  • his need, as a speccy four-eyes intellectual, to be accepted as one of them by the brute, animal Cossacks
  • his unillusioned descriptions of extreme violence, murder, rape, evisceration
  • the rapturous imagery of his dreams, and his lyrical descriptions of night, twilight, the stars and moon
  • his apparent devotion to the Revolution, evinced by his enthusiasm for Lenin and Trotsky’s speeches
  • contrasted with the actual stories which show, as the old Jew Gidali points out, no difference at all between the terrorism of the Revolution and the terrorism of the counter-Revolution

In very short spaces, styles, voices, attitudes clash and interweave, often shockingly. It feels great, truly great.

Morality has no jurisdiction over revolution. On the contrary, revolution has jurisdiction over ethics. (V. Veshnev)

Babel as a pagan; all flesh is real; the world is real; the world is all that is the case. There is no Christian hankering after another world which is better than this one.

Making Babel a Lawrentian. Certainly in line with the ‘around-1914’ revolt against Victorian didacticism, moralising, Christianity, or the limp-wristed decadence of the 1890s, Babel is part of the move towards a full-blooded, violent paganism.

The brutality of Babel’s stories includes a Nietzschean thread which despises petit bourgeois morality. This appealed to Bolshevik critics. Babel’s amorality, his unflinching depiction of brutalities, reflected the Nietzschean rising-above servile Christian morality of the new Overman of the Revolution.

Babel exults in his protagonists being Beyond Good and Evil. They just are, forces of Nature, humanity in all its inhumanity.

Babel’s amorality amounts to a taking-life-as-it-is. Authors can give opinions about this stories by explicit comment, tone of voice, or plot (eg baddies get their comeuppance). Babel uses a very modernist technique of inconsequentialisation ie making what would have been a major event in a bourgeois 19th century story, deliberately peripheral or inconsequential. For example, the Jew having his throat cut might have been the centre of a 19th century short story, but for Babel is an inconsequential detail in a story dedicated to his wandering up to the old castle.

To you or me this might just look as if the Russians are brutal and cruel by nature.

Edition

I read a lovely old library edition, translated by Walter Morison with an introduction by Lionel Trilling. The old Penguin edition has the same translations. The new Penguin edition is translated by David McDuff.

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