Coping with Life and Death: Jewish Families in the Twentieth Century

By Peter Y. Medding | Go to book overview
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Language, Literature and the Arts
Isaac Babel, 1920 Diary, ed. Carol J. Avins, trans. H. T. Willets. New Haven and
London: Yale University Press, 1995. lvii + 126 pp.

Isaac Babel's diary has a threefold importance: not only a mirror of a period in the writer's life and a basis for a cycle of thirty-four stories published six years later as the Red Cavalry, it is an extremely important document of its time. It has emerged from oblivion at the end of the twentieth century to tell us about the Russian civil war of the 1920s, characterized by the same patterns of intolerance, unbridled instincts and beastly cruelty that we witness again and again.

According to the legend created by Babel in his later autobiography, the young writer, following the advice of Maxim Gorky, went out into the world to gain experience. After a series of adventures, he became a war correspondent in the First Cavalry, which was comprised mainly of antisemitic Cossacks. The twenty-six-yearold man of letters survived, it seems, largely thanks to his intellectual baggage and basic humanity. It is striking, though, to see how Babel's diary entries over time become less an expression of interest in the world around him (both natural and cultural) and more a series of complaints about the lack of food, his bad physical condition and exhaustion (“I'm an outsider, in long trousers, I don't belong, I'm all alone …” [p. 51]).

The material for the future Red Cavalry is under preparation here. We observe Babel's ambivalence about his Jewishness—he belongs organically to his people and at the same time finds them repelling. He lies to his fellow Jews, hiding his Jewishness. Attending synagogue, he is moved by the service but unable to follow it in his prayer book. This discrepancy, a psychological byproduct of the Jewish assimilation of the twentieth century, is experienced in Babel's case very deeply. Nor is his ambivalence confined to Jewishness. Babel is enchanted by the Cossacks' masculinity and theatrical appearance, the scenic effects of the cruelty. This admiration, coupled with horror, regarding those possessed of power will be used by Babel in his Red Cavalry as an important component of another doubleness: his ambivalent reaction to the Soviet system. At times, such doubleness results in paradox: “Our men were looting last night, tossed out the Torah scrolls in the synagogue …” (p. 85). Jewish concerns play a less central role in the Red Cavalry stories, but here we can see much of the raw material that was later transmuted into artistic narrative.

This impressive Yale edition—European colleagues may well envy the financial support that enabled its publication—provides the text of the diary with a full apparatus criticus. The learned, forty-two page introduction by Carol Avins supplies all of


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Coping with Life and Death: Jewish Families in the Twentieth Century
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