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1920 Diary (Yale Nota Bene)


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Isaac Babel was born in Odessa in 1894 and was shot in Lubyanka prison in 1940. Carol J. Avins is associate professor of Russian literature at Rutgers University.


Babel's experiences as a half-hearted Cossack in the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-1920. (July)

"Babel's 1920 Diary, the source for many of his remarkable Red Cavalry stories, is itself as remarkable as the stories, particularly when one considers that the diarist was a journalist of only twenty-six. The staccato sentences in which Babel rapidly describes the horrific details of revolutionary brutality have the impact of an accomplished style, one that in its spontaneously elliptical way is strangely no less artful than the artfully nuanced directness that is the triumph of Red Cavalry." Philip Roth "An electrifying translation accompanied by an indispensable introduction... Babel's journey is a Jewish lamentation... a tragic masterwork." Cynthia Ozick, The New Republic "A precursor of Holocaust literature, and more powerful in its effect than any Holocaust literature that I have managed to read." Harold Bloom, New York Times Book Review Selected as a Notable Book of the Year (1995) by the New York Times Book Review.

Published in English for the first time, this slender work records noted Russian writer Babel's experiences as a correspondent with a troop of Cossacks during the Russo-Polish war (1919-1920). Amid the destruction and cruelty, perhaps the most compelling factor here is Babel himself: apparently hiding his Jewish identity, at times deeply moved by the Jewish communities he visits, at others distancing himself as a "Russian" from their petty concerns and real sufferings, he tells them "fairy tales" (which he does not believe) about the achievements and future of the revolution and is both fascinated and repulsed by the Cossacks and their violence and awed by the "un-Russian" cleanliness and culture of the Poles. Most entries are brief, telegraphic notes to spur the memory and call out scenes or people to be described later. The diary in fact became the basis for Cavalerie Rouge (1983); readers familiar with those stories will find the relation between Babel's first impressions and the finished work fascinating.‘Richard Kuczkowski, Dominican Coll., Blauvelt, N.Y.

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