Isaac Babel

First published as the introduction to Isaac Babel: The Collected Stories, edited by Walter Morison (New York: Criterion Books, Inc., 1955). Also published as "Isaac Babel: Torn Between Violence and Peace" in Commentary, June 1955.


A good many years ago, in 1929, I chanced to read a book which disturbed me in a way I can still remember. The book was called Red Cavalry; it was a collection of stories about the Soviet regiments of horse operating in Poland. I had never heard of the author, Isaac Babel—or I. Babel as he signed himself—and nobody had anything to tell me about him, and part of my disturbance was the natural shock we feel when, suddenly and without warning, we confront a new talent of great energy and boldness. But the book was disturbing for other reasons as well.

In those days one still spoke of the “Russian experiment” and one might still believe that the light of dawn glowed on the test tubes and crucibles of human destiny. And it was still possible to have very strange expectations of the new culture that would arise from the Revolution. I do not remember what my own particular expectations were, except that they involved a desire for an art that would have as little ambiguity as a proposition in logic. Why I wanted this I don’t wholly understand. It was as if I had hoped that the literature of the Revolution would realize some simple, inadequate notion of the “classical” which I had picked up at college; and perhaps I was drawn to this notion of the classical because I was afraid of the literature of modern Europe, because I was scared of its terrible intensities, ironies, and ambiguities. If this is what I really felt, I can’t say that I am now wholly ashamed of my cowardice. If we stop to think of the museum knowingness about art which we are likely to acquire with maturity, of our consumer’s pride in buying only the very best spiritual commodities, the ones which are sure to give satisfaction, there may possibly be a grace in those moments when we lack the courage to confront, or the strength to endure, some particular work of art or kind of art. At any rate, here was Babel’s book and I found it disturbing. It was obviously the most remarkable work of fiction that had yet come out of revolutionary Russia, the only work, indeed, that I knew of as having upon it the mark of exceptional talent, even of genius. Yet for me it was all too heavily charged with the intensity, irony, and ambiguousness from which I wished to escape.

Commentary Magazine
Google Books - essay in The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent
Isaac Babel: The Collected Stories