1920 Diary by Isaac Babel

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The Russian writer Isaac Babel (1894-1940) is acknowledged to be one of the great masters of 20th century literature, hailed as a genius by such critics as Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe. The work for which he is best known is a cycle of stories called "Red Cavalry", which depicts the exploits of the Cossack cavalry during the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-1920 and is based on Babel's experiences as he rode with the Cossacks during the campaign. Babel kept a diary during this period, in which he recorded the devastation of the war, the extreme cruelty of the Polish and Red armies alike towards the Jewish population in the Ukraine and Eastern Poland, and his own conflicted role as both Soviet revolutionary and Jew. The "1920 Diary" was a vital source for "Red Cavalry" as well as a compelling narrative. The "1920 Diary" is a contemporary account of the tragedy of Eastern European Jewry during this period. The diary also yields insights into Babel's personal evolution, showing his youthful curiosity and his anguish as, frequently concealing his own Jewish identity, he mingled with the victimized Jews of the region's shtetls and with his Cossack comrades. Finally, the diary sheds light on Babel's artistic development, revealing the path of the Red Cavalry cycle.

About Isaac Babel

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Isaac Babel was born in Odessa, Russia, in 1894. He won early success with stories about his native Odessa and about the exploits of the Bolshevik cavalry in the Polish campaign of 1920-21. During the 1930s his output was small, but his talent remained undiminished. He was arrested in May 1939 during the Great Purge, and his manuscripts were confiscated. His exact fate remains unknown. Although Babel's reputation was restored in 1956, he was still published only occasionally in the Soviet Union-the very strong Jewish element in his stories, as well as the ambiguous positions he took on war and revolution, made his stories uncomfortable for Soviet authorities. For a Russian reader, the Odessa Tales (1916) are particularly exotic. Their protagonists, members of the city's Jewish underworld, are presented in romantic, epic terms. The Red Cavalry stories are noted for their account of the horrors of war. In both cycles Babel relies on precisely constructed short plots, on paradox of situation and of character response, and on nonstandard, captivating language-be it the combination of Yiddish, slang, and standard Russian in the Odessa Tales or of uneducated Cossack speech and standard Russian in the Red Cavalry cycle. The result of such features is a prose heritage rare in the history of Russian literature. Isaac Babel passed away in 1941.
Published April 26, 1995 by Yale University Press. 184 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, History, Religion & Spirituality, Travel. Non-fiction

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Publishers Weekly

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

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London Review of Books

It is not news, because the single work that made Babel a famous writer – the short story collection Red Cavalry – is based on his experiences that summer, when he turned 26, at the First Cavalry Army HQ in a Volhynian village.

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