Friday, June 10, 2011

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Isaac Babel

Isaac Babel Red Cavalry and Other Stories Translated with an introduction by David McDuff Edited with notes by Efraim Sicher Penguin Classics, 2005

I was surprised by how difficult I found this book, especially the famed Red Cavalry series. I’d read plenty of Russian literature and lots of modernism; I cockily assumed this book wouldn’t pose any difficulty.

Instead I found that, after the series of “Autobiographical Stories”, this was a book that consistently required (and rewarded) two cups of strong coffee and my full attention. Perhaps it was the density of language and detail -- or maybe I am just unaccustomed to battle stories, where the quality of one's horse may turn out to matter more than anything else.

I thought it might be helpful to offer a little advice to others like myself – earnest types of middling intelligence – who wish to make a serious attempt to read Babel.

I suggest buying both of the popular translations. Passages that seem opaque in one, may be perfectly understandable in the other.Peter Constantine’s translation is sometimes more readable and the imprimatur of Nathalie Babel cannot be ignored. However, when I got really bogged down, I appreciated David McDuff’s selection. His introduction to the stories was particularly helpful. (Unlike the notes, which were divided into two sections and drove me nuts.)

Whenever I thought the Constantine translation was better, there’d be a paragraph from McDuff that couldn’t be improved upon. (I have no clue as to the accuracy of the translations. I only mean that I found some passages so beautiful and funny I did not care if they were correct or not!)

“I felt sorry about that stallion. He was a little Bolshevik. Red as a copper coin, a tail like a bullet, legs like strings. I’d planned to take him to Lenin alive, but it didn’t work out. I liquidated that little horse. It tumbled down like a bride. . .”(157)

Or, my favorite, “God has given us, his lickspittles, the slip. Our destiny is a turkey, our life is a copeck, stop using those words and hear, if you will, a letter from Lenin”(148).

I was impressed by how much a three page story could contain. A downright exhausting amount, it turns out. The Red Cavalry stories are like a group of lurid paintings from which it is impossible to look away.

Unlike the Red Cavalry series, which I found difficult, most of the autobiographical and Odessa stories are told in the deceptively cozy style of the village storyteller and are immediately accessible -- and sometimes unforgettable. When I got frustrated, I’d reread “The King” an elegant and funny story as perfectly constructed as a mousetrap.

It took me three tries and several dozen hours to finally finish all these stories but I was glad that I persisted -- and grateful for the help I had along the way.

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