RED CAVALRY BY ISAAC BABEL

It took me quite a long time to realise that I’m a bit odd. Seriously, for ages I thought I was perfectly normal. Then, a minor epiphany. I was in my room with this girl, who just wanted to get it on, had been impatiently waiting, I later learned, to get in on with me for a couple of hours, and I was rambling on about some Hungarian novel I was reading and trying to convince her of how great the production on Cam’ron’s Oh Boy is when she said to me: ‘you’re really eccentric.’ ‘Bollocks I am,’ I replied. She looked at me affectionately, but with a disbelieving smirk. ‘Don’t you want to kiss me?’ she asked. ‘Sure, why not,’ I said. And we did get it on in the end. But by being the first person ever to say it to my face it brought home to me that, while I’m so wrapped up in myself and my peculiar preoccupations, my behaviour might strike other people as unusual. Like the time I let a spider live in my room because when I went to kill it it appeared to flinch.; or when I decided to walk home from another town, a journey that took me roughly 5 hours, in the wind and rain, because I didn’t want to wait ten minutes for the next bus. Anyway, most of the time I am just that, just eccentric, but sometimes it morphs into something more heavy duty.

All this is a way of working up to a confession that I’ve been feeling pretty weird lately. Not depressed, just kind of disconnected. It’s as though no one can touch me, nothing can draw a genuine reaction from me; I feel as though I am living behind glass. Everything becomes difficult at these times, everything becomes a chore, even the briefest interaction [although I’m good at faking, at being able to cover my tracks]. This isn’t a new state of affairs; I periodically have these episodes. It’ll pass; it always does. I mention it because my response to this, my second reading of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry stories, was, in a sense, inauthentic; and that bothers me. That’s not to say that Red Cavalry isn’t a moving reading experience. It is. As acknowledged, I’ve read it before and it damn near killed me on that occasion. But I do wonder if perhaps my choosing to read it again now was a cynical tactic to try and shock myself out of my current mood. I don’t like that; I am aware of my guilt in using these terrible events, whether fictional or not, as a kind of electric shock therapy.

I feel like the best, most honest, thing I can do, then, is to write about my first reading. I can vividly recall my response to the opening story in this collection when I started it a couple of years ago. My initial reaction was a kind of relief, and excitement. I knew immediately that Babel was a great writer. It was one image, the description of the sun as like a severed head that did it. That still gives me a literary hard-on. However, that admiration soon turned to apprehension as I reached the end of the short tale. A description of the details of this story, in anything other than Babel’s words, would, I think, fall short. But, to avoid quoting large sections of the text [and these stories are, on average, only a couple of pages in length anyway], I’ll say briefly that it involves a man bunking down in a room with a few others. During the night he is woken by a woman, who tells him that he has been kicking her dad in his sleep. Her dad, it turns out, is dead; has been hacked to pieces. It’s the fact that the girl is so concerned about her dead father, about the sanctity of his body, that slays you. He is the best father in the world, where would I find another father like this, she says. Jesus Christ. And you might be shouting at the screen right now: stop spoiling it, you prick. But I don’t need to worry about spoilers, in this instance, because these stories don’t rely on twists and turns; indeed, there’s a horrible inevitability to them, a brutal matter-of-factness [despite the superior prose].

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[Red Cavalry by Kazimir Malévichy – 1930]

I intended, when I came to write a review of this, to spend some time discussing Lenin, the Cossacks, the Reds and the Whites, but I’ve realised that none of that stuff is necessary. For those that are interested in that kind of thing, Isaac Babel was present during the conflicts he writes about [he was a commander in Semyon Budyonny’s 1st Cavalry Army], and the people who pass through and the incidents [in the broadest sense] he describes or namechecks are real. Yet, to make a big deal of that side of things means one is in danger of giving the impression that these stories will only appeal to a small readership – Russian historians, or whatever – and that is not the case. There’s a universality on display here. This could be any war, really; any battle. And the miserable nature of war, the awful ways that people are capable of behaving towards each other are not specific to any time or era or particular incident. I say awful things, by the way, because there is very little to cheer you up here, there really isn’t any positivity. In, say, War & Peace there are those moments, those moments of camaraderie for example, that might warm your heart. You’ll be looking for a long time if you try finding those in Red Cavalry.

I’ve mentioned in other reviews that generally speaking I find short stories unsatisfactory. Babel, to a large extent, side-steps those aspects of short stories that I struggle with. These stories work as snapshots, as parts of a broader picture. It’s like someone taking a huge painting and cutting it up into smaller pieces, and showing them to you piece by piece, thereby drawing your eye to the little details you might have missed. I liked that. It appeals to me far more than 20-30 stories that are all about completely different things, themes, events shoved together in one volume.  There is some continuity of characters too; and that helps to unify the work.

I want to touch on one last thing before I finish. My review of Babel’s Collected Stories is one line, this one:

‘Prose to die for. Literally.’

That strikes me as just shitty sloganeering now, but what I meant by it is Isaac Babel, who did not, or would not, write about the events he witnessed in such a way as to glorify the Russian people and the Russian government, who would not always uncritically toe the party line, was eventually arrested, tortured and killed by his own people [I read somewhere that it was actually due to his having an affair with the wife of NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov, but that seems odd to me]. According to Nathalie Babel Brown:

“…his trial took place on January 26, 1940, in one of Lavrenti Beria’s private chambers. It lasted about twenty minutes. The sentence had been prepared in advance and without ambiguity: death by firing squad, to be carried out immediately. Babel had been convicted of ‘active participation in an anti-Soviet Trotskyite organization,’ and of ‘being a member of a terrorist conspiracy, as well as spying for the French and Austrian governments.’ Babel’s last recorded words in the proceedings were, ‘I am innocent. I have never been a spy. I never allowed any action against the Soviet Union. I accused myself falsely. I was forced to make false accusations against myself and others… I am asking for only one thing — let me finish my work.’ He was shot the next day and his body was thrown into a communal grave.”

I guess that puts things in perspective.

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