The Es­sen­tial Fic­tions

Isaac Ba­bel Val Vi­nokur (Trans­la­tor)

Foreword Reviews - - Reviews Adult Fiction - KAREN RIGBY

North­west­ern Univer­sity Press (NOVEM­BER) Soft­cover $21.95 (424pp) 978-0-8101-3595-6

Ba­bel’s re­mark­able abil­ity to por­tray self-preser­va­tion stands out.

Born in Odessa and known for his tragi­comic, of­ten vi­o­lent col­lages of Jewish char­ac­ters, Isaac Ba­bel is hon­ored in The Es­sen­tial Fic­tions, a gen­er­ous vol­ume of sto­ries from trans­la­tor and editor Val Vi­nokur. To­gether, these sto­ries ex­am­ine the seamy rooms and bold imag­i­na­tion of a master whose trick­sters, stu­dents, as­pir­ing writ­ers, gang­sters, and ev­ery­man nar­ra­tors left a last­ing im­pres­sion on twen­ti­eth-cen­tury lit­er­a­ture.

Writ­ten largely be­tween 1916 and 1933, these se­lec­tions braid au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal nos­tal­gia with lurid scenes, death with im­pas­sioned ob­ser­va­tion, and mod­ernism with flour­ishes be­fit­ting tall tales. Amid poverty and oc­ca­sional glimpses of decadence, Odessa and its out­skirts are crisply en­livened.

Ba­bel’s vi­sion of the port city—which al­lows as much room for mu­sic as mur­der—weaves to­gether in­ci­dents that high­light a hard­ened prag­ma­tism. From a liar who rein­vents him­self through sto­ry­telling to si­b­lings who plot against their fa­ther, these char­ac­ters act on dark hu­man in­stincts.

De­spite the dif­fi­cult paths that many of Ba­bel’s cast find, there’s sel­dom cyn­i­cism be­hind the work. One of his leg­endary in­ven­tions, Benya Krik—a crim­i­nal dubbed “King” by his fel­lows—ap­pears with an ex­ag­ger­ated de­light that sug­gests fas­ci­na­tion with ex­tremes. When real threats oc­cur, in­clud­ing a 1905 pogrom, they’re em­bed­ded in art­ful scenes that turn the fo­cus to­ward the nar­ra­tors.

Ba­bel’s re­mark­able abil­ity to por­tray self-preser­va­tion stands out. No mat­ter their rea­sons, his char­ac­ters pos­sess a will to live that out­strips their harsh sur­round­ings. Sto­ries that might seem heart­less in an­other historical con­text be­come fine ex­am­ples of macabre hu­mor here.

The Red Cavalry strikes a more se­ri­ous tone that is fur­ther from ro­man­ti­ciz­ing. Its sto­ries, set dur­ing the Pol­ish-soviet War, take on the grim fea­tures of re­portage. Amid sav­agery, note­wor­thy de­par­tures in­clude “Pan Apolek,” the tale of a painter whose re­li­gious fres­coes in­spire con­tro­versy, and “The Ceme­tery in Kozin,” which lays a fam­ily’s history bare in the span of a few para­graphs.

Vi­nokur, a poet and Guggen­heim fel­low, brings the gift of a rhyth­mic trans­la­tion. A cen­tury later, Ba­bel’s voice con­tin­ues to un­set­tle and be­guile.

Amid poverty and oc­ca­sional glimpses of decadence, Odessa and its out­skirts are crisply en­livened.

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