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Red Cavalry, Isaac Babel (1920s)

In Babel’s dark masterpiece, the Soviets fight the Poles and everybody hates the Jews

David Samuels
September 17, 2013

Before Ehrenberg and Grossman, there was Babel, and before anyone felt the need to write books about tough Jews in order to show that Jews could also be tough, there was Babel. He was the Jewish Hemingway and the Jewish Flaubert in the same story and sometimes in the same sentence; there has never been a Jewish writer with a wider range of human sympathy and insight. “My journalistic work gave me a lot, especially in the sense of material,” Babel once explained. “I managed to amass an incredible number of facts, which proved to be an invaluable creative tool. I struck up friendships with morgue attendants, criminal investigators, and government clerks. Later, when I began writing fiction, I found myself always returning to these ‘subjects,’ which were so close to me, in order to put character types, situations, and everyday life into perspective. Journalistic work is full of adventure.”

David Samuels is most recently the author of Seul l’Amour Peut Te Briser le Coeur, a collection of his writing about America, to be published in September by Seuil.

David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.