The Essential Fictions

Trade Paper – $21.95

ISBN 978-0-8101-3595-6
Publication Date
November 2017
Page Count
424 pages
Trim Size
6 x 9

The Essential Fictions

Isaac Babel; Edited and translated from the Russian by Val Vinokur; Illustrations by Yefim Ladyzhensky

The Essential Fictions offers contemporary readers seventy-two short stories by one of twentieth-century Russia’s premier storytellers, Isaac Babel. This unique volume, which includes Babel’s famous Red Cavalry series and his Odessa Stories, is translated, edited, introduced, and annotated by Val Vinokur, a 2008 Guggenheim Fellow in Translation, and features illustrations by Yefim Ladyzhensky, a painter known for his depictions of everyday life under Soviet rule in Babel’s native Odessa.

Babel was born in 1894 into multicultural Odessa’s thriving Jewish community. Working as a journalist, he witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War, and accompanied the Cossack horsemen of the Red Cavalry during the 1920 Polish-Soviet War, distilling these experiences into his fiction. Vinokur highlights Babel’s “horrified hopefulness” and “doleful and bespectacled Jewish comedy” in the face of the bloody conflicts that plagued his generation.

On the centenary of the revolution that toppled the Romanov tsars, Babel’s fictions continue to absorb and fascinate contemporary readers interested in eastern European and Jewish literature as well as the history and politics of the twentieth century.

About the Author

ISAAC BABEL (1894–1940) is best known for his short fiction, especially his tales about the Jewish gangsters of Odessa and the Cossacks of the Red Cavalry. A contemporary, Viktor Shklovsky, once described Babel as writing “in the same tone about the stars and gonorrhea.” Babel was executed on Stalin’s orders in 1940 in the wake of the Great Purge.
YEFIM LADYZHENSKY (1911–1982) began his career as a set designer, but devoted his life to painting after encountering Babel’s fiction, which he described as having played for him “the same role that the Bible and myths did for a multitude of artists—a reason and a stimulus for expressing my feelings and experiences.” When he emigrated from Odessa to Jerusalem in 1979, the Soviet government impounded his Babel-inspired paintings. To make up for their loss, he quickly completed the eighteen richly detailed drawings for Red Cavalry that are included in this volume.
VAL VINOKUR is an associate professor of literary studies, chair of liberal arts, and director of Jewish culture at The New School, where he also leads workshops in literary translation. He is the author of The Trace of Judaism: Dostoevsky, Babel, Mandelstam, Levinas (Northwestern University Press, 2008), and has translated several novels from the French with Rose-Myriam Réjouis.

“Vinokur inspires confidence in his ability to produce an edition of Babel's stories that will be more faithful to the original, both literally and stylistically, than any other available in English.” 
—Carol J. Avins, editor of Isaac Babel, 1920 Diary and author of Border Crossings: The West and Russian Identity in Soviet Literature, 1917-1934 

"To translate Babel is to attempt to invent, or reinvent, a language—a Jewish language—particularly given Babel’s predilection for marrying the argot of the underworld with highly sophisticated narration. . . . Vinokur is willing to experiment. Vinokur also pays close attention to names, one of Babel’s specialties: street names, Yiddish names, Slavic names, and especially nicknames." —Jewish Review of Books 

“Isaac Babel wrote amazingly powerful, stinging sentences of almost brutal, always poetic compactness.  It is a gift to have these sentences in this collection of Babel’s stories and short essays, translated by the talented Val Vinokur.  Babel, one of the greatest writers in Russian in the 20th century, was murdered by Stalin's secret police in 1940.  He was 45.  This wonderful book is a reminder of what Soviet brutality destroyed."  —Richard Bernstein, former book critic for the The New York Times and columnist for The International Herald Tribune

“Vinokur gets the right effect most often” —The New York Review of Books 

"[Vinokur’s] translations were done with attention, knowledge, and deference to the works of Isaac Babel–but most importantly, the personal inspiration and energy which he lent this great writer in the English language… Vinokur... has created a single volume that would, as the title suggests, encompass what he sees as all of Babel’s essential fictions–including [Red Cavalry and the Odessa Tales] along with over twenty other stories, creating a perspective on the author’s life and work. This perspective is evident in his notes, which offer a running commentary on stylistic and thematic issues present in Babel’s work, and also provide a window into the translation process." —David Stromberg, Public Seminar

"Vinokur's lucid translation brilliantly conveys the vivid precision and the emotional edge of Isaac Babel's prose to the English-language reader." —Anya Ulinich, author of Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel and Petropolis 

"The translations by Val Vinokur are a delight. Editions of Babel's work in the original Russian were later censored and cut to fit with Stalinist orthodoxy. Here we get the stories as they were originally intended, whether on the struggles faced by Jewish people in the Odessa of Babel's childhood or the horrors that he witnessed in the Russian-Polish war." —The Socialist Review

“Val Vinokur [has] produced readable English translations sensitively attuned to Babel’s demanding Russian prose and its intertextual nuances… the English-speaking reader now has a valuable ‘essential’ edition of the major works of a lost genius swallowed up by the Stalinist terror whose work has been rescued by scholars and translators for posterity.” –The Russian Review