Val Vinokur reads from Isaac Babel, The Essential Fictions

When I heard Val Vinokur read from Isaac Babel, The Essential Fictions it was an epiphany. I’d heard of Isaac Babel, but I’d never read him, and always associated him with Sholem Aleicham on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof. Listening to Val Vinokur read his translations, I understood immediately that these short stories did not have happy endings, that the world was a dark cloud ready to storm full of bigots who wanted to harm, not much different than today sadly, but there was a silver lining of beauty and intelligence, irony and wit, and also eroticism. In The Essential Fictions, Babel’s characters—and Babel himself is certainly one of them—live before, during and after the Russian Revolution. Babel speaks for himself as he sees it, or through characters as he draws them in a world that can suddenly without warning be unimaginably violent, and yet what pervades and dominates is the good will, the art and the skill taken to write this work.

Val Vinokur was born in Russia, came to America at the age of seven, and like Babel is Jewish, which helps him communicate the sense and tension of this author who remains one the best short story writers ever, and one of the least translated. Isaac Babel, The Essential Fictions is important not only because it is the most recent translation, but also the most complete. I don’t know Russian, but as I read I feel that I am getting as close as possible to it, the real deal. What a labor of love this has been, the effort is apparent, not only in the translations, but in the editing, and the notes at the end, annotations that fill me in.

Anyone who likes to read will like Isaac Babel, The Essential Fictions. If you have been wanting a really good shelter-in-place book, and you are not a scaredy-cat, these stories are for you. I think it makes a good gift, too. I just sent one off to a friend via Amazon. Below Val Vinokur reads three of his translations: “Shabbos Nahamu,” “The Story of a Horse,” and “The Story of a Horse, Continued.” Enjoy.

Isaac Babel, The Essential Fictions is published by Northwestern University Press. You can check them out here:

At NYU, Val Vinokur reads and talks about translating Isaac Babel:

Below are a few of the illustrations by the artist and set designer, Yefim Ladyzhenzky that are in this edition. He made the drawings in two weeks because he so missed the Babel paintings that were confiscated before he left Odessa for Israel in 1979.

Val Vinokur

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