Cover Story, Part IV: Red Cavalry, by Isaac Babel

When I review public domain titles, I link to the generic entry on GoodReads and pick my favorite cover to put in my post. This hasn’t been an issue until I read Red Cavalry, by Isaac Babel. Red Cavalry was published in 1926, so it’s public domain in the United States. But I got an advanced reader copy of a reissue from Pushkin Press. I suppose I ought to have used the Pushkin Press cover, to give them a bit of cover advertising. I chose not to because the cover Pushkin Press is using didn’t fit what I read.

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2003 edition by W.W. Norton & Co.

I used this cover (at right) instead. The cover from the W.W. Norton edition uses Soviet propaganda, with blocky text for the title, author, etc. The red (and Red) cavalryman on the cover is crushing his opponents—and Ukraine—beneath his boots. The cavalryman is meant to be idealized, but he strikes me as incredibly sinister. This representation of a Red soldier captures the soldiers depicted in Babel’s stories and vignettes. I wrote about the unreconcilable divide in the men’s characters that I saw. These were men who did unspeakable things to their fellow human beings, but who would become nearly suicidal with grief if their horses were killed. The cavalryman on the cover looks savage, like the kind of person who could execute another person out of hand or violate a woman without a second thought. To me, Red Cavalry was a welter of these kinds of acts and brutality.

I had a quick look at the other editions listed on GoodReads and many of them are curiously bland. A few of them have soldiers on the cover. One had a picture of the author, which might be the worst choice. Isaac Babel, in most of his pictures, looks like a professor—the last man one would picture as a soldier. (See?) To my way of thinking, covers are not just advertisement; they prepare a reader for the experience they will have with the book. A good cover will put a reader in the right frame of mind.

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2015 Pushkin Press

The cover that Pushkin Press had designed for Red Cavalry tells a different story than Norton’s propaganda cover. Red hoof prints form a border around a pair of broken glasses. The metaphor I pick up on hints at Babel’s biography. Babel was a writer, one of the intelligentsia, before he was assigned to Semyon Budyonny‘s First Cavalry Army. The broken glasses signal, to me, that the experiences of the Polish-Soviet War broke him. The problem with this interpretation, however, is that there is no single first person narrator in Red Cavalry. The ‘I’ changes from story to story as Babel slips into different personae to tell the stories of his fellow soldiers. There is also no reflection on the time before the war. That kind of reflection doesn’t fit the collection. Everything in Red Cavalry is war or a direct result of the war. One gets the impression that there has always and will always be war.

I’m glad (sometimes) that the advanced reader copies I get arrive on my kindle looking like raw manuscripts. I won’t form hard notions of what I’m about to read. When I’m recommending books, though, I want the cover in my reviews to send signals to potential readers. Covers are meant to be judged, contrary to popular belief.

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