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Laughter in the Dark

1.

If Saint Peter should ever locate the keys to the Lubyanka and release all the writers slaughtered there, the only shade in the procession likely to be wearing a smile would be Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel. As his second wife, Antonina Pirozhkova, tells us, “Babel ascribed great importance to merriment.”

What has the Jew studied?” asks the rabbi in one of Babel’s Red Cavalry stories.

The Bible.”

What is the Jew seeking?”

Merriment.”

Wit and irony are often a requirement for passage into the Russian canon (even Dostoevsky is, not least, a hilarious writer), but it has long been a cultural style to withhold any outward signs of pleasure. Remember the paintings and the photographs of Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov, and, in the Soviet period, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, even the riotous Daniil Kharms: the style was to radiate seriousness, spirit, weariness, suffering, but not delight. Even Gogol withheld all traces of pleasure from the portrait painters. Nabokov, too, seemed to shift to his signature expression of bemusement only after crossing the border of emigration to Berlin, Paris, and Ithaca.

Pirozhkova wrote her memoir in secret decades ago, but it was published, in uncensored form, for the first time in 1989, the crest of the glasnost wave in Moscow. The book does not pretend to do the heavy lifting of a biography, and yet it is especially rich with the evidence of Babel’s good humor in a dark time. The handsome English edition includes pictures of Babel smiling with his young wife and his various children. Especially striking is a photograph of Babel in 1938, at the height of the purges, sitting cross-legged on a couch, his head resting in the palm of his right hand: he is smiling blissfully, a Jewish Buddha in wire-rimmed glasses.

One can only begin to imagine the levels of irony, the fatalism, in that smile. The next year, in May 1939, Babel would be arrested at the order of the head of the secret police, Lavrenty Beria. Babel was keenly aware of the possibility, even the inevitability, of this end. Some commentators have remarked on his political naiveté, his innocence of politics. This is preposterous. As early as 1920, when he was working as a war correspondent on the Bolshevik side during the civil war, Babel made clear in his diary that the ideals of the revolution had been trampled by the cruelties committed in their name: “They all say they’re fighting for justice and they all loot,” Babel wrote as he traveled with Semyon Budyonny’s cavalry through the doomed cities and shtetls of eastern Poland and western Ukraine—Dubno, Chelm, Belz, Zamosc—the scene of Jewish pogroms and, twenty-odd years later, the scene of Jewish obliteration. Few writers of the early Soviet period witnessed more cruelty at such close range. Babel’s smiles concealed bottomless pain as well as his uncanny ability to see—and to foresee. (“Can it be that ours is the century in which [the Jews] perish?” he asked himself in the diary he kept in 1920.) And so the idea of naiveté in Babel is absurd. He knew what he knew. In 1936, when his friend and protector Maxim Gorky died, Babel told Pirozhkova, “Now they won’t let me live.”

Babel was a master of short prose who worked with such a feverish obsession that by the time he finished his stories, he had rewritten them dozens, even hundreds, of times and committed them to memory. “Writing is very hard for me,” he once told his friend Konstantin Paustovsky. “Somewhere I once wrote that I’m rapidly aging from asthma, that strange illness which lodged itself in my puny body when I was a child. But I was lying. When I’m writing the shortest story, I still have to work at it as if I were required to dig up Mount Everest all by myself with a pick and shovel…. I have heart spasms when I can’t manage a sentence.” When he was composing the Odessa Stories and his masterpiece, Red Cavalry, in the early Twenties, Babel would labor over a story of five hundred or a thousand words for weeks, for months. He paced his room, back and forth, worrying a piece of twine in his fingers, like a rosary. A story, Babel felt, should have the precision of a military communiqué or a bank check and “a simile must be as precise as a slide rule and as natural as the smell of dill.” The reaction in Russian literary circles to Red Cavalry—its vivid images of battle and the precision of its language—was no less clamorous than the American reaction to Hemingway’s first stories. In fact, after reading the first English translations of Babel in the late Twenties, Hemingway told Ilya Ehrenburg, “I find that Babel’s style is even more concise than mine. It shows what can be done. Even when you’ve got all the water out of them, you can still clot the curds a little more.”

To relieve the tension of writing, Pirozhkova tells us, Babel indulged, always, in merriment and the company of friends. Nothing made him happier than, say, visiting his friend and collaborator, the great filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein; using a magnifying glass, they would examine Eisenstein’s superior collection of Mexican fleas: the flea-bride dressed in a wedding gown with fleurs d’orange, the flea-groom dressed in a black suit with a white shirt front and a bow tie. Pirozhkova describes Babel as a man in love with simple experience: his talks with fishermen and the baker at his local bagel shop, his delight in the ironic idiom of Odessa, his constant storytelling. It was his habit, as it was in his art, to take incidents from his childhood and improve them: “I had been around Babel long enough to know that, for the sake of a piquant or funny story, he would never spare friends and relatives—or me, either.”

Babel enjoyed the reputation he had won for the Red Cavalry stories and he enjoyed nearly as much the material benefits it brought from the state: the car and driver, the special food packets, the villa in Peredelkino. But if interviewers from the newspapers and magazines came knocking on his door, he went looking for an exit. When Pirozhkova somehow freed him from a group of journalists one day, Babel was so grateful he said, “Go wash your feet, I’ll drink the bathwater.” When he was finally cornered by another reporter and asked his literary plans for the coming year, Babel thought a while and remarked, “I am seriously thinking of buying a goat.”

2.

But for all his evident humor, Babel’s smile has long been as enigmatic as La Gioconda’s. For many years, we knew very little of what he was (or was not) writing in the Thirties; his politics seemed a muddle of outward compromise and private dissent. Every day brings another shelf-busting literary biography (six hundred pages on A.N. Wilson!) but there is still no book on Babel. For a change, a biography is desperately needed.

Babel was born in 1894 in the port city of Odessa on the Black Sea, a great center of Jewish learning and music and talent. Unlike the Hasidic and Orthodox shtetls and cities of western Ukraine and eastern Poland, Babel’s Odessa was a cosmopolitan place in which most Jews were steeped in secular, as well as Jewish, learning. It was a city not only of Jewish scholars but of Jewish merchants and, to Babel’s delight, Jewish gangsters. This did not mean that Babel’s people escaped anti-Semitism. Like the religious Jews to the north and west, Odessites had also been victim to pogroms in the late nineteenth century and, most vividly in Babel’s memory, in 1905.

As a boy, Babel studied Talmud and secular subjects, as well as Yiddish, Hebrew, and French. His singular failure was as a violinist; he left music to more talented contemporaries like Jascha Heifetz. Because of the tsar’s quota systems limiting Jewish enrollment in state universities, Babel failed to win a place at the University of Odessa and studied instead at the Kiev Institute of Financial and Business Studies from 1911 to 1915. He then moved to St. Petersburg, where he lived a semi-underground life. Jews were not permitted to live outside the Pale of Settlement without residency documents and so Babel had to sleep in basements and friends’ apartments to avoid the police. In 1916, when he was twenty, he published his first stories in Gorky’s literary journal, Letopis, and wrote for Gorky’s anti-Bolshevik paper, Novaya Zhizn’ (The New Life), which was eventually shut down by Lenin. Like most Jews, Babel initially welcomed the revolution he was witnessing; he assumed that the Bolsheviks would improve the lot of the Jews, who had been so severely brutalized by the tsars. And yet in his articles for The New Life, Babel was frequently critical of the Bolsheviks and wrote sharply about the casualties of the revolt.

After The New Life was shut down in July 1918, Gorky advised his protégé to dirty his hands with life, to go out into the provinces and accumulate a well of experience and impressions that would later serve his writing. Babel responded immediately. He served briefly in the army on the Romanian front, joined a grain-requisitioning expedition intended to stave off starvation in the cities along the Volga, and then, in 1920, he joined Budyonny’s pro-Bolshevik Cossack contingent as a journalist in the political—or, better, propaganda—section. His job was to write news dispatches for both ROSTA, the state news agency, and for Krasnii Kavalerist (The Red Cavalryman), the army’s daily newspaper.

The Polish-Soviet conflict was an extension of both the civil war, which was in its third year, and the hostilities between Russia and Poland, which had their roots in 1772, when Poland was divided among Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary. After World War I and the rise of an independent Poland, the nationalist government in Warsaw, led by Jozef Pilsudski, sought to extend its borders to the east into Ukraine and, not incidentally, to save mankind from communism; Lenin, who believed in widening the proletarian revolution into Europe, made western Ukraine and eastern Poland his first battleground with the hope of causing a general uprising in Poland and, eventually, Germany. Most Cossacks were well-to-do opponents of the Bolsheviks and rode with divisions of the White Army, but Budyonny, under the command of the political commissar on the southern front, Josef Stalin, was a committed Bolshevik.

The idea of a plump and bespectacled Jewish reporter riding with a Cossack unit was, in itself, a variety of Babelian merriment. The first time Babel had ever ridden a horse was the day he saddled up with the First Cavalry. It has not always been easy to know how to interpret this essential year in Babel’s life. He was clearly thrilled by the immediacy, the authenticity of the experience, and by the Cossacks themselves; in his diary, he calls his Cossack contingent “wild beasts with principles.” But with time he was generally overwhelmed by the mindlessness of their violence, with the battlefields “sown with mangled men, inhuman cruelty, unbelievable wounds, fractured skulls, naked young bodies gleaming white in the sun.” It did not take Babel long to recognize that while Budyonny himself was a committed Bolshevik, his men were not. Budyonny’s cavalrymen were, in the main, illiterate and cared nothing for Communist ideology and revolution. They raped, they pillaged, they murdered prisoners, and, above all, they stole. Even while Babel, in both his stories and his diary, thrilled to the savage spectacle of the Cossacks riding through Galicia, he began to judge them as amoral, brutal, and profoundly anti-Semitic. “Our army is out to line its pockets, this isn’t a revolution, it’s a rebellion of Cossack wild men.”

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