Isaac Babel
Isaac Babel; drawing by David Levine

Isaac Babel was the most telling writer of abrupt stories to come out of the Russian revolution. This gentle Jew was a man who hit one in the belly. More important he had—what is indispensable to short stories—a distinct voice. Made famous by Red Cavalry and the Odessa stories—he was rewarded with a very pretty dacha—he worked under Gorki’s influence and protection as a writer precariously accepted by the regime but increasingly restless and finally silent under it as a person and an artist; he was allowed to go to Paris and Italy, but his foreign contacts must have brought him under suspicion; he was arrested, secretly tried, and presumably executed, in the general Stalinist attack on the arts in 1939. A blunt story—rather like one of his own. His works vanished; references to them were cut out of histories and criticism; his manuscripts and papers were either destroyed or, haphazard, lost. Not until 1964 was he rehabilitated and there was a public celebration of his genius.

Letters written to his first family who were in Brussels and Paris have been recovered; also stories lost in periodicals or in salvaged manuscripts. Few have yet appeared in Russia or in translation. It is the same old stupid Soviet tale. The MacAndrew edition contains his letters and two early stories, including the famous My First Fee: the Max Hayward edition which first appeared in 1964 also contains early work like An Evening at the Empress’s and The Chinaman, the text of a long interview, and of the speeches made in 1964 by Ehrenburg, Paustovsky, Nikulin, Munblit, and others. The Paustovsky piece supplements the fine portrait in this writer’s Years of Hope and is a valuable and intimate account of his habits as a writer in the early days. He and Paustovsky belonged to the very talented group who began to write in Odessa in the terrible period of the Civil War. In spite of biographical criticisms made by Nathalie Babel, the edition of her father’s stories introduced by Lionel Trilling in 1955 is important.

The subjects of a very large number of Babel’s stories are primitive and direct. The war and the expropriations have turned the peasants on the Asiatic border into murderers, looters, and bandits; the new government forces were as ruthless in getting a new regime set up. Babel’s prose is sharp and laconic. There is little comment. And yet within the fatalism of the tales there is the unmistakable Jewish humanity, sometimes the Jewish humor and fantasy—what one can only call the irony of recognition: the recognition of the manly or womanly essence of each briefly elicited character. Babel had a master in Gorki, but his deeper master were Gogol and Maupassant: Gogol for the imaginative richness, Maupassant for detachment, economy, and devilish skill. Eventually Babel was to find Maupassant cold. What I think Babel meant was that the Frenchman was outside, whereas all Babel’s characters carry some grain of the presence of Russia, the self being a fragment of the land’s fatality. One says, as one sees the Kulak kill his horse rather than let it go to the Cheka people when he is turned out, when one sees him become a legend as a bandit, and when he is run to earth and killed in a pit: “Yes, that is how it was. It was the end of an epoch, dreadful.” One has seen the rage of a lifetime.

As an artist, Babel describes himself in My First Fee:

From childhood all the strength of my being had been devoted to the invention of tales, plays and stories—thousands of them. They lay in my heart like toads on a stone. I was possessed by devilish pride and did not want to write them down prematurely.

His early idea was to “dress them up in beautiful clothes” and he could write, for example:

The flowering acacias along the street began to moan in a low, faltering voice.

Later, in his innumerable re-writings (so that one very short tale might be drained from dozens of versions as long as a novel) his aim was to cut and cut and cut. He was tormented by the amount of words and inventions inside himself.

Sometimes he cut too severely. My First Fee has an early laconic version called Answer to an Inquiry, which contains one of those brief asides which are a remarkable but traditional part of his art—an item in a prostitute’s room:

In a small glass bowl of milky liquid flies were dying—each in his own way.

and, although the end is sharper in the first version, the second and longer one is richer. The boy’s lying tale is now really fantastic; and the symbol for describing the sexual act is more truthful than anything by contemporary masturbators:


Now tell me, I should like to ask you: have you ever seen a village carpenter helping his mate to build a house? Have you seen how thick and fast and gaily the shavings fly as they plane a beam together? That night this thirty year old woman taught me all the tricks of her trade.

In story after story Babel worked until he hit upon the symbol that turns it from anecdote into five minutes of life. He was not a novelist. By 1937 he was being semi-officially questioned about not writing on a large scale like Tolstoy or the very bien vue Sholokhov. It was being insinuated that he was idle and not pulling his weight. Poor devil! Short story writers are poets. Babel could not but be opposed to the clichés of Socialist Realism and particularly to the rhetorical magazine prose it had led to. He was also asked why he wrote of the exceptional rather than the typical, and one knows what Stalinism meant by typical: the middlebrow ideal. He replied with Goethe’s simple definition of the novella: it is a story about an unusual occurrence. And he went on—the interview appears verbatim in MacAndrew’s volume:

Tolstoy was able to describe what happened to him minute by minute, he remembered it all, whereas I, evidently, only have it in me to describe the most interesting five minutes I’ve experienced in twenty-four hours.

He was opposed to the short story as a condensed novel. The short story is an insight.

Babel, as Ehrenburg said in his speech at the celebration in 1964, was formed by the Revolution. The struggle between order and anarchy nourished him, not in a thinking or philosophical way, but instantly in terms of people and events seen with the naked eye. His official work enabled him to travel restlessly. He was eager for that, but he also hid where people could not get at him; like many famous writers in Russia and the West he was overworked in the public interest. His curiosity was eccentric and endearing. In Odessa he used to treat people or pay them to get out of them the story of their first love. In Paris he used to pay girls to talk to him. One of his favorite questions to a lady was, “Can I see what you have got in your handbag?”

The Letters, edited by Babel’s daughter, are moving in their unconscious self-portrait of the anxious and worried Jew, minutely concerned about the daily life of the family from whom he was separated:

I have already learned Natasha’s school report by heart and am in dire need of new spiritual nourishment. I would like very much to know how Grisha is doing, whether he is working and whether he “is making progress” as a certain Jewish woman in Odessa used to say.

One can see that he was a self-burdened man who cannot resist more burdens, passing from euphoria to gloom:

I’ve gone completely cracked with my thirst for “work.” I want to work every hour of my life.

His last recorded utterance was in 1939, when the police came for him. He was not alarmed—one imagines him never alarmed—the mild round face, with the strong out-of-date steel glasses, smiled. All he said was “I was not given time to finish.” It might be the last abrupt sentence of any of his stories.

This Issue

July 31, 1969