Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel was born in Odessa in 1894. His middle-class family gave him a solid Jewish education (at sixteen he was studying Hebrew and the Talmud so hard at home that he had to “rest” at high school), and in 1911 he enrolled at the Kiev Institute of Financial and Business Studies, where he remained until 1915. Babel was exempted from military service in the World War, probably because of poor eyesight. By 1916 he was in St. Petersburg, where Maxim Gorky became his patron. Aside from writing for Gorky’s social reformist paper Novaia zhizn‘ (New Life), he spent much of his time dodging the police: as a Jew he did not have residence papers for the capital and thus was living there illegally.
He volunteered for the Romanian front. In 1917 and after the Bolshevik Revolution (and, on Lenin’s orders, the closing down of Gorky’s newspaper), in 1919, he took part in the defense of Petrograd against General Yudenich’s White forces. He returned to Odessa later that year, married, and began work at a publishing house. When newly independent Poland invaded Russia in April 1920, Babel signed up as a war correspondent and soon became an officer in General Semyon Budyonny’s First Cavalry Army, the front-line Soviet defense against the Poles in the north. It was seventy years before Russians could read the diary Babel kept in 1920, including the notes that supplied him with episodes and characters for the stories in Red Cavalry, the book that made him famous in 1926.
In the commentary to his new translation of the Collected Stories, David McDuff shows that Soviet censors suppressed many details in the stories Babel published during his lifetime. Poor Babel! All he wanted was the freedom to be an artist in Russian prose, an ambition that Zionists deplored, many Russians thought impossible for a Jew, and revolutionary pundits misunderstood entirely. The style had to be spare, “French,” like that of Maupassant, and indeed the only story in Babel’s entire work in which he put forward his own aesthetic views is called “Guy de Maupassant.” The unnamed narrator finds himself “in St. Petersburg with a forged passport and without a copeck,” but by a stroke of luck he lands a job helping a rich lawyer’s wife translate Maupassant’s collected works. The woman does such a horrible job of it that the narrator takes the manuscript home and spends the night cutting “clearings in someone else’s translation.”
This is not such unpleasant work as it might seem. A phrase is born into the world good and bad at the same time. The secret rests in a barely perceptible turn. The lever must lie in one’s hand and get warm. It must be turned once, and no more.
When the narrator brings the story to Raisa the next day, she asks him how he did it.
Then I began to speak of style, of the army of words, an army in which all kinds of weapons…
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