Like so many men who made their mark on the twentieth century, Isaac Babel began as a Jewish revolutionary; like so many of them, too, he died disillusioned and by violence. But in the process he had become one of the century’s most remarkable writers. He became famous in Russia as a writer before his death in 1940 at the hands of an OGPU firing squad; then he became a nonperson, until he was partially rehabilitated in 1954. By that time too his name as a writer of brilliant short stories had become known in the West. The collection Konarmiya, “Horse Army” literally, and translated as Red Cavalry, which described in graphic detail the abortive Soviet campaign against Poland in 1920, showed that he had been an eyewitness and a sensational reporter of war experiences, but his true stature and importance, for a long while accepted and widely acclaimed in Russia, only now becomes apparent in the English-speaking world with the translation and publication of his complete works.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the years of his first success, Babel had been one of the privileged children of the new revolutionary intelligentsia. Unlike his fellow citizens, he was allowed to travel; his wife settled in Paris in 1925, where his daughter was born in 1929 and where he visited them, for the last time, in 1935. He felt a compulsion to return to Moscow. In her preface to his Complete Works, his daughter, Nathalie Babel, writes that the demands and instructions of the state had completely disillusioned him. To write within the frame of the barracks mentality of Soviet ideology was intolerable for him, yet he didn’t see how he could manage to live otherwise. Babel was fully aware of his predicament:
I have a family: a wife and daughter. I love them and have to provide for them. Under no circumstances do I want them to return to Sovietland…. But what about myself? Should I stay here and become a taxi driver…?…Should I return to our proletarian revolution? Revolution indeed! It’s disappeared!
To his friend the critic Yuri Annenkov he uttered these dangerous sentiments in a confidential chat while they were in Paris together in 1932, and he concluded by saying: “Here a taxi driver has more freedom than the rector of a Soviet university.”
Until the mid-Thirties Babel had a powerful political protector in the celebrated older author Maxim Gorky, who had encouraged him, and who published his early efforts in his own magazine, Letopis. With Gorky’s death in 1936 Babel became particularly vulnerable, and the date coincided with the beginning of the great purges. As a Jew and an intellectual who had traveled abroad Babel would in any case have been at risk; but what seems to have sealed his fate were his sometimes unflattering references in the Red Cavalry stories to three men—Semyon Konstantinovich Timoshenko, Semyon Budyonny, and Kliment Yefremovich Voroshilov—all of whom had become top men in the Red Army, while the last two were old cronies of Stalin, who had a habit of sticking by his friends, particularly if they were slavishly faithful incompetents and offered no risk to his own power and position. They did not forget the truthfulness or the popularity of the Red Cavalry stories, and what Babel had said about them there.
In her introduction to The Complete Works Cynthia Ozick calls Kafka and Babel the “twentieth century’s European coordinates” as writers, even though so different in language, style, and temperament:
Each was an acutely conscious Jew. Each witnessed a pogrom while still very young, Kafka in enlightened Prague, Babel under a Czarist regime that promoted harsh legal disabilities for Jews. Each invented a type of literary modernism, becoming a movement in himself…with no possibility of successors. To be influenced by Kafka is to end in parody.
This is a brilliant and a valid point, but though it must have been tempting for Ozick to make the same claim for Babel that she makes for Kafka—that he could not have followers or disciples who are even half original—the fact remains that Babel is a writer who submerged himself, as if deliberately, in the climate and idiom of his own age and culture, whereas Kafka was a solitary and a unique creature, a species of writer cut off by an act of his own will in his own self-determined world. Today we recognize that world instantly: we call it Kafkaesque, but it would make little or no sense to speak of a writer, or a kind of writing, as “Babelian.”
Then there is the problem of translation. In any good translation Kafka still sounds inimitably like Kafka, and like no one else. He is a translator’s dream, as Edwin Muir found when he discovered through his own version an almost perfect English equivalent. With Babel the problem is much more complicated. For one thing he is a chameleonic writer, quite happy in his early tales to resort to a vulgar and threatening bluster and to adopt the conventionally hectic revolutionary tone, and then abruptly change that tone for a detached and cool precision. Both he and his patron Gorky deeply admired the stories and the manner of Guy de Maupassant, sometimes adding their own kind of Russian warmth to Maupassant’s Gallic objectivity. But in Babel’s case at least, the spirit of Maupassant becomes unrecognizable to the reader, however much the Russian writer might hold it up for his own inspiration and guidance.
The irony of his own “story” “Guy de Maupassant,” written in the time of Babel’s greatest fame and success, probably about 1930, is that it is as unlike a Maupassant story as could be. Like many of Babel’s stories of the time it is really a sort of extended sketch, an inspired jotting on the verge of fantasy. The narrator, living from hand to mouth in 1916 in St. Petersburg (rechristened Petrograd during the war), meets a well-off Jewess, Raisa Bendersky, who tells him “Maupassant is the one passion of my life.” She gives him her translation of “Miss Harriet,” asking him to revise it for her, and put it into reasonably good Russian. Raisa herself writes “with laborious and inert correctness and lack of style,” showing “no trace of Maupassant’s free-flowing prose with its powerful breath of passion.” But the narrator decides that the “work isn’t as bad as it might seem.” He then gives us Babel’s own view of style:
When a phrase is born, it is both good and bad at the same time. The secret of its success rests in a crux that is barely discernible. One’s fingertips must grasp the key, gently warming it. And then the key must be turned once, not twice.
…I spoke to her of style, of an army of words, an army in which every type of weapon is deployed. No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.
In fact, for the non-Russian speaker, it is not at all easy to see how Babel writes, or even if he writes, in the usually accepted sense, well or badly. A foreign reader could well have the same trouble with, say, Kipling, whose style can be at once slapdash and refined, uncannily perceptive and vulgarly picturesque.
This makes matters almost impossibly hard for a translator; and Peter Constantine, although an expert and a veteran at his trade, is up against a problem as intractable, although in a wholly different way, as the problem of translating Pushkin. My own Russian is just about up to appreciating the subtle and limpid simplicities of Pushkin; but there is no way in which I can take in the richness of Babel’s effects, which Russian speakers and readers rave about, no doubt justly. In English they often sound crude and overdone, or merely infelicitous.
When we meet Raisa’s maid—“well built, nearsighted, haughty”—we hear that “debauchery had congealed in her gray, wide-open eyes.” And that is exactly what the Russian says and means. A reader of the translation has no way of knowing whether “congealed” in Russian is just the right or the ironic word, the mot juste. He can only say that it sounds all wrong in English, strained and slightly grotesque.
But what can a good translator do? Peter Constantine’s version does seem to me to have the disconcerting virtue of revealing the shortcomings, even the inherent vulgarity, of Babel as a stylist, although, as the story shows, a highly self-conscious one. But a Russian may receive quite the opposite impression, and Babel is indeed greatly admired for his style by sensitive and knowledgeable Russian readers. Kipling again seems a useful parallel, for what could be more effective, and in a sense Kiplingesque, than this description of the apartment in St. Petersburg where the Benderskys live?
They lived at the corner of the Nevsky Prospekt by the Moika River, in a house built of Finnish granite trimmed with pink columns, embrasures, and stone coats of arms. Before the war, bankers without family or breeding—Jewish converts to Christianity who grew rich through trade—had built a large number of such spuriously majestic, vulgar castles in Petersburg.
A red carpet ran up the stairs. Stuffed bears on their hind legs stood on the landings. Crystal lamps shone in their wide-open jaws.
The Benderskys lived on the third floor.
The narrator is let in by the maid with the peculiar eyes, which in context seem expressive enough (“I thought how she must thrash about with savage agility when she made love…”):
The brocade curtain that hung over the door swayed. A black-haired, pink-eyed woman, bearing her large breasts before her, came into the living room. It took me no more than a moment to see that Benderskaya was one of those ravishing breed of Jewesses from Kiev or Poltava, from the sated towns of the steppes that abounded with acacias and chestnut trees. These women transmute the money of their resourceful husbands into the lush pink fat on their bellies, napes, and round shoulders. Their sleepy smiles, delicate and sly, drive garrison officers out of their minds.
That is not only a vivid description in itself but an impression, both brilliantly exact and touchingly comic, of the way the boy from Odessa, which Babel had once been, would see Raisa’s apartment at the corner of Nevsky Prospekt.
And yet this sketch entitled “Guy de Maupassant” still fails to accumulate into a story. Chekhov, one might feel, would have shaken his head, although the method is not so very different from the sketches he himself threw off so quickly when he was a very young man. But Babel was now in the full force of his matured talent, and taking his writing, as writing, very seriously indeed. Might the oddly disheveled quality that runs through all his work have been an effect that was sought after with care, rather than the spontaneous jotting process which it usually resembles? So strong is the magic of Babel’s writing personality, however, that one comes to accept all this as it is, without any disparagement, and the more one reads such a story as “Guy de Maupassant” the more powerfully and seductively does Babel’s medium of magic appear.
The last story in his 1925–1938 collection, “My First Fee,” is also the best. The young narrator, the young Babel in effect, is living in Tiflis, working as a proofreader for the Caucasus Military District:
A man who is caught in the noose of an idea and lulled by its serpentine gaze finds it difficult to bubble over with meaningless, burrowing words of love. Such a man is ashamed of shedding tears of sadness. He is not quick-witted enough to be able to laugh with happiness. I was a dreamer, and did not have the knack for the thoughtless art of happiness. Therefore I was going to have to give Vera ten rubles of my meager earnings.
I made up my mind and went to stand watch outside the doors of the Simpatia tavern. Georgian princes in blue Circassian jackets and soft leather boots sauntered past in casual parade. They picked their teeth with silver toothpicks and eyed the carmine-painted Georgian women with large feet and slim hips. There was a shimmer of turquoise in the twilight. The blossoming acacias howled along the streets in their petal-shedding bass voices. Waves of officials in white coats rolled along the boulevard. Balsamic streams of air came flowing toward them from the Karzbek Mountains.
He meets Vera, a prostitute whom he passionately desires, and in order to try to interest her, starts to make up stories about his young life—how he ran away from home and lived with a man, then with an older, more repulsive one, a “church warden” (he has stolen the word from some novel). Vera looks derisive and, fearful that the spell of narrative isn’t working properly, the young fellow hastens to embroider a still more absurd fantasy about the first man who had kept him, a generous and trusting man, ruined by his friends. “He gave them bronze promissory notes, and his friends went and cashed them right away.” “Bronze promissory notes! I myself had no idea how I came up with that.” But it turns out to have been a brilliant invention, like the sort of detail which used to be made up by the Magic Realists, or the genies and flying horses in the Arabian Nights. “Vera believed everything once she heard ‘bronze promissory notes.'” (It is indeed a perfect example of what W.S. Gilbert’s character in The Mikado calls “corroborative detail, designed to give verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”)
But the real fantasy is in the actual prose Babel is writing, prose whose richness, at least in this story, never sounds artificial, but in the most grotesque or the ugliest and most realistic details always seems spontaneous and almost childlike. The young and aspiring writer is carried away by his own literary inventiveness and by the scraps out of books he has picked up. Self-pity “tore my heart to pieces” as he describes his life and the ways in which he has been ruined. “I quaked with sorrow and inspiration. Streams of icy sweat trickled down my face like snakes winding through grass warmed by the sun.” (That sort of simile would sound affected and precious if used by other writers at that time—Hemingway for instance—but Babel gets away with it.
“My story had come to an end.” Vera, awakening from the spell of imagined narrative, makes her own unexpected but comprehensive comment. “‘The things men do,’ Vera whispered, without turning around. ‘My God, the things men do!'” As if he had passed some sort of initiation rite she now treats him as another and younger whore, her “little sister.” She also initiates him in the arts of love. That is the effect his inventiveness has had, and she returns to him the two five-ruble coins—“my first fee”—with which he had paid her in advance. She in her turn has been the first person to pay for his services as a teller of tales.
In a short summary the story sounds as sentimental as one of O. Henry’s, yet the tone and tempo are of course entirely different. Babel was experimenting with a kind of style and a use of words which would do their own work—sardonic and distant even in the midst of lushness. It is indeed a method unlike any other, and it is a considerable achievement by Peter Constantine to have brought it across in a translation as well as he has managed to do.
Babel’s earlier stories, the famous Red Cavalry series, were, one imagines, a good deal easier for a translator to deal with. As is also the case with Kipling and with Hemingway, atrocities portrayed in a matter-of-fact and deadpan manner, which have their initial shock impact on the reader, don’t have a lasting effect. Such subjects were less familiar in the writing of that time than they are today, although writers who had taken part in the first war, from Erich Maria Remarque and Henri Barbusse to Siegfried Sassoon, were all good at describing horrors—in a sense there was nothing very difficult about it—but the art was to make it different from reportage or from a parade of feeling (“I was the man, I suffered, I was there”).
It is here that Babel scores. He didn’t just use his eyes. Like the young lad in “My First Fee,” which is a far more accomplished tale than any of the Red Cavalry stories, he has already begun to mingle what he had seen with what he fantasizes and makes up, putting it across in a new and powerful species of linguistic idiom. Everyone who has ever read the stories remembers the Cossack commander, Savitsky, with his legs that resemble girls’ legs encased in slim leather riding boots; but this is Babel’s own flight of fancy, and has nothing to do with the Cossacks themselves and their own way of looking at things. Babel, a Jew and an intellectual, a complete misfit among these heroic beings, is in a sense bound to be making it all up, and being purely subjective while imitating total objectivity.
Here he is very different from Tolstoy, whose name he often mentions, half admiringly and half dismissively, but Tolstoy had at least attempted to see the Cossacks as they were, and to describe them in their own terms. For Babel they became the raw material for his personal experiment in style, idiom, and language, but it is impossible not to weary of the same Goya-like catalog of the disasters and horrors of war—looting, the raping of women, the shooting of prisoners. In some ways the diary Babel kept when he was actually on campaign is more bearable—less artful and so less repulsive—than the stories that were enlarged and devised out of the material. The terse and often horrifying jottings of the diary seem more authentic than the stories, in which the material was reshaped and carefully worked up. Admirably edited and translated, the diary is a masterpiece in its own right and makes a good introduction to Babel’s later work.*
“My First Goose,” understated and Maupassant-like as it is, has all the hallmarks of an event reconstructed, perhaps even created, for effect. Savitsky of the famous boots, commander of the Sixth Division, who wants a clerk to do his military paperwork, sends for the newly enlisted Babel and asks, “Can you read and write?” With heavy humor the quartermaster who tells him where to find lodgings also tells his new comrades that there’s to be “no funny business,…because this man has suffered on the fields of learning!” The new clerk’s spectacles become a standing joke.
I went down on my hands and knees and gathered up the manuscripts and the old, tattered clothes that had fallen out of my suitcase. I took them and carried them to the other end of the yard. A large pot of boiling pork stood on some bricks in front of the hut. Smoke rose from it as distant smoke rises from the village hut of one’s childhood, mixing hunger with intense loneliness inside me. I covered my broken little suitcase with hay, turning it into a pillow, and lay down on the ground to read Lenin’s speech at the Second Congress of the Comintern, which Pravda had printed. The sun fell on me through the jagged hills, the Cossacks kept stepping over my legs, the young fellow incessantly made fun of me, the beloved sentences struggled toward me over thorny paths, but could not reach me. I put away the newspaper and went to the mistress of the house, who was spinning yarn on the porch.
“Mistress,” I said, “I need some grub!”
The old woman raised the dripping whites of her half-blind eyes to me and lowered them again.
“Comrade,” she said, after a short silence. “All of this makes me want to hang myself!”
“Goddammit!” I muttered in frustration, shoving her back with my hand. “I’m in no mood to start debating with you!”
And, turning around, I saw someone’s saber lying nearby. A haughty goose was waddling through the yard, placidly grooming its feathers. I caught the goose and forced it to the ground, its head cracking beneath my boot, cracking and bleeding. Its white neck lay stretched out in the dung, and the wings folded down over the slaughtered bird.
“Goddammit!” I said, poking at the goose with the saber. “Roast it for me, mistress!”
The old woman, her blindness and her spectacles flashing, picked up the bird, wrapped it in her apron, and hauled it to the kitchen.
“Comrade,” she said after a short silence. “This makes me want to hang myself.” And she pulled the door shut behind her.
“So, what are they writing in the newspaper?” the young fellow with the flaxen hair asked me, and moved aside to make room for me.
“In the newspaper, Lenin writes,” I said, picking up my Pravda, “Lenin writes that right now there is a shortage of everything.”
And in a loud voice, like a triumphant deaf man, I read Lenin’s speech to the Cossacks.
The evening wrapped me in the soothing dampness of her twilight sheets, the evening placed her motherly palms on my burning brow.
I read, and rejoiced, waiting for the effect, rejoicing in the mysterious curve of Lenin’s straight line.
“Truth tickles all and sundry in the nose,” Surovkov said when I had finished. “It isn’t all that easy to wheedle it out of the pile of rubbish, but Lenin picks it up right away, like a hen picks up a grain of corn.”
That is what Surovkov, the squadron commander, said about Lenin, and then we went to sleep in the hayloft. Six of us slept there warming each other, our legs tangled, under the holes in the roof which let in the stars.
I dreamed and saw women in my dreams, and only my heart, crimson with murder, screeched and bled.
The goose is a symbolic bird no doubt, although certainly a memorable one; but the episode is not mentioned in Babel’s diary and has the marks of being imagined rather than experienced. (Why, after all, was a fat goose still roaming around among these successive hordes of hungry soldiers? Surely in order that the narrator-hero might prove his mettle by slaughtering it, in the absence of a Polish prisoner to shoot or a fine lady to ruin.) So perverse is the way good art works, nonetheless, that the death of the goose is more memorable than the catalog of woes and horrors, the “disasters of war,” that make up so much of the tales. The Jew among Cossacks who had “suffered on the fields of learning” is a brilliant touch, and so is the farmyard metaphor of Lenin picking out the truth as a hen picks up a grain of corn. As a passionate Communist and believer in Lenin, Babel ardently wished to proselytize his comrades, unpromising material as they might seem, and yet his art in the story has the last say, leaving us with the impression that the Cossacks were not interested in Lenin’s exhortations, try as the narrator might to persuade them. It was the Jewish clerk himself they came eventually to accept as a comrade, rather than the distant leader of the revolution.
The narrator prays for what his experiences have made him feel is the simplest of all human abilities, that of killing one’s fellow men. But the goose notwithstanding—and the function of the goose is of course ironical—he never achieves it. In “Dolgushov’s Death,” a comrade called Dolgushov, fatally wounded and afraid of falling into the hands of the Poles, begs the narrator to shoot him, but he can’t do it. The narrator’s “friend” Afonka rides up at that moment and does the job for him.
“Afonka,” I said, riding up to him with a pitiful smile. “I couldn’t have done that.”
“Get lost, or I’ll shoot you!” he said to me, his face turning white. “You spectacled idiots have as much pity for us as a cat has for a mouse!”
And he cocked his trigger.
I rode off slowly, without looking back, a feeling of cold and death in my spine.
“Hey! Hey!” Grishchuk shouted behind me, and grabbed Afonka’s hand. “Cut the crap!”
“You damn lackey bastard!” Afonka yelled at Grishchuk. “Wait till I get my hands on him!”
Grishchuk caught up with me at the bend in the road. Afonka was not with him. He had ridden off in the opposite direction.
“Well, there you have it, Grishchuk,” I said to him. “Today I lost Afonka, my first real friend.”
Grishchuk took out a wrinkled apple from under the cart seat.
“Eat it,” he told me, “please eat it.”
Once again the effectiveness of the episode is obvious, more obvious than its truth, for this event also does not appear to figure in Babel’s diary.
In the early stories, mostly about his early years in Odessa, although some of these are brief, Maupassant-style anecdotes which Babel must have picked up later in France, the method is already almost fully developed. There is nonetheless something still tentative and even innocent about it which is very engaging. The very first story, “Old Shloyme,” is a case in point. The old man is devoured with anxieties, terrified he may lose his last warm corner in life. His story is soberly and convincingly recounted—old age imagined by the young Babel as vividly as the things he will make up and tell the prostitute (“bronze promissory notes”) which win him his first fee. Shloyme, a poor old Jew in Odessa, whose family, he feels, may have to abandon him, gets up in the night, trembling with cold, and quietly, so as not to awaken his daughter-in-law, goes outside and contrives to hang himself, managing with his dimming eyes to gaze at the town “he had not left…once in sixty years”:
There was a strong wind, and soon old Shloyme’s frail body began swaying before the door of his house in which he had left his warm stove and the greasy Torah of his forefathers.
Turgenev is said to have remarked that all Russian prose narrative had really come out from under Gogol’s story “The Overcoat”; and in the same way all the best qualities of Babel’s best writing could be said to come out from under his own first brief tale. Nonetheless, in a comparatively short writing career Babel tried out and tested his talents in a variety of different forms—stories, propaganda essays, plays that could not have been at all easy to cast and to produce, film scripts and projects for new kinds of film. They seem not to have had much success. In his tales and even at times it seems in his diaries he mixes the true and the imagined, reportage and Soviet uplift and ideology, so that it is sometimes hard to tell one from the other. Sergeant-Major Trunov, good-hearted, of peasant stock, a prototype of the military Stakhanovite, is held up as an example to all in an article in the magazine Red Cavalryman, “What We Need Is More Men Like Trunov!” Out on the steppe Trunov defended his company to the last against attacks by White airplanes dropping bombs and led, rather improbably one might think, by an American pilot called Major Fauntleroy. (Remarkably enough a Major Fauntleroy did actually exist, and was one of the mercenary adventurers flying Spads and Camels for the White general Wrangel and his army.)
On some occasions Babel’s taut prose, at once excited and blasé, can become almost elegiac—the tone of Wordsworth’s “Old unhappy far-off things/ And battles long ago.” At other moments in the Red Cavalry stories his voice is carried away by the sheer excitement of what he is doing, and by a remarkable mixture of feverish uplift and weary disgust with all the pointless and aimless brutality which so much revolutionary fervor has brought about.
The “Reports from Petersburg, 1918,” which precede the Red Cavalry tales in date of composition, although they come after them in this Complete Works, may remind us of another Wordsworthian comparison, the ecstatic moment in The Prelude when the young man is traveling in France just after the Revolution has broken out and exclaims retrospectively,
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven…
Babel of course had never given himself entirely over to the heady unrealities of revolutionary idealism. As a writer he could cast a cold eye even when most carried away by the fervor of the moment. Nor did he ever lose his Jewish sense of humor, that irrepressible amusement at the woodenness and deviousness of Soviet conformists which was to cost him his life many years later, from the long memories of malign thugs like Budyonny and Voroshilov.
Amusement and enthusiasm intermingled animate Babel’s reports from St. Petersburg, most strikingly in the piece “The Palace of Motherhood,” an example of Babel’s pro-revolutionary style at its most exuberant and uninhibited, and yet still with a slight undercurrent of skeptical comedy:
Eight women in bedroom slippers shuffle with the heavy tread of the pregnant through the Rastrellian halls, their large bellies sticking out.
There are only eight. But the palace belongs to them. And this is why it is called the Palace of Motherhood.
Eight women of Petrograd with gray faces and legs swollen from too much walking. Their past: months of standing in lines outside provision stores, factory whistles calling their husbands to the defense of the Revolution, the hard anxiety of war and the upheaval of the Revolution scattering people all over the place.
The recklessness of our destruction is already dispassionately handing us its invoice of unemployment and hunger. There are no jobs for the men returning from the front, their wives have no money to give birth, factories raise their frozen chimneys to the skies. A paper fog—paper money and paper of every other kind—flashes eerily past our stunned eyes and vanishes. And the earth keeps turning. People die, people are born.
I enjoy talking about the flickering flame of creation kindled in our empty little rooms. It is good that the buildings of the institute have not been snatched up by requisition and confiscation committees. It is good that oily cabbage soup is not poured from these white tables, and that no discussions of arrests, so common now, are to be heard.
This building will be called the Building of Motherhood. The decree says: “It will assist women in their great and strenuous duty.”
This palace breaks with the old jaillike traditions of the Foundling Home, where children died or, at best, were sent on to “foster parents.” Children must live. They must be born for “the building of a better life.”
That is the idea. But it has to be carried through to the end. We have to make a revolution at some point.
It could be argued that shouldering rifles and firing at each other might occasionally have its good points. But that is hardly a complete revolution. Who knows, it might not even be a revolution at all.
The tone of the piece is unique to Babel, though it may owe a little to his admired preceptor Gorky; but one can only wonder that when writing like that, the young Babel managed not only to stay alive but to prosper. One may feel nonetheless that like many really talented Soviet writers—Zamyatin and Bulgakov for instance—he had come to the end of the road as a writer before the worst of the purges began. There can of course be no certainty about this; had the times become more favorable, so many good writers who were compelled to cultivate what Babel called the “art of silence” might have come back to life; while in any case the sheer toughness and in a sense the self-sufficiency of poets like Pasternak and Akhmatova was to see them and their genius through the worst days to come.
Without a chance to see them performed it is almost impossible to assess the potential of Babel’s two plays, Sunset and Maria. But it scarcely seems as if he had much gift for the theater. He was at the same time too much of a loner and too ebullient in the pursuit of what was ultimately a very solitary vision to subdue his hand, as Shakespeare did, to the needs of the stage. The screenplays seem much more promising, and one can imagine Babel working effectively with Sergei Eisenstein and the teams who made Battleship Potemkin and Ivan the Terrible. And yet as Babel’s daughter, Nathalie, the editor of The Complete Works, more than once points out, and rightly, these screenplays read more like works of literature than scenarios. The editing in general is first-class, although for some reason “Bezhin Lug”—a Soviet propaganda rewriting of the story of the same name by Turgenev which was Henry James’s favorite, seems to have been missed among the screen scripts. Norton has produced the book admirably, and in its best scholarly tradition.
Nathalie Babel’s afterword is of particular interest. She and her mother were living at Niort in the west of France at the time of Hitler’s invasion of Russia, when all the Russians in German-occupied France were automatically arrested and sent to camps to be followed by many of the Jews. Nathalie’s mother remained under arrest, the Gestapo completing in the family circle what the KGB had begun, and her daughter valiantly importuned the German authorities until the town commandant consented to see her and to release her mother on condition that she report to him every day. Neither Nathalie nor her mother ever wore the Yellow Star that Jews in occupied Europe were condemned to wear, nor did they even declare their Jewishness. They were all too familiar with the ways of every new revolutionary totalitarianism, as in his own bitter way Nathalie’s father had himself become. As she wisely says, “My father was…filled with many contradictions, which are apparent in his stories and books. Perhaps his future biographer will explore further the many inconsistencies that marked his brief life.” On this matter Babel would have been in wry agreement with his daughter, as “The Palace of Motherhood” shows. At an early date Babel was very much aware not only that revolutions cease to be revolutionary but that they take to devouring their own children.
Nathalie’s mother, ill with cancer, told her daughter, who had not been much of a success at a French lyceé, of the domestic complications previously unknown to her, which her father had got himself into in Moscow. “You have a half-brother,” her mother said. “I left Russia mostly because of an affair your father was having with an actress, a very beautiful woman…. She wanted him and his fame, and had a son by him. Perhaps one day you might meet this man, and you should know he is your half-brother and not someone you could fall in love with.” In fact Nathalie never did meet him, although while she was working as a guide in Moscow at the time of a visit by a French workers’ delegation she met the members of still another of Babel’s families in Russia, blurting out her own name when she met Antonina Nikolayevna Pirozhkova and her daughter, Lydia, Nathalie’s half-sister, who emigrated to America in 1996.
The ambiguous figure of Ilya Ehrenburg, a natural survivor if ever there was one, enters the story when he seems to have been sent on Moscow’s orders to mislead and confuse Nathalie’s mother with reports that Babel might still be alive, might indeed have survived the war under house arrest or in exile prior to his rehabilitation. From reliable sources Babel’s wife knew this to be untrue; but Ehrenburg’s superiors presumably hoped that the word might get about among French Communists and intellectuals, many of whom were still enthusiastic Stalinists, that Babel was alive, or at least that Stalin’s secret police had never executed him. Babel’s wife came to detest Ehrenburg as a man who, having won all too many Lenin and Stalin prizes, and been on the inside of the Soviet establishment, might at least have done something to help her husband.
But even in the days of his first excitement and hope over the revolution Babel had never been a licker of the grander Communist boots, and it is doubtful if anything could have saved him. He had made too many enemies in high places who bided their time and did not forget. Budyonny launched his first attack on the Red Cavalry stories in 1924, but it was not until fifteen years later, when the new Communist or rather Stalinist anti-Semitism had become widespread in the higher circles of power, that he and his old cronies were able to take action.
However carefully he wrote, and however carefully he studied and worked at his effects, Babel remained deliberately a raw writer, concealing his skills under cover of an almost knockabout casualness; he was out to grate on his reader’s nerves, to shock, to disturb, and to horrify. Peter Constantine as a translator seems to me to understand this very well. Russian seldom or perhaps never sounds ugly, but he is careful to convey Babel’s new-style colloquial Russian at its most harsh and unaccommodating, rather than to smooth it down into a feebler and gentler English. The great nineteenth-century masters of Russian prose—Turgenev with his deliciously “creamy” style, as it has been called, Tolstoy’s long, agile sentences, even Dostoevsky’s rapid and clumsy euphony in such a key work as The Underground Man—Babel in one sense rejected them all, no doubt intentionally, as he gradually found how to say things in his own way, a revolutionary way.
Even so Babel remains a chameleon. One cannot pin down Shakespeare’s style, or (if one were a translator) settle into an idiom which would convey Shakespeare’s “style” in another language. The same must be true of Babel, and Peter Constantine makes the point very explicitly. He has found it fascinating, he says, to see how Babel’s style changes from work to work. “We are familiar with terms such as Proustian, Chekhovian, and Nabokovian, but, as I soon realized, the term ‘Babelian’ is harder to define….”
Babel’s first published piece, “Old Shloyme,” has very little in common with the style, or even with the linguistic feel, or rhythm of his second story. When writing about Odessa gangsters Babel uses an “elegant and surprising prose,” and the diction of the Red Cavalry stories are just as surprising, just as varied. Even the two plays, Constantine tells us, sound different from each other, and one would hardly believe that the man who wrote the powerful and appalling story “The Road,” about the murder and sexual mutilation of a Jewish intellectual on a train—a story which has haunted me since I first read it—could have produced the wholly different tone and style of “My First Fee.” Babel’s “ugly” effects should, as Peter Constantine obviously feels, be rendered into a similar style of English; he is surely right to avoid what might seem an elegiac ending to “My First Goose”—“My heart, stained with bloodshed, grated and brimmed over”—rendering it instead literally and with all the histrionic violence Babel sometimes adopts: “My heart, crimson with murder, screeched and bled.” That hits hard in either language, but then Babel was a hard hitter by nature, intent on making a new literature to go with the new world he saw coming; a world that was first to disillusion and finally to destroy him.
April 11, 2002
Isaac Babel, 1920 Diary, edited by Carol J. Arins, translated by H.T. Willetts (Yale University Press, 1995). ↩