The Fictioning

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Thursday, February 21st, 2002


The Complete Works of Isaac Babel

by Isaac Babel

Effects and Causes

A review by James Wood

Isaac Babel's writing was both short-legged and short-lived: his stories are truly short, and the best of them were produced in two quick firings, two claps of history, between 1923 and 1925 and between 1929 and 1934. This sense of compacted intensity is appropriate, because Babel's prose is distinguished by its determination to render a sudden essence. He was himself obsessed with reduction, with omission, with the necessary famine of severe self-editing. His writing is startlingly discontinuous. In a typical Babel paragraph, each sentence seems to disavow its role in the ordinary convoy of meaning and narrative, and appears to want to begin the story anew. Here is the beginning of one of his finest stories, "My First Fee":

To be in Tiflis in spring, to be twenty years old, and not to be loved — that is a misfortune. Such a misfortune befell me. I was working as a proofreader for the printing press of the Caucasus Military District. The Kura River bubbled beneath the windows of my attic. The sun in the morning, rising from behind the mountains, lit up the river's murky knots. I was renting a room in the attic from a newlywed Georgian couple. My landlord was a butcher at the Eastern Bazaar. In the room next door, the butcher and his wife, in the grip of love, thrashed about like two large fish trapped in a jar. The tails of these crazed fish thumped against the partition, rocking the whole attic, which was blackened by the piercing sun....

Babel was a keen reader of Maupassant and Flaubert; but his hunger for the mot juste feels very different from Flaubert's. Valéry rightly complained that in Flaubert "there is always room for another detail." In Babel, we have the curious feeling that there is not enough room for another detail, that detail is clamoring to escape. The narrative advances, but sideways. And there is no patience for explanation, there is rather a battle of propositions. The sentences have lost their connective tissue: we are told that the narrator was working as a proofreader, and in the next moment we are asked to see the Kura River from the narrator's attic window. But only for a hovering second, for then we are introduced to the narrator's landlord.

Yet along with this high degree of interruption goes a jumpy kind of repetition: the word "misfortune" appears in the first sentence, and then again in the second; the Kura River appears once, and then again in the next sentence, as "the river's murky knots." The landlord and his wife are likened to a thumping fish, and the next sentence repeats this simile, in order to develop it; and the sun in the morning, which shines over the Kura River, is also the "piercing sun" that, we are later told, has blackened the attic in which the narrator lives. This might as well be a definition of modernism: rhythmic discontinuity.

Babel's prose constantly forces different temporalities together into one time signature. The habitual or eternal (the sun, the bubbling river) lies alongside the daily or traditional (the butcher at work in the Eastern Bazaar) and then alongside the immediate moment of the story (the young man's job, the landlord and his wife thumping like fish). But while Flaubert would observe the cosmic narratological hierarchy whereby the writer, when setting a scene, starts large and then narrows — eternal landscape followed by more recent town followed by immediate subject — Babel darts around in any order, shredding narrative etiquette and gathering all detail into the fist of an eternal present.

It is an art of great innovation, and also of some limitation. Singly experienced, Babel's stories are fizzing spots of time. Some of the Red Cavalry stories are vignettes of only two pages. But the reader who reads all of the stories, going through them as if through one extended work, may weary at times of this lively accumulation of omissions, and may see not only the melodrama in this work, but the high cost of Babel's vivid, grotesque, theatrical externality, which is the great lack of any inwardness in any of his characters. Babel's art may be a decisively modern one, but its diminishment when compared with Chekhov or Tolstoy is in proportion to its modern resistance to ordinariness or patience — in language, activity, and thought. In this sense, whatever Babel's final relation to Soviet ideology, his art is devoted to revolution. One may at times miss the hierarchical lento of the ancien régime.

This magnificent edition of the complete Babel is, then, a mixed blessing. It certainly represents a triumph of translation, editing, and publishing. Beautiful to hold, scholarly and also popularly accessible, it is an enactment of love. As far as the nonRussianist can tell, Peter Constantine's translation is extraordinary. There are very few writers one reads in translation with any kind of greed for style, but Babel, thanks to Constantine, is one. Sentence after sentence — and Babel's sentences are some of the most dynamically potent in literature — gleams in its rented English, and merely to quote some of them is to credit Constantine's verbal ingenuity and flexibility: "He had a wart on his face from which a tuft of ashen, feline hair sprouted." "The green glimmer of snow." "Water trickled off the riverbanks, leaving a blue satin shadow." "The oily sparkle of its chandeliers." "The furrowed snows swarmed with polar brilliance." "Gray old men with ossified ears."

Constantine has translated everything: stories, filmscripts, the Diary of 1920, early and late journalism, sketches for the stories. Excellent notes, introductions, and a dense chronology make this thousand-page book the fullest edition of Babel's work in any language, including Russian. But fullness means also fullness of exposure. In addition to the revelation of Babel's limitations, there is the revelation of his journalism, which was perhaps known among scholars, but not among ordinary readers. This revelation cannot do his reputation any good.

Babel famously rode as a correspondent with the Red Cavalry in 1920, in the war that broke out between the new Soviet republic and the new nation of Poland. He wrote four dispatches for The Red Cavalryman, the newspaper distributed to the fighters of the cavalry. Clearly, Babel's main occupation while with the cavalry was as a silent and crafty scout for the great stories that he would write only a few years later. He was collecting, collecting: he was taking details prisoner. But it is dismaying to encounter, amid these riches of observation and language, four tinny pieces of propaganda.

Suddenly there are unpleasant juxtapositions. The savage and brilliant story "Squadron Commander Trunov" tells of the demented last hours of a wounded Soviet commander. Babel's stories frequently mixed real and fictitious names and events, and this Trunov existed, and was commander of the Thirty-Fourth Cavalry Regiment. In the story, Trunov, bleeding from a gash in his head "like rain from a haystack," has taken some Polish prisoners, and wants to kill them forthwith. He plunges his saber into the gullet of one of them, and shoots another, so that his brain "spatters" onto the hands of the narrator, who remonstrates fiercely with Trunov. Headquarters won't let you get away with this! says the narrator, to which Trunov replies: "At headquarters they'll chalk it up to the rotten life we live." Suddenly four bombers appear in the sky, and a little later Trunov is killed in the aerial bombardment. The story ends with the ironic lyricism that is characteristic of many of these tales: Trunov, the butcherer, is buried in the local town, "in a flower bed, in the public park in the middle of the town." A public park: Babel's story, a stanza written in dejection, effectively asks us to "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"

Yet one of Babel's propaganda pieces is a eulogy for this same Trunov, clangingly entitled "What We Need Is More Men Like Trunov!", and ending with this pronouncement: "If there were more Trunovs among us, the masters of this world would be finished." One is grateful that Babel kept his art so separate from his official work, but the suggestion of duplicity, of utterly different private and public thought, opens an abyss in the understanding of this writer — an abyss that is widened by the publication here of seven pieces of official Soviet journalism, written from Paris in 1935. By this time, late in his life, Babel is thought to have been disillusioned by Soviet tyranny, and there has been much speculation about why he did not stay in Paris. (He attended the International Congress of Writers in the city in that year.) The conclusion has been that Babel felt himself to be thoroughly a Russian writer, and could not bear to leave his native material. But the journalism, at least on its face, gives evidence of political doctrine, of revolutionary commitment.

There is an article about French schools ("our children differ very favorably from French children in strength and uncomplicated healthy cheerfulness"), and a little squib about Marseille. A great port town, says Babel, but note how the hill villas of the rich look down on the poor little back streets: "Comrades, that's capitalism for you!" And there is a piece about how Communist the suburbs of Paris have become: "A Red belt surrounds Paris, and the hour is approaching when, to the joy of all progressive men and women, the Red suburbs will unite with a Red Paris."

The journalism, in other words, is trash, and menacing trash. Babel's fictional prose style has much in common with Joseph Roth's, but Roth proved himself the truer observer overall, for Roth was an undeceived journalist, who visited Russia in the 1920s and early on perceived the dangers of rampant Bolshevism. Babel's Diary, a journal of his time with the cavalry, which was not published in his lifetime, suggests a revolutionary fervor tempered not so much by a clear-sightedness about the viciousness and the plunder of revolution itself — as kindly Babel scholars tend to claim — but by an easier clear-sightedness about the viciousness and the plunder of the brutal Cossack soldiers who were his effective colleagues-in-arms.

Babel does indeed see that "this is not a Marxist Revolution, it is a Cossack uprising that wants to win all and lose nothing." He does indeed see that "we are destroying, moving forward like a whirlwind, like lava, hated by all, life is being shattered to pieces, I am at a huge, never-ending service for the dead." But the necessity for revolution is not in doubt: "the dirt, the apathy, the hopelessness of Russian life are unbearable, the Revolution will do some good work here." Even in the Red Cavalry stories themselves, which constitute marvelously subtle, tragic, and often comic commentaries on the desecration of revolutionary activity, Babel hews to the belief that the masters — one is seen as "a pre-reform rat of a nobleman" — must be deposed, that the Catholic Church is a slippery and Jesuitical organ of aristocratic power and superstitious oppression, that the peasants have been enslaved by the profit-motive, and that revolution is and should be exportable: "Here, with the ropes of profit, the Jews had bound the Russian muzhiks to the Polish Pans, and the Czech settlers to the factory in Lodz."

The knowledge of Babel's ideological enthusiasm does not detract from the stories; it merely qualifies one's assessment of his complete work, an assessment only now requested by the publication of that complete work. Babel was murdered in 1940, after being accused by the NKVD of "espionage." He was, obviously, a victim of the Soviet monstrosity — but not in the way that Mandelstam and Bulgakov were its victims. There has been a tendency to see Babel as boxed in by an ideology that he barely supported. The late journalism makes that box something of a circle: Babel was killed by violence, and he was not a violent man; but he was also killed by a lie, and he had lied that lie. A Red belt had indeed surrounded not Paris, but Babel.


Isaac Babel was born in Odessa in 1894. Like Kipling, he was very precocious; he had a sharp, instinctive talent for observation and narrative already in his teenage years. Gorky, whom he revered, published his early stories in 1916. To judge from the autobiographical stories that Babel wrote in later years — they are his greatest pieces of work — he grew up with an inflamed fantasy of both Jewish sickliness and non-Jewish healthiness. Two of these stories, "My First Dovecote" and "First Love," concern the pogrom of 1905. In "First Love," the little Babel sees his father beg help from a magnificent Cossack captain, seen in all his Tolstoyan grandeur in "striped trousers" and "lemon suede gloves." "Over there," says the father, "they're smashing everything I've worked for all my life, Captain." The Cossack finely replies: "I will see to it!", and does nothing at all. The contradictory vision displayed in this story, the reverence for the physical power of the Cossack and the merciless awareness of how inimical to Jews that physical power could be, runs through all of Babel's Red Cavalry fiction. "Like all Jews, I was short in stature, weak, and plagued by headaches," the young narrator of "My First Dovecote" tells us.

"The Awakening," another of the later autobiographical stories, set in Babel's childhood Odessa, tells of the comic episode in which Babel's father sends his young son to the local violin teacher to groom him to be a prodigy. Odessa, after all, had produced Heifetz, Zimbalist, Mischa Elman. "Our fathers, seeing they had no prospects of their own, set up a lottery for themselves. They built this lottery on the bones of their little children." But the little Babel is very bad at the violin — "sounds scraped out of my violin like iron filings" — and he plays truant, running down to the harbor with a school friend. Alas, he cannot swim. "The hydrophobia of my ancestors, the Spanish rabbis and Frankfurt money changers, dragged me to the bottom." But a "local water god," a proofreader for an Odessa newspaper, takes pity, and tries to teach him. The proofreader, divining that the little boy yearns to be a writer, accuses him of lacking a feel for nature. A real writer, says the man, must know the names of trees.

Though the story's comic frame concerns the discovery by Babel's father that his son has not been attending his violin lessons — there is shouting and tears, and fat Auntie Bobka, "quivering with sobs," restrains the father from nearly murdering his son — the heart of the story has to do with "awakening." The narrator awakens into healthy nature, and dies to the deadly, sickly forcing of traditional Jewish aspiration. "How late I learned the essential things in life! In my childhood, nailed to the Gemara, I led the life of a sage, and it was only later, when I was older, that I began to climb trees."

But the writer, of course, has always really chosen a "sickly" trade; Babel knows this as well as Thomas Mann did. And writing can become sickly insofar as it cooperates with, connives at, and even darkly lusts after abuses of so-called "healthy" power. "The Story of My Dovecote," in which a dove is crushed against the face of little Babel, was written after, and perhaps contains an echo of, one of the Red Cavalry stories, "My First Goose," in which the narrator, a bespectacled writer, is billeted with a group of rough Cossacks who exclude him from their company. Only when the writer has brutally killed a goose ("its head cracking beneath my boot") do the Cossacks admit the new addition, who has thus proved his mettle. Newly accepted, he reads Lenin's latest speech to them from Pravda, and that night, as he sleeps, his heart, "crimson with murder, screeched and bled." Again one notes the ironic closing, whereby the narrator's guilt may refer not only to his earlier brutality towards the poor goose, but more generally to the "murder" of the Cossacks, and even to the murder in Lenin's speech.


From Flaubert, Babel learned how to ration commentary; from Dostoevsky and Gorky, he learned that Russian history was a catalogue of violence and tragedy; from Gogol, he learned about grotesque portraiture; from Tolstoy, he learned that detail should be always dynamic, always attached to activity.

In his descriptions of revolutionary bloodshed in Sentimental Education, Flaubert surely founded the calm control of war-writing so crucial to the effects of Babel, Crane, and Hemingway. "Frédéric felt something soft under his foot; it was the hand of a sergeant in a grey overcoat who was lying face down in the gutter." When Roque fires into a crowd of prisoners and shoots someone, Flaubert writes: "There was a tremendous howl, then nothing. Something white remained on the edge of the grating." This is powerful: the withdrawal of obvious sympathy coaxes a proportionate craving for it on the reader's part, and forces us to imagine what is being left unsaid. Babel's fiction makes use of this method again and again: "There was something more Korostelyov had wanted to say, but he didn't manage to." Korostelyov has just been brutally shot by a local commissar.

The danger of this style lies in its aestheticism. A style that, as it were, refuses to get emotionally involved may seem at times to act as if it denies its own subject matter, as if the subject is not there at all. There are times when Babel's style does indeed sink into aestheticism. He invokes sunset, moon, lightning, and the sky so regularly, but with such reliable vividness, that his visual eccentricity can seem formulaic, the equivalent of Chagall's flying troikas and tilting houses. "The blue tongue of the flame mingled with the June lightning." "Smoke from tobacco melted into the blueish lightning that flashed over the steppes." "The sunset was boiling in the skies, a sunset thick as jam...." "Green lightning bolts blazed over the cupolas." "The naked shine of the moon poured over the town with unquenchable strength." "The village street lay before us, and the dying sun in the sky, round and yellow as a pumpkin, breathed its last breath." "A timid star flashed in the orange battles of sunset." The essential unnaturalness of reading a lot of stories at once is here revealed. Were these many pages the pages of a single novel, Babel would doubtless have thinned his luxuries.

But Babel's prose, despite its great sponsors, sounds like nobody else's. Much of this has to do with the extraordinary discontinuities of his writing. And much of it has to do with a related quality: exaggeration, of which Babel was a master, and sometimes a servant. Consider the story "The Awakening." The narrator, as we have seen, describes how the Jewish fathers bullied their sons into music. "They built this lottery on the bones of their little children." The sentence is flamingly alive — and obviously untrue. "The Awakening," in fact, abounds with sentences of the most impertinent exaggeration: "Zagursky [the local violin teacher] ran a factory that churned out child prodigies, a factory of Jewish dwarfs in lace collars and patent leather shoes." Once the boy has escaped to the harbor, "the heavy waves by the harbor wall separated me more and more from a home reeking of onions and Jewish fate." And later: "the hydrophobia of my ancestors, the Spanish rabbis and Frankfurt money changers, dragged me to the bottom."

These sentences have the Babel flair: they pounce on reality, and collapse epochs into themselves. In Babel, every narrative proposition is flauntingly rendered. Mandelstam's prose has something of this emphasis, too: in The Noise of Time, the poet's memoir, there appears a man who is bowed over by "an excess of Jewishness and Populism." But Babel is more extreme, reaching for wild and brilliant linkages. In "Guy de Maupassant," the narrator works for a handsome, wealthy, and well-built Jewish woman: "these women transmute the money of their resourceful husbands into the lush pink fat on their bellies, napes, and round shoulders." These sentences then accrue an extra scandal from their context. For Babel is continually asserting figurative connections — male money becomes female fat, Jewish musical prowess rests on childish bones — where such connections are not immediately apparent; and this is accomplished in paragraphs where the very idea of connection and continuity is constantly being interrupted and challenged. If his stories progress sideways, sliding from unconnected sentence to sentence, then the very sentences vault forward within themselves at the same moment.

But it must be admitted that this can also be the mode of melodrama. (Babel read Dickens and refers to him in one of the stories.) It is no great distance from violin lessons populated by Jewish "dwarfs" to the story's final scene, in which the little boy has locked himself in the bathroom, while outside the women sob, father tears his hair, and "Auntie Bobka, quivering with sobs, was grinding her fat shoulder against the door." It is no great step from a home "reeking with onions and Jewish fate" to the somewhat excessive and even vulgar depiction, in "The Church in Novograd," one of the Red Cavalry stories, of the Catholic Church. In that story, the narrator sits in the kitchen of Eliza, the priest's housekeeper. "Her sponge cakes had the aroma of crucifixion. Within them was the sap of slyness and the fragrant frenzy of the Vatican." Really? And lest we think that only Catholic cakes have their own ethnic sap, we have Auntie Bobka in the story "In the Basement": "Into that pie she put the heart of our tribe, the heart that has withstood so many tribulations."

This is uncomfortably close to mere phrase-making. In particular, Babel's Odessa stories are streaked with melodrama and pantomime. The Odessa gangsters, who are forcefully rendered in some of these tales, speak only in exclamation marks ("Get out of here, you lout! ... You've clapped your eyes on a slop bucket!"); but then so does Auntie Bobka ("her fat, kindly breasts bounced in all directions"), and so does Grandfather Levy-Itskhok ("his single tooth jiggled in his mouth"). In general, it can fairly be said that Babel's stories exhibit a very wide range of characters who themselves have a rather small range of attributes. Is it fair to say that essentially all his characters, even the Jews, are Cossacks of a kind? For he tends to arrest human beings in a moment of intense singleness, so that they quiver with essence; and more often than not, since this essence is necessarily strong, his characters are blocks of appetite. Unlike Chekhov, Babel has almost no interest in the weak — except in the weak writer, silently viewing all this mayhem, violence, and bloody theater from behind his mild spectacles.

Yet the melodramatic element in Babel's work, which can produce, over time, a monotonous excitability, cannot really be separated from what is great in his work. When we examine a bad sentence in Babel, we immediately sense its kinship with a good one. Consider "his single tooth jiggled in his mouth." Or, better, this line about a nurse: "The pince-nez on Judith's nose bounced, her breasts swelled out of her starched coat." What is untrue about these sentences is that they are rendering a specific action or event — the bouncing of a pince-nez, the jiggling of a tooth — as habitual, even eternal happenings. But this swift compacting is precisely what lends Babel's best prose its remarkable, almost atomic power to create instant energy. Here is a description of staff headquarters, from "At Saint Valentine's":

I read the documents. The snoring of the orderlies behind me bespoke our never-ending homelessness. The clerks, sodden with sleeplessness, wrote orders to the division, ate pickles, and sneezed.

And here is a passage about the violin teacher, from "The Awakening":

The door of the inner sanctum opened. Large-headed, freckled children came bustling out of Zagursky's chamber, their necks thin as flower stalks, a convulsive flush on their cheeks. Then the door closed, swallowing up the next dwarf. In the adjacent room Zagursky, with his red curls, bow tie, and thin legs, sang and conducted in ecstasy. The founder of this freakish lottery filled the Moldavanka and the back alleys of the old bazaar with specters of pizzicato and cantilena.

And here is the beginning of "Gedali":

On the eve of the Sabbath I am always tormented by the dense sorrow of memory. In the past on these evenings, my grandfather's yellow beard caressed the volumes of Ibn Ezra. My old grandmother, in her lace bonnet, waved spells over the Sabbath candle with her gnarled fingers, and sobbed sweetly.

In each of these passages, every narrative proposition is seized as a picture. And this picture works by taking momentary extremity of emotion and rendering it as habitual. The picture distends and arrests time. Thus, the clerks are seen as writing, eating pickles, and sneezing all at the same time, in one sentence. Zagursky is seen as only singing and conducting in ecstasy, whereas there were presumably many unecstatic days. And the narrator's old grandmother is seen as habitually sobbing sweetly over the Sabbath candles, whereas in likelihood there were also some dry-eyed Sabbaths. (That last passage shows how closely this style of writing resembles Old Country sentimentality.)

In his Diary, Babel often makes a note to himself to "remember the picture." His style is clearly a painterly procedure, akin to the techniques of the vivid icons celebrated in his story "Pan Apolek." It is very powerful, in several different ways. It drops a single blot of essence onto the page, a potent pigment of activity. It is ideally suited to very short stories, and much less suited to the novel: if we only see Zagursky once, we had better see him bow-tied and conducting in ecstasy.

An atmosphere at once modern and antique is created, which may be the true novelty that we feel when reading Babel. He feels modern because detail is so interrupted and shaped and angled that it always seems the writer's own impression of detail, and hence has the feel of something recollected, something filtered through memory (it is close to the technique of stream of consciousness); but it seems antique, almost fable-like, because when human beings are frozen in sharp, habitual activities, they are made eternal, made into pieces of landscape and climate. Old grandmother forever sobbing over the Sabbath flame is necessarily at one with "the naked shine of the moon" and the many evocations of sunsets in Babel's work.

Melodrama thrives on this singleness; melodrama is really just the drama of singleness, and Babel's is certainly a perilous art. And painterliness is the cousin of aestheticism. Babel's exuberant literary friezes or icons are obsessed with the rendering of dynamic essences: Zagursky in ecstasy, grandmother sobbing, Auntie Bobka bouncing, Trunov plunging his saber into the Pole's throat, and so on. In Babel, character tends to be instantly converted into function, and emotion into activity. Do you want to see a clerk? Then I will show you him eating pickles and sneezing and saturated in sleeplessness. My grandmother? Here she is, sobbing over the candle.

In such a world of activity and function, the only possessor of inwardness, the only vessel of vulnerability, the only carrier of sensitivity, is the writer himself — and this represents the glorious, final, murderous triumph of style. Babel famously likened the writer to a man with spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart. At times one wishes that he had hoarded that writerly autumn less jealously, and daubed his characters more generously with its complicating dapple.

James Wood is a senior editor at TNR.

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