Isaac Babel - The orange sun is rolling above the sky like a severed head. He who doesn't read Babel is surely doomed

Isaac Babel, The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, Trans. by Peter Constantine (W. W. Norton, 2001)

"Arguably the best book of short stories published in 2001, The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, expertly translated by Peter Constantine, should affirm Babel's place among the top Russian short story writers. Like Chekhov, Isaac Babel primarily wrote odd, tightly wrung little stories in which he displays a variety of convincing styles and tones, with each piece having an immediacy and weight that exceeds its brevity.
Babel's writing life lasted approximately 20 years. (He was executed by Stalin after a few military subjects unflatteringly portrayed in his "Red Cavalry" stories gained positions of influence.) His most notable stories depict the Russian civil war and Jewish soldiers, his childhood, and Jewish thugs in his native Odessa. Often journalistic in style, his stories provided gripping war accounts to Russians eager for news from the front, as in this passage from "The Church in Novograd":
'We drank rum, waiting for the military commissar, but he still hadn't come back from the headquarters. Romuald had collapsed in a corner and fallen asleep. He slept and quivered, while beyond the window an alley seeped into the garden beneath the black passion of the sky. Thirsting roses swayed in the darkness. Green lightning bolts blazed over the cupolas. A naked corpse lay on the embankment. And the rays of the moon streamed through the dead legs that are pointing upward. So this is Poland... '
This collection is a delight for its organization: the stories are grouped by periods, feature introductions, and include helpful maps. The preface and afterward by his daughter and editor, Nathalie Babel, are insightful. Also included are two plays, several screenplays, a chronology, and an introduction by Cynthia Ozick. The Complete Works of Isaac Babel should be a welcome addition to readers of literature everywhere." - Michael Ferch

"One of the great Russian writers of the 20th century, Babel (1894-1941) was arrested in 1939 and later executed by Stalin's regime. In 1954, his work was largely republished, but much of his correspondence, drafts, and manuscripts was confiscated when he was arrested and has never resurfaced. Now, for the first time, all of Babel's surviving work has been assembled into one volume. Readers new to Babel will discover his "Red Cavalry" stories, plays, diaries, screenplays, and short stories. In addition to an introduction by Cynthia Ozick, the book is graced with an excellent preface and afterword by Babel's daughter, who also edited the volume. She provides recently uncovered information about her father's arrest and execution as well as personal remembrances. With the publication of this volume of Babel's work, it is hoped that a full-scale biography will follow. - Ron Ratliff

"Although perhaps not the most well known of the early twentieth century Jewish writers from Russia and Eastern Europe, Isaac Babel's work certainly deserves more attention. I first came across him in a college short fiction textbook which included his story, "My First Goose." This powerful story is about an outsider, the other in current critical parlance—both because he is a Jew and an intellectual—who is assigned to join a new red army unit. He arrives only to be met with abuse: "A young lad with long, flaxen hair and a beautiful Ryazan face walked over to my trunk and hurled it out of the gate. Then he turned his posterior to me and, with a special knack, began to emit some disreputable sounds." Dismayed at the hostility of the Cossacks and unsure of how he will be able to survive among them, he takes out his frustrations by killing an old peasant woman's goose and ordering her to prepare it for his dinner. Almost absurdly, it is this through this act of cruelty, an act that would seem to be quite alien to his character, that he is accepted by the rest of the soldiers. They see in this act of barbarism a kinship. The most senior of the Cossacks approaches him, calls him "Brother," and asks him to join in their supper. He reads to them. He goes to sleep with them. But though he is accepted by them, his acceptance has come at a price: "I had dreams and saw women in my dreams, and only my heart, stained crimson with murder, squeaked and overflowed."
Recently, while browsing through a used book store, I came across the Penguin paperback edition of Babel's Collected Stories. Whatever the great expectations "My First Goose" raised in me, the stories in this collection didn't disappoint. The stories are divided into four groups: "Early Stories," "'Autobiographical' Stories," "Red Cavalry" (the volume which originally contained "My First Goose"), and "Odessa Stories."
The stories, sometimes more like sketches, in "Red Cavalry" describe his experiences when he joined the Red Cossacks in the short 1920 war against Poland. His emphasis is on how the horrors of war effect affect the men who fight—some rising to heroic action, some unable to cope; some unexpectedly rising to leadership, some escaping to brutalism. The stories demonstrate that little has changed in the way men deal with the barbarities of war. A young peasant is elevated to a position of leadership in the field, and he rides away from battle with "the lordly indifference of a Tartar kahn." On the other hand the narrator complains ""The chronicle of our humdrum evil doings constricts me indefatigably, like a heart complaint." A red Cossack takes vicious revenge on white Russian villagers who were complicit in the murder of his parents.
The "Odessa Stories" are a kind of Yiddish version of The Godfather. Benya Krik, the central figure of many of these tales is a Jewish Don Corleone. He rules the town with an iron hand. When the police plan to raid the wedding (there is even a wedding) of his sister, he has the police station burned down. When the richest dairy farmer in the area refuses to pay him protection, he has all his cows killed. When he decides he wants to marry the man's daughter, the farmer has no choice but to agree to the match. Krik is a reminder that Italians don't necessarily have a monopoly on the underworld.
While the "Autobiographical Stories" may not be all that autobiographical, they do seem to depict an authentic moment in the history of the Russian Jewish community through the eyes of what may well be a typical Jewish child. In "The Story of My Dovecote," the young narrator's childhood innocence embodied in his purchase of pet doves is destroyed by a brutal pogrom, which not only kills his birds, but his Grand-uncle as well. "First Love" continues the tale, as the reader is shown the devastating effect of the pogrom on the boy's father. Other stories emphasize the importance of learning and art as a means for the Jewish child to get ahead in the gentile world. It is by their intelligence that the Jews hope to make a better life for themselves. It is ironic, that it is this very intelligence that provokes the animosity of the Cossack soldiers in "My First Goose," that it is the reversion to animalistic brutalism that finds acceptance.
Isaac Babel is a writer whose work deserves to be better known. He gives life to a world long gone, but in many ways not much different from the world today." - Jack Goodstein

"My first reaction to this book was surprise at its size: had Isaac Babel, the meticulous Russian stylist, the man who referred to himself as a master of "the genre of silence", really written so much? The book includes two plays, several screenplays and Babel's diaries from his spell as a war correspondent with the Red cavalry in 1920. It includes vivid sketches of post-Revolutionary Petersburg and Georgia, which prompt the translator, Peter Constantine, to call Babel a "pioneer of investigative journalism".
There is also a memoir by Babel's daughter, Nathalie, who writes of the pain of being exposed, over almost 50 years, to ever-changing revelations about her father's life and death. Only in the early Nineties was it established that he was shot, accused of being a Trotskyist terrorist and foreign spy, on 26 January 1940.
Most important, there are the short stories for which Babel has long been famous. There is a group of semi-autobiographical narratives, mostly set in the Black Sea port of Odessa where Babel was born in 1894. There are the Odessa Tales: a comic, expressionistic celebration of the lives of gangsters and whores in the Jewish quarter of this sun-drenched Russian equivalent to Naples or Palermo. And there is Babel's greatest work, Red Cavalry: the fruit of his months as a war correspondent.
The first stories from this cycle were published in 1924 and brought Babel immediate recognition. With their demotic language and vivid depictions of violence, they seemed a perfect response to demands for a new, truly Soviet prose. The poet Nadezhda Mandelstam has written: "I had the feeling that Babel's main driving force was the unbridled curiosity with which he scrutinised life and people." She has also written that Babel always wanted to surprise. These two qualities are as apparent in his writing as in his behaviour. His style is a constant series of surprises, of leaps between the laconic and the florid, the emotional and the dispassionate, the factual and metaphorical. Babel's curiosity is no less apparent: including his curiosity about matters most of us might prefer not to know about.
It is uncertain whether Babel witnessed pogroms in his youth, but he was clearly fascinated by sadism and violence. Once he boasted to a friend: "I've now learned to watch calmly as people are shot." He was on friendly terms with Yezhov, head of the secret police during the height of the Purges. According to Nadezhda Mandelstam, her husband Osip once asked Babel why he was drawn to such people. Was it a desire to see what it was like in the exclusive store where the merchandise was death? Did he want to touch it with his fingers? No, Babel replied. "I just like to have a sniff and see what it smells like."
However perverted this seems, there is nothing voyeuristic about Babel's art. The greatness of Red Cavalry stems from the depth and clarity of Babel's understanding of the human capacity for violence. Sadism and vengefulness, in Babel's world, come in a variety of guises, and victims and executioners absorb one another's identity.
"My First Goose", for example, begins with Lyutov, the Babel-like figure who narrates many stories, arriving at a divisional HQ. The commander mockingly warns him: "Here you get hacked to pieces just for wearing glasses." Lyutov is duly tormented by the Cossacks with whom he is billeted. Even the mistress of the house refuses to feed him. In his frustration, Lyutov catches a "haughty goose" as it waddles through the yard and finishes it off with a sabre, winning some respect from the Cossacks he so admires. But Lyutov's triumph is incomplete. His heart "screeched and bled" through the night: his inner being, like the goose, has been "hacked to pieces".
In another story, Lyutov (whose name, ironically, means "fierce one") is unable to shoot Dolgushov, a mortally wounded telephonist who fears that, as the cavalry retreat, he will be captured – and tortured – by the Poles. Another Cossack calmly shoots Dolgushov and then turns on Lyutov: "Get lost, or I'll shoot you... You spectacled idiots have as much pity for us as a cat has for a mouse."
Not all of Babel's depth and subtlety is conveyed by these translations. Babel revered Flaubert and Maupassant and is no less fine a stylist. And his deepest insights are often voiced through careful effects of style. In the passage above, the intensity of Lyutov's unconscious identification with wounded Dolgushov is brought out by a simple repetition. Dolgushov's "intestines were slithering on to his knees" and "sweat was slithering down my body". The effect is easy enough to reproduce, but Constantine has the intestines "spilling" and the sweat "slithering".
These translations are the best we have, but Babel is an uncommonly difficult writer to translate. Some pages of this volume read superbly, others are marred by lapses of tone or understanding. Had he been able to devote another year or two to the task, Constantine might well have produced a definitive translation. Not all publishers will accept it can take many times longer to translate a writer of the calibre of Babel than a less subtle writer." - Robert Chandler

"In late May 1920, the First Cavalry of the Soviet Red Army, under the command of General Budyonny, rode into Volhynia, today the border region of western Ukraine and eastern Poland. The Russian-Polish campaign was under way, the new Soviet government's first foreign offensive, which was viewed back in Moscow as the first step toward spreading the doctrine of World Revolution to Poland, then to Europe, then to the world. Babel chronicled this campaign in his Red Cavalry stories",... blending "fiction and fact, creating a powerful effect that is particularly poignant in his rendering of the atrocities of war. The stories were published in magazines and newspapers between 1923 and 1926.... In 1926, thirty-four of the stories were included in the book Konarmia (translated into English as Red Calvary), which quickly went into eight editions and was translated into English, French, Italian, Spanish, and German."- The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, pages 197-200
The short pieces that make up the Red Cavalry stories (and the additional stories in the “Red Cavalry Cycle” section in The Complete Works of Isaac Babel) are brief tales from the author riding with the First Calvary during the Russian-Polish war (see the above excerpt for the stories’ context). The stories may intersect with other stories, continue previous tales, tell the fate of characters introduced earlier, or in a few cases they stand alone. The collection as a whole is greater than the sum of the individual tales, the minor portraits adding up to an expansive canvas. Since Babel is new to me, I found his style quite a pleasure. Or rather his styles, since most of the stories were unique in their approach in narration. Two characteristics, however, are consistent throughout his writing (and not just in these tales)—irony and ambiguity. The sparseness of prose does not lessen the powerful force in the choice of words. The similes and metaphors really stand out in the combination of their economy and descriptiveness (all quotes from the Peter Constantine translation), adding dimensions in the comparison:
•Regarding Eliza, a Jesuit priest’s housekeeper: “Her sponge cakes ad the aroma of crucifixion.” (The Church in Novograd)
•“…(W)ho was living at the time in Radzivillov, a mangled little town that looked like a tattered old whore.” “Both of us looked upon the world as a meadow in May over which women and horses wander.” (The Story of a Horse)
•“The orange sun is rolling above the sky like a severed head…”. (Crossing the River Zbrucz)
As the last simile insinuates, the war and the atrocities it bred are a large focus of these stories. “Crossing the River Zbrucz” starts off as a simple story describing the cavalry entering Polish territory. But the description of nature takes a sinister and ghastly turn, mimicking the carnage that is occurring all around. The violence invades the narrator’s subconscious, directing his dreams as well as his somnambulant actions. “The Letter” highlights violence between family members, and (to me) raises the question of how much brutality was already present but fragilely kept in check. “The Road to Brody” depicts “(t)he chronicle of our everyday crimes”, going beyond the direct brutality of humans but affecting the living world as well as indirectly impacting people (through needlessly destroying their livelihood, for example). A different Coassack narrates the bulk of “Berestechko,” and his ease and casual nature in describing atrocities adds another layer of revulsion for the reader. Several stories in the “Cycle” tales don’t hesitate in describing the uses of rape during war. Sometimes the surreal nature of war and everyday life is highlighted, such as in “Czesniki” where people are concerned about breeding their horses in the middle of a battle. And in “After the Battle” the narrator chillingly asks for what he feels should be a basic right: “I was exhausted, and, crouching beneath the crown of death, walked on, begging fate for the simplest ability—the ability to kill a man.”
“My First Goose” is one of my favorite stories from this collection since it pulls together many of Babel’s themes. The narrator, wearing glasses and thus regarded as an intellectual (and what seems to be code for Jewish), is not accepted with the division to which he was assigned. After his trunk is thrown out in the street by one comrade and another soldier repeatedly farts in his face, the narrator takes his anger out on the (Jewish) family where the division is billeted (or rather the residence they had appropriated). Crushing the neck of what is probably the family’s lasdo t possession, a goose, the narrator skewers it with his sword and demands the old woman of the house to cook it for him. This earns him a new respect with the Cossacks. After reading the news to his comrades, the narrator lays down to sleep: “I dreamed and saw women in my dreams, and only my heart, crimson with murder, screeched and bled.” While this quote references the cost of his acceptance with a murderous horde, the most chilling thing about the story is the title—his first goose. There were more? And were any of those ‘geese’ human?
The irony of a Jew riding with the Cossacks is never directly addressed but is hinted at—Babel seems to assume the reader will understand the incongruity. (Other stories hint at the narrator’s lack of acceptance due to his schooling and Jewish background) Reading the 1920 Diary shows some of the sources for the stories, yet how much is fact and how much is fiction in the stories is still indeterminable. The narrator usually appears as a thinly disguised Babel. One irony in Babel’s blend of fact and fiction is that he was fighting to spread the oppression and violence inherent in Communism under the guise of liberating others. In “Evening”, a soldier chastises Babel for being tired of this life with the Red Cavalry: “We’re cracking the nut for you, and soon enough you will be able to see the meat inside, at which point you’ll take your thumb out of your mouth and sing the glories of the new life in striking prose…”. This echoes Lenin’s justification of breaking a few eggs to make an omelet (appropriated from Robespierre). The party language weaves in and out of the stories, explicit at times like in “Salt”, where what bothers one idealistic soldier is the lie a woman tells in order to ride a train instead of the desperate plight the army causes the civilians (which of course the Soviet army was there to ‘help’). Lies run throughout the stories, from the personal to the state, although it is difficult to differentiate at times the actions of the invading army from the Polish army due to the anti-Semitism present in both. The piercing of the Soviet fiction by the junk dealer “Gedali” causes the Babel character to respond with empty slogans. Both sides steal from Gedali and threaten him with violence, while the narrator replies “The Revolution cannot not shoot, Gedali… because it is the Revolution.” While Gedali claims not to understand the Revolution, he clearly grasps the inherent falsehoods. The liberators from the east offer nothing the oppressed desire. An additional indicator of things to come is the importance of propaganda that the narrator participates in, eagerly devouring what is offered while churning out more to educate the masses. The biggest irony is having a Jew ride with the Cossacks to “liberate” the largely Jewish population of eastern Poland (at that time)—accepted by neither his comrades nor those he oppresses. What makes it compelling is that the narrator has a moral core, yet he refuses to pass judgment on what he sees going on around him. These ambiguities and ironies make it difficult to nail down Babel’s opinion on what he is witnessing, although his language does give definite hints. In the stories, religion plays varying roles of importance but the most humorous case (as well as the most explicit comment) is with “Pan Apolek”. One of the few joyous characters in these tales, Apolek is a wandering artist that inserts citizens’ faces in his religious paintings. After a falling out with the local church regarding his paintings, we hear his price list:
“Fifteen zloty for the Virgin Mary, twenty-five zloty for the Holy Family, and fifty zloty for the Last Supper portraying all the client’s family. The client’s enemy can be portrayed as Judas Iscariot, for which an extra ten zloty will be added to the bill.”
Despite the Catholic Church trying to stop his blasphemous (to them) paintings, “there was no shortage of commissions.” The local peasantry defends Apolek for blurring the everyday with the holy. The church's lack of concern for the mundane life of the peasantry while it focuses solely on the exemplary life of the divine resonates throughout Babel’s work. Yet is this estimation of religion as useless (at best) or tyrannical (at worst) really Babel’s thoughts or simply the Soviet line? Because Apolek is painted in such a flattering light, for one moment you think you know. But the narrator’s reaction to Apolek’s rambling heresies at the end of the story once again leaves you unable to know for certain." -

"Babel’s stories of life in Odessa, or more properly in the Moldavanka neighborhood, were published starting in 1921 and continued into the 1930s. Jan Dudas' recent pictures of the district can be found on Flickr here. If possible, these works feel more direct than The Red Cavalry stories, entire tales sometimes couched in single sentences. The repetitive style Babel sometimes employs works to good effect in these tales, creating a rhythm in the reading that matches the rhythm of life he is relaying. And what a life it is—gangsters, brothels, and smuggling all taking place with flamboyance and élan. The Jews portrayed in these stories don't fit any stereotype that Babel uses in some of his other works.
While I’ve seen some reviews of these stories criticizing the romantic nature Babel used, I did not get that feeling at all. Babel’s irony is on full display in these tales. There is not quite as much ambiguity here as in The Red Cavalry stories, although you are still not quite sure how the narrator feels about these characters. At times there is sort of a wistful “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” air, looking back as if to a sort of golden age. The humor walks a fine line between travesty and farce, or maybe blurs the two together. Yet Babel pulls no punches—as I read more about these characters the less I liked them.
Even with that ultimate dislike, Benya Krik (the embodiment of chutzpah) is an incredible literary creation. If you can read only two of Babel’s stories, I would recommend “How Things Were Done in Odessa” and “The King”, both of which I’ll quote from liberally. I wanted to write a lot in this post since I enjoyed these stories so much, but I’ll let Babel speak for himself. Hopefully these excerpts will spark some interest if you are unfamiliar with his work. In “The King”, the wedding feast of Benya’s sister is described. A new chief of police plans to raid the wedding but Benya’s henchmen set the police station on fire just before the raid can take place. And what a wedding feast they had:
'For the dinner at this wedding, they served turkeys, roasted chicken, geese, gefilte fish, and fish soup in which lakes of lemon shimmered like mother-of-pearl. Above the dead goose heads, flowers swayed like luxuriant plumes. But do the foamy waves of the Odessan Sea throw roasted chickens onto the shore?'
On this blue night, this starry night, the best of our contraband, everything for which our region is celebrated far and wide, plied its seductive, destructive craft. Wine from afar heated stomachs, sweetly numbed legs, dulled brains, and summoned belches as resonant as the call of battle horns. The black cook from the Plutarch, which had pulled in three days before from Port Said, had smuggled in big-bellied bottles of Jamaican rum, oily Madeira, cigars from the plantations of Pierpont Morgan, and oranges from the groves of Jerusalem. This is what the foamy waves of the Odessan Sea throw onto the shore, and this is what Odessan beggars sometimes get at Jewish weddings. They got Jamaican rum at Dvoira Krik’s wedding, and that’s why the Jewish beggars got as drunk as unkosher pigs and began loudly banging their crutches. … But the peak of their [the gangsters] ecstasy came when, in accordance with ancient custom, the guests began bestowing gifts on the newlyweds. The synagogue shamuses jumped onto the tables and sang out, above the din of the seething flourishes, the quantity of rubles and silver spoons that were being presented.
The introduction of Benya Krik comes when you learn of his marriage (an aside: two completely different wedding stories to different women are presented in these stories which I was unable to reconcile). In this instance, Benya is robbing a rich man when he catches sight of his daughter. Two days later Benya returns the money and asks for her hand in marriage, her father understanding the question is a formality since the gangster gets whatever he wants. The story ends the next morning as the guests have left the feast. Dvoria, forty years old and suffering from goiter, is “edging her timid husband toward the door of their nuptial chamber, looking at him lustfully like a cat which, holding a mouse in its jaws, gently probes it with its teeth.” This was one of the rare instances I felt sorry for a literary character.
“How Things Were Done in Odessa” tells of Benya’s entrée into the gangster life and why he rose to the top. The first job Benya was given was to rob Tartakovsky, the richest Jew in Odessa and nicknamed “Yid-and-a-Half”. The robbery goes wrong, one of Benya’s henchmen shooting a clerk of Tartakovsky. Benya not only arranges to have Tartakovsky pay for the funeral of the clerk (also that of the henchman who did the shooting) and provide a stipend to the boy’s mother, Benya gives a speech at the funerals. His apology to the clerk’s mother is what is priceless:
”If you want my life, you can have it, but everyone makes mistakes, even God! This was a giant mistake, Aunt Peysa! But didn’t God Himself make a mistake when he settled the Jews in Russia so they could be tormented as if they were in hell? Wouldn’t it have been better to have the Jews living in Switzerland, where they would’ve been surrounded by first-class lakes, mountain air, and Frenchmen galore? Everyone makes mistakes, even God.”
The problems of the Jews in Odessa compound when the Bolsheviks come to power, poignantly relayed in “The End of the Almshouse”. But the story of “Froim Grach”, one of Benya’s trusted advisers (and his father-in-law in one marriage scenario), compares the gangsters of Odessa with the new Soviet state. Benya Krik misjudged those just rising to power, treating them simply as he would another gang. As Benya's henchmen are killed off by the state, Grach goes to see the local chairman of the Cheka (Vladislav Simen) in order to complain but he is killed as well. The implication is that there is a new sheriff in town, much more ruthless than Benya “the King". While Babel disappears inside his stories so that it is difficult to discern his views with certainty, I have to believe that Borovoi, an investigator from Odessa who knew the exploits of Froim Grach well, speaks for the author regarding the flamboyant characters of his stories:
”I know you’re angry at me, Sasha,” Simen said to him, “but you mustn’t forget that now we are the power, the state power! You must remember that!”
“I’m not angry at you,” Borovoi said, turning away. “It’s just that you’re not an Odessan, you can’t understand what the old man represented.” …
“Tell me one thing as a Chekist, as a revolutionary,” Simen said to him after a moment of silence. “What use would that man have been to the society we are building?”
“I don’t know,” Borovoi said, starting motionlessly in front of him. “I suppose no use at all.”
He pulled himself together and chased away his memories. Then, livening up, he continued telling the Chekists who had come from Moscow about the life of Froim Grach, about his ingenuity, his elusiveness, his contempt for his fellow men, all the amazing tales that were now a thing of the past
." -

"The most terrible pogrom in the history of Jewish Odessa took place on October 18-22, 1905, when there were some 175,000 Jews living in the city. It enveloped the entire city and the bloody [activity] spread from the central streets to the outlying districts, primarily Moldovanka, which had a large and impoverished poor Jewish population. For three days and nights the crowds, which included inhabitants of the surrounding villages, robbed shops, destroyed houses, tortured and killed Jews with knives, daggers and firearms. Bursting with rage, and spurred on by the knowledge that they were assured impunity, the thugs did not spare women, the elderly, or children. The pogrom left 299 victims in its wake, from Isser Zeltzer, aged one and a half to 85 year-old Shimon Tsmelzon. Several thousand Jews managed to escaped from the to the huge yard of the city's oldest Jewish hospital, which was surrounded by solid stone buildings. The wounded were also brought to the hospital for treatment.
Fighters from the Jewish self-defense groups displayed great courage in rescuing people often at risk to their own lives. In most cases when the self-defense groups appeared the mob would scatter, but when troops and police arrived they would return and continue with their pillaging. Invaluable assistance in rescuing Jews was provided by voluntary medical groups that included university students and marine college cadets and, it is important to note, often contained non-Jewish citizens of Odessa. Similarly, there were people of various nationalities among the doctors from the ambulance station, who went to the areas affected by the pogroms under rain of fire, giving first aid to the wounded and transporting them to the hospitals. Documents show that among the doctors who helped the wounded was the founder of the ambulance station, Dr. Yakov Bardach, whose fame spread far beyond the city. After the 1905 pogrom, there was a marked increase in the emigration of Jews from Odessa.

The stories covered in this post are from the sections "Stories, 1925 - 1938" and "Early Stories" in The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, edited by Nathalie Babel and translated by Peter Constantine.
Similar to Babel’s “formal” collections of stories, these varied stories paint a broad picture of life in Russia. The easiest way for me to touch on these stories is to address a few of the major themes which show up in much of Babel’s work.
Babel highlights the Jewish/Russian identity question in many of his stories but his usual tone is detachment (similar to the Red Calvary Stories in which his Jewish narrator rides with the Coassacks). When he does appear to lean in one direction, it tends to be toward the Russian identity. The major exceptions are “The Story of My Dovecote” and “First Love”, two of his more powerful stories, which weave factual and shocking events with a semi-fictional first-person account. Compounding the ambiguity is that the family in these stories are named Babel. “The Story of My Dovecote” starts by highlighting the quota system for Jewish students and the bribing that occurred to enroll the wealthier students. Upon achieving a place in the class, the fictional little Babel goes to buy doves for his long-promised dovecote on the day that a new constitution was issued, an excuse for anti-Semitic pogroms to take place. The ten year old narrator does not understand what he sees but relays it in chilling detail. He witnesses his grandfather’s dead body, fish (symbolically) stuffed in his pants fly and his mouth (one of the perches still alive and wiggling). Still in all this Babel adds some humor in the twisted actions of Makarenko, a legless and leprous old man from whom the local boys affectionately bought cigarettes and other treats. Makarenko and his wife are joining the looting going on all around them but he bemoans their meager haul: "'Bonnets!' Makarenko shouted, choked, and made a sound as if he were sobbing. 'Obviously God has chosen me to bear the Cross, Katyusha! People are carting off whole bales of cloth—these people get nice and proper things, and what do we get? Bonnets!'"
After Makarenko kills the little Babel’s doves by smashing them against the boy’s face, the narrator finds the rest of his family hiding at the tax inspector’s house. It is there that the young Babel’s “First Love” lives, and the burgeoning sexuality of the narrator toward his adult protector invokes a parallel to the state of the Jewish citizens during the pogrom—impotent, unknowing, and bitter at second-class citizenship. Worse, however, is his father's humiliation that the young narrator witnesses. His father, dazed and disoriented after the murder of his father and the looting of his store, kneels in the dirt before an apathetic Cossack officer. The soldier, trying to appear helpful, offers no assistance as the nearby family store is being looted. The Jewish/Russian identity is also explored in “Karl-Yankel” in which the role of circumcision becomes a matter of the state instead of a religious matter. In “Odessa” Babel paints the Jews located there with a broad friendly brush:
'Half the population is made up of Jews, and Jews are a people who have learned a few simple truths along the way. Jews get married so as not to be alone, love so as to live through the centuries, hoard money so they can buy houses and give their wives astrakhan jackets, love children because, let’s face it, it is good and important to love one’s children. The poor Odessa Jews get very confused when it comes to officials and regulations, but it isn’t all that easy to get them to budge in their opinions, their very antiquated opinions. You might not be able to budge these Jews, but there’s a whole lot you can learn from them.”
In highlighting the question of Russian vs. Jewish identity, Babel also shows the limited ways Jews had available to succeed in society (which may be one reason critics of his Odessa Stories feels he romanticizes his gangsters since they succeed on their own terms, outside the norms of regular society). The usual portrayed method of escape or success is through education. In “The Public Library” Babel describes “an immutable feature of every public library in the Russian Empire: a sleeping Jew.” The pressure to study and succeed wore him out, as also characterized by the ten-year-old narrator in “The Story of My Dovecote” deliriously shouting lines of Pushkin during his examination. One exception for succeeding used in his stories (which is unique to Odessa) was learning the violin from the teacher who had trained many prominent violinists. The story “The Awakening”, which also includes a humiliation of the father but this time at the hands of the narrator/child, shows the family's attempt at getting the child to succeed with violin lesson. In “At Grandmother’s” the narrator has his grandmother cynically summarize why the boy should study: “Study and you can have everything—wealth and glory. You must know everything. Everyone will fall on their knees before you and bow to you. Let them envy you. Don’t believe in people. Don’t have friends. Don’t give them your money. Don’t give them your heart!”
All these instructions are mocked in another story, “In the Basement”, where the young narrator is an aspiring story teller. Actually he was “a boy who told lies.” Once he has the friendship of the smartest boy in the class, whose family has connections and money, the narrator has to figure out how to mask his family’s poverty and gloss over the lies he has told about them. Everything comically falls apart while the narrator shouts from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, his family repeatedly stabbing him in the back.
In one of Babel’s first stories he delves deeply into religion. “Old Shloyme” looks at a family's reaction to the imposed renunciation of their Jewish religion. The son has no problem renouncing, eager to keep what he has amassed and willingly takes the “Russian first and only” mantle. His father, never a religious person, refuses to renounce his faith and hangs himself instead. An exceptional fable, “The Sin of Jesus”, provides a new twist in looking at Babel’s view of religion. The story centers on Arina, a pregnant hotel worker who is at the beck and call of boarders and other employees. After receiving a strong beating, she turns to Jesus to assist her in her desperate situation. Among other questions, Jesus asks “(H)ow about if you led a pure life?” to which Arina replies “Do me a favor and spare me such advice!” Jesus comes up with a compromise, providing Arina with an angel to satisfy her sexually but without the risk of conceiving. But the angel Alfred, whose wings “were made of infants’ sighs”, was crushed by Arina’s swollen belly. An infuriated Jesus swears he will do nothing to help her. Just before Arina is to give birth, she appeals to heaven one more time, holding up her pregnant belly with fresh marks from the beatings she receives. Jesus regrets his earlier action and asks for forgiveness from Arina. “’I will not forgive you, Jesus Christ!’ Arina replied. ‘I will not!’” Just as situations can be inverted in other stories, Babel has humans refusing to grant forgiveness to a deity that causes so much pain and suffering. The humorous tale “Shabos-Nakhamu” provides different sources of man’s suffering—he has no one to blame but himself. The story relays a couple’s superstitious beliefs, which are preyed upon by a crafty Jew who takes advantage of their credulity.
Babel had planned on a novel tentatively titled Velikaya Krinitsa, but only two chapter have survived—“Gapa Guzhva” and “Kolyvushka”. Both detail the cost of collectivization under Stalin. In “Kolyvushka” the farmer, seeing his farm and equipment about to be handed to someone else destroys his own possessions, essentially a criminal act against the state. Gapa Guzhva finds out, much to her chagrin, that whores like her will be put to other (more productive?) use. The political themes in the stories don’t pull any punches against the government. Atrocities abound in “The Road,” from a teacher being shot in the face for having a politically incorrect signature on his papers (additionally being castrated, his severed genitals shoved in his newlywed’s mouth) to the pervasive desperation in “Mama, Rimma, and Alla.” The latter tale is a rather unremarkable story until you get to the (intended) abortion scene. Sometimes it is hard to reconcile Babel’s courtship of Soviet power with his critical stories. Maybe, just like having multiple families in real life, he was caught up in the current moment to the exclusion of everything else. In the story “Inspiration”, one man’s dedicated work inspires depression in the narrator when he sees the unremarkable output. It is difficult not to read this as thinly veiled toward those in power, whose work causes much of the desperation Babel describes in so many of his stories. But maybe that isn’t the intent at all. Babel is such a contradictory character that lurks so far beneath the surface in his stories that it is difficult to discern how deep the meaning is to go. One story not needing interpretation is the blunt “Petroleum”, which documents the unworkable nature of the country’s five-year plans. The implausible goals are made more ironic when the uncontrollable present is poignantly highlighted.
One last topic I’ll mention from these stories is Babel’s description of the writing process. After reviewing a co-worker’s attempt at translating Maupassant in “Guy de Maupassant”, the Babel-like narrator notes: “This work isn’t as bad as it might seem. 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.” Upon reading his corrections to the co-worker the next day, she marveled at his improvements. Responding to how he did it, the narrator responds: “I spoke to her of style, of an army of words, and 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.” [Aside—this point is emphasized several times in other Babel stories. “Justice in Parentheses” ends with “Then I can say I put the period where it belongs.” The story “Chink”—which could have been renamed “Kink”—ends with the single-word sentence “Period.”] Once again, Babel is full of contradictions. Immediately after this claim, he sensuously describes his co-worker listening to his improved translation… it seems a period in the right places isn’t the only thing to icily pierce the heart (or other body parts) better than an iron spike. But then the end of “Guy de Maupassant” uses four iron spikes to full effect: “I read the book through to the end and got up from my bed. The fog had come to the window, hiding the universe. My heart constricted. I was touched by a premonition of truth."
In “Odessa”, Babel provides a key to his oft-used imagery: “(I)n Russian literature there haven’t been so far any real, clear, cheerful descriptions of the sun”. The imagery of the sun or of sunset fills Babel’s stories, usually clearly but not always cheerful. In conjunction with that imagery, cold and heat often appear in setting the mood or tone. Colors are also used to relay more than imagery: grays usually indicate melancholy or a flatness of spirit, while vibrant colors signify a strong emotion (whether for good or bad). An additional story where Babel uses literature within his stories is in the story “An Evening with the Empress.” Browsing through the books of Empress Maria (wife of Czar Alexander III) chronicled her life in great detail to the narrator, more than any biography possibly could have.
While there is so many possible things to cover in Babel’s work, I’ll close with a source that seems to underlie some of his work. Haim Nahman Bialik’s poem "In the City of Slaughter" was an anguished response to the Kishinev pogrom. While detailing the actions carried out, Bialik also decries the timidity and acquiescence of the Jewish response. Babel doesn't explicitly goes as far as Bialik, but there is a definite undercurrent at times that feels like he is on the same page, describing both atrocities and the meek responses to them. It might help explain or bridge between the two stories on the 1905 pogrom (“The Story of My Dovecote” and “First Love”) with “The Sin of Jesus”. Here is the end of Bialik's poem, something I would not have been surprised to read in Babel's work:
'What is thy business here, O son of man?
Rise, to the desert flee!
The cup of affliction thither bear with thee!
Take thou they soul, rend it in many a shred!
With impotent rage, thy heart deform!
Thy tear upon the barren boulders shed
And send thy bitter cry into the storm
." -

"Translating one of Isaac Babel's stories is no easy task. Translating all of them is less a task than a calling. So while neat, two-volume editions of Babel's collected works have circulated in Russia since the waning days of Perestroika, English speakers have had to stitch together more than a dozen translations, some out of print since the 1930s, to get a full sense of his range. The discrepancy between Babel's influence and the availability of his work has always been striking.
Small wonder, then, that the upcoming publication of Norton's single-volume The Complete Works of Isaac Babel should be greeted as a major literary event. Magazine editors assigned their reviews over a year ago. A black market in advance reader's copies sprang up early this summer. A few months later, Norton editor Robert Weil boasted to Publishers Weekly that the book would "sell for a lifetime and make the house a lot of money." This, he said, was "'not a case of charity publishing."
Perhaps not, but it did seem that Norton had done us all a great kindness. No Soviet writer has meant so much to so many Americans: Ernest Hemingway read the first translation of Babel's stories and turned green over his sentences. Raymond Carver cited Babel as a formative influence. Philip Roth's alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, called himself a "New World cousin in the Babel clan"—a sentiment shared by Cynthia Ozick and Saul Bellow. Francine Prose recalls learning the "extraordinary importance of compression, simplicity, bravery, and never underestimating the intelligence of the reader" at Babel's feet. Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, and John Berryman wrote brilliant essays about him.
The son of assimilated Odessa Jews, Babel rose like a rocket and fell almost as fast. Born in 1894, he published his first story in 1913. Ten years later, Red Cavalry—which grew out of Babel's experiences with a Cossack regiment during the Polish-Soviet war—made him a national celebrity. The book was a bombshell, both there and abroad. Trilling recalled reading it in 1929 and recoiling from its threat to his faith in the "Russian Experiment." "It was obviously the most remarkable work of fiction that had yet come out of revolutionary Russia," Trilling wrote. "Yet it was all too heavily charged with the intensity, irony, and ambiguousness from which I wanted to escape." (Babel, who was forced through most of the 1930s to practice what he called the "genre of silence" and died with a desk full of unpublished and unpublishable manuscripts, would later stand as an example to chastened American Stalinists.)
The Russian establishment had a similar reaction, and Babel's survival through the 1930s was something of a miracle. Eager to penetrate to the core of his society, Babel leveraged his fame and courted the monsters of his time, from local NKVD butchers to the heads of the secret police. The widow of doomed poet Osip Mandelstam recalled her husband asking Babel "why he was so drawn to 'militiamen': was it a desire to see what it was like in the exclusive store where the merchandise was death? Did he just want to touch it with his fingers? 'No,' Babel replied. 'I don't want to touch it with my fingers—I just want to have a sniff and see what it smells like.' "
The bloodier his circumstances were (and his stint with the Cossacks was bloody beyond belief), the more unflinching Babel's sentences became. He had an easy way with murderous ambiguities, and extremes of violence only strengthened his grip. Babel revised his stories 20 or 30 times, stripping each one down to its bare essentials. What remains retains its power to shock, and if recent translations of his work have improved upon those made in the 1950s and '60s, it's because the more direct and unaffected our language becomes, the more it approximates Babel's Russian.
And while Peter Constantine's translation for Norton lacks the wit and fluency of Mirra Ginsburg's best work or the authority of Max Hayward's, it is in some ways an improvement over the Penguin Classics anthology stocked by most bookstores. The Edinburgh-educated David McDuff, who also translated Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Leskov, and Bely for Penguin, is eminently competent but a bit too dry for Babel and a bit too British (American readers familiar with Babel's maxim that "no steel can pierce the human heart as icily as a well-placed period" will be amused to learn that a "full stop" also works).
Constantine, who grew up in Athens and worked as a dancer and concierge before trying his hand at translation, is neither too dry nor too British (his first book was a glossary of Japan's sexual idioms). But he, too, is eminently competent—his translation of Thomas Mann's short stories won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize, and the attention given his collection of Chekhov's obscure, absurdist sketches was something of a dry run for the hoopla surrounding the Complete Babel—and astonishingly prolific. According to the New York Times, Constantine takes three months on a 300-page book and is figuring out a way to double his output; his publications already include translations from the Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch, French, Greek, Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish, as well as a few from languages I'd never heard of.
It's strange, then, given the importance of his latest work—the first one-volume edition of Babel's collected writings available in any language, and the only opportunity most of us will have to read his stage works, screenplays, sketches, and reportage—that Constantine falls far short of the mark. For one thing, he takes undue liberties with the text: Take a single line from the (remarkable, and remarkably anti-Soviet) story "Froim Grach," which describes the fate of an Odessa gangster who comes up against the greater gangsterism of the Soviet secret police: "Know who you're killing off, boss?" Grach demands of the Cheka officer who's been arresting and shooting his men. "You're killing off the eagles. Know what you'll be left with? You'll be left with shit!"
Now, Babel doesn't actually say "shit" or even its slang equivalent (Russians have more words for shit than Eskimos have for snow). What he has in mind is more akin to "filth of the lowest common denominator," for which English happens to have a pretty good equivalent—"dreg." The word Babel uses, smit'o, appears elsewhere in his Odessa Tales. It also appears in the Russian translation of Ecclesiastes. It is not a curse. You could argue that the richness of the Russian idiom works very much in Babel's favor here and against the translator's, as do the sharp distinctions between "good" Russian, street Russian, provincial Russian, and the Russian spoken by criminals, which is almost a language unto itself. But if translating smit'o as "shit" when "dregs" will do is simply careless (smit'o is too obscure a word to appear in most Russian dictionaries), another of Constantine's decisions—changing Babel's "eagles" to "lions"—is inexplicable. The words happen to have the same resonance in English and Russian and are interchangeable, in this context, in much the same way. So why the change? These are minor sins, but their cumulative effect is more than negligible
Second, Constantine's liberties sometimes result in garbled, meaningless passages. Babel's "After the Battle" opens with a Cossack's disdain for Babel's bespectacled narrator, Lyutov, who has failed to load his pistol before going into battle. It ends with Lyutov "begging fate for the simplest ability—the ability to kill a man." In between, the Cossack Akinfiev chases Lyutov around a bench, shouting, more or less, "Molokan! The law I've got says Molokans should be wiped out for worshipping God! You didn't put no cartridges in? You worship God, you traitor!" Granted, the passage is inexplicable unless you happen to know that the Molokans were a pacifist sect that had broken off from the Orthodox church. An orthodox translator like Walter Morison is forced to footnote the passage; McDuff translates Molokan literally "as milk-drinker" and lets the context tell you that milk-drinkers are a religious sect. Constantine just cuts to the chase and dubs Lyutov a wimp. "In my books," Constantine's Akinfiev says, "all wimps should be shot dead, they believe in God!" Constantine may well believe there's a logical connection between cowardice and religion, but several passages in Red Cavalry suggest that Babel does not. Nor is much left of the ironies and ambiguities Babel's invested his story with; where Babel sets moral bravery (the Molokans) and physical courage (the Cossaks) in opposition, Constantine equates physical weakness with moral corruption.
Third, for a PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club winner (and poet), Constantine seems to have a tin ear: Did I mention that he actually uses the word "wimp"? Needless to say, it's not a word Babel would use, and finding it here is a bit like coming across a "gnarly" in Dante's description of the Inferno, or seeing Achilles "lose his shit" when news of a lover's death reaches him. It's more than cavalier; it's jarring and, considering how much sweat Babel pours into every word, unpardonable. And when Constantine's not being too cavalier, there's a good chance he's gone in the opposite direction; where Babel writes like a soldier sending telegrams home from the front. Constantine stutters like a drill sergeant on a first date.
This is doubly a shame since the project's size, and the reception it's likely to get, precludes another Babel translation from coming down the pike any time soon. It isn't that the Babel who emerges from Constantine's mill is unrecognizable (it took the entire Stalinist machine to silence Babel the first time around). It's just that other translations give you a much better sense of his abilities.
None of us will know how much was lost—11 notebooks, seven notepads, and 15 folders full of manuscripts were confiscated upon Babel's arrest by the NKVD, in May of 1939, and destroyed after his execution, the following January—but we do know Babel's final words as a free man: "They didn't let me finish." There's a cruel irony, then, in the very idea of a "complete" Works of Isaac Babel. Careless and quick, Constantine's translation is crueler still." - Alex Abramovich

Read more:

Gregory Freidin: "Justifying the Revolution as an Aesthetic Phenomenon"

Nicholas Jahr: "The Shattered Faith of Isaac Babel"


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