Effects and Causes

The New Republic

You have read:

0 / 8

free articles in the past 30 days.

Already a subscriber?

Log in here

sign up for unlimited access for just $34.97Sign me up

FEBRUARY 4, 2002

Effects and Causes

The Complete Works of Isaac Babel

edited by Natalie Babel

translated by Peter Constantine

(W.W. Norton, 1,072 pp., $39.95)

Click here to purchase the book.

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. Valry
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 rgime.

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.; "...writing can become sickly
insofar as it cooperates with, connives at, and even darkly lusts
after abuses of so-called 'healthy' power."

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.

II.

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.

III.

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. "Frdric
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."; "Yet the melodramatic element in Babel's work,
which can produce over time, a monotonous excitability, cannot
really be seperated from what is great in his work."

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.

By James Wood

share this article on facebook or twitter

print this article

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.

Back to Top

SHARE HIGHLIGHT

0 CHARACTERS SELECTED

TWEET THIS

POST TO TUMBLR

SHARE ON FACEBOOK